It was extraordinary. For me, able-bodied but hardly a skier, each turn was an experiment which might or might not work. But, there, flashing past me, perfectly in control, was a man who could not see the snow, the mountains, or even what he was doing. Why on earth would a disabled person want to ski? and how had he learnt to be so good at it?
I got some answers to those questions at the Hillingdon dry ski slope, just inside the M25 to the west of London, at the local branch of the British Ski Club for the Disabled (BSCD). Mike, who has been in a wheelchair since a road accident 20 years ago, told me that he took up the sport simply because his wife was a keen skier and he wanted to go on skiing holidays with her. Ian always wanted to ski, so having lost the use of his legs through illness in his late teens, he learnt to do it - as Mike had - sitting in a "bob" mounted on skis, steering it with the aid of "outriggers" (poles with little skis on the bottom). Karen, a 32-year- old whose sight is so impaired that she is almost blind, took up skiing because it was an exciting challenge: now, like the man I saw at Courcheval all those years ago, she skis in the mountains with a guide who, these days, communicates with her via a radio headset.
All of them learnt to ski with the BSCD. Founded in 1974, it now operates at 24 centres around the country, and, says its chairman, Ian Edwards, "there is no disability for which we won't cater". One branch near Newcastle has even taken a quadriplegic on a skiing holiday, moving him around the slopes in a specially adapted sledge. A volunteer-run charity, the BSCD trains all its own ski "guides". There are now some 250 of them teaching at the regular dry-slope sessions, taking skiers on holiday (they give up annual leave and pay for their trips), and even lending their expertise to other organisations for the disabled.
The commitment of BSCD volunteers was obvious after just a couple of hours at Hillingdon, although Karen's father made sure I didn't miss it by gripping my arm and delivering an emotional eulogy on their devotion. They toiled at getting the ski-bobs and sledges on and off the drag lift, and patiently followed skiersdown the slope, holding a tether (a bit like reins for a horse) to control their speed and direction, in weather cold enough to freeze everything but the heart - which was kept warm by the sound of Joshua, a 12-year-old with cerebral palsy, screaming with delight from his sledge. And there was 13-year-old Josef, profoundly deaf since the age of three, skiing beautifully, in the hope of getting the BSCD's endorsement for ski-race training.
The dry-slope sessions (and the intense socialising in the bar afterwards) are the easy part for the helpers and guides. The hard part, and the BSCD's main purpose, is taking skiers to the mountains. Ian Edwards recalls one of the first holidays he organised: "I had decided to make it as cheap as possible, with the result that we had 63 skiers on the trip. And 23 of them went down with a gastric virus. The guides really had to roll up their sleeves. But they are so dedicated: they bathe people, lift them on and off the toilet, change them, shave them - it's a 24-hour carer service, quite apart from the skiing." Edwards adds that "it's a service that also benefits skiers' families left at home - because they get a holiday, too".
His forthcoming trip to Courcheval (one of 10 BSCD holidays this season) will have only six skiers: two who are blind, two with severe learning difficulties, one visually impaired double amputee and one with a muscular wasting syndrome. But even that small group requires nine guides; in the mountains, each sledge- or bob-skier goes out with a crew of three. Not surprisingly, the BSCD is eager to recruit new skiers to train as guides.
Since the organisation lives off donations, it is always seeking more help. It does quite well with gifts in kind: single, ex-demonstration ski boots from manufacturers and shops, single skis donated by an insurance company (a pair of skis is a write-off when one is broken), and used equipment from friends and supporters. What isn't reusable is cannibalised by Edwards who, in his spare time from the BSCD, earns his living as a design technology teacher; he designs and builds customised equipment, including a Zimmer frame on skis for those unsteady on their legs. But the need for cash is pressing, so Edwards is now trying to recruit a volunteer marketing manager, with the aim of raising pounds 70,000 per year.
Edwards and his fellow volunteers give so much time and energy to the BSCD. What, I asked, do they get out of it? "Pleasure," he said. "I met a 22-year-old woman who had been in a road accident and was in a wheelchair, was brain-damaged, and couldn't speak - she couldn't even roll over unaided. She wanted to ski. I was there when she stood upright for the first time in years, locked into ski boots and skis. She stood there for more than 10 minutes, hardly moving, with a huge smile on her face." Edwards helped to get her exercising, "and the last time I saw her, she was skiing at Courcheval, on joined-together skis, hanging on to an adapted Zimmer frame, with one of our guides behind her with a tether. It was absolutely fantastic.
"You saw Joshua screaming with excitement as he went down the slope. One of the most disappointing things about being behind a skier with a tether is that you can't see their face. But you know - you know - that it is wreathed in smiles."
The British Ski Club for the Disabled (01784 431918)Reuse content