Verbier is often perceived as an exclusive playground for those who have ‘made it’ in life, financially and career-wise, but Verbier has so much more to offer than that. Verbier Life meets up with a unique group of skiers who have ‘made it’ in their own, very different way.
Sitting in the sun, having a coffee, outside the Dahu restaurant, I could be listening to any group of young holidaymakers chattering and laughing about their spills and thrills. That is exactly what this adventure is all about. Imagine the joy of learning to ski when you are the victim of a catastrophic brain injury.
Once a year, registered UK charity, Ski4All Wales brings out a group of adaptive skiers who have been practising all year on a dry slope to try out their skills on snow. I join them on their final afternoon.
Jenny has TBI (traumatic brain injury) and skiing is her passion; she never misses a Wednesday afternoon at the ski club in Wales and is on her third trip to Verbier. Three years ago she needed full support and struggled to master the button lift at Les Esserts; now she easily rides the La Chaux chairlift and skis independently from top to bottom. “They say I’ve got a brain injury,” she laughs, “but look at me, I’m skiing in Verbier. I’m ‘ploughing’ on.”
Becci, a young woman with ABI (acquired brain injury), recounts with joy how she never in the world imagined she’d practise a sport, but she loves skiing. Her dad (her carer), who also learnt to ski in order to accompany his daughter, stands beside her with proud tears in his eyes; I have to confess to suppressing a few of my own.
Austin, who also has TBI, is on his first trip and has clearly got the bug. He’s been awarded the group’s ‘King of the Mountain’ title today and just can’t wait to get back on the slopes, so I join them for a ski.
There are two main types of adaptive skiing: stand-up skiing and sit (or bucket) skiing. I notice that Dave and Eirian, who are instructing the stand-up skiers, mainly ski closely behind rather than in front of their students, constantly coaching. On standby, physios, Jo and Adam watch on, ready to amend, strap, advise and issue quick risk assessments.
Instructors for sit-skiers need to be strong and know how to use their weight, as they act as the stabilisers and brakes until the skiers can manoeuvre the chair themselves. Hoisting the chairs onto the chair lifts also requires technical know-how and muscle. Chairs may have outriggers and/or stabilisers for the skiers to make turns. Mim and Cloe sit-ski. It comes naturally to Mim, a former motorcyclist, to shift his weight to turn the chair.
Nick, ES adaptive skiing instructor, who has been supporting the group during this visit, explains that the teaching method must be tailored to deal with the individual difficulties of each skier (hence the term ‘adaptive’ skiing). Whilst able-bodied skiers will be told not to swing their shoulders to turn, if that’s what a disabled skier needs to do, then – whatever works…
Mim, the joker in the pack, determined to enjoy everything Verbier has to offer, is booked in for a flight with Mike of Verbier Summits who is briefed thoroughly by Mim’s carer and ES instructor Nick before take-off. With the other adaptive skiers watching on from the Ruinettes restaurant terrace, Mim and Mike take to the sky to a collective gasp followed by spontaneous laughter and applause. A small team trails the paraglider to the landing site with emergency medication should Mim require treatment. But no such aid is needed. Mim lands unphased and instantly starts cracking jokes. When you consider that Mim has TBI, epilepsy, is an amputee and partially blind you will understand why this matters so much to all involved.
Bringing five adaptive skiers to Verbier requires meticulous preparation and organisation. This trip involves eight carers, three physios and three instructors. Overseeing all the logistics and bursting with pride at their achievements, are Bethan Drinkall, founder and driving force behind Ski4All Wales and charity linchpin, Jo Inkin.
Bethan explains how adaptive skiers use up six times as much energy to get down a slope as able-bodied skiers. “From the physiotherapist’s perspective, we see improvements in balance, coordination, stamina and strength. The personal rewards come from a greater sense of mobility, adrenaline, confidence and, for some, like Mim, the former biker, that ‘need for speed’ that he misses.”
I ask, why Verbier? Surely there are easier resorts for adaptive skiing? Bethan acknowledges that this is true. “For me, it’s not just about the skiing, it’s about the bigger picture, it’s about inclusion. Look at this place,” she lifts her arms to indicate our majestic surroundings within the massif des Combins panorama. “Here they really get to see the gnarly bits, the high mountain, I want my guys to go somewhere ‘uber’ special,” she tells me “yes, Verbier has a certain cachet, and why shouldn’t they have that?”
The support team ensures the skiers get to enjoy the full ski holiday experience and that includes getting to the Pub for a beer at the end of the day and a visit to the Farinet Après Ski. “Seeing them dancing in the Pub, is just magical,” Bethan tells me, adding that Becci, at 23, has never danced before.
Verbier has sparked many a romance and this group has not been immune, with Jennie and Austin changing their Facebook status during their week here.
The trip also offers a welcome change of scenery for the carers, physios and instructors. You can’t exactly call it a holiday because the change in surroundings and routine increases their workload, plus Cloe, a last-minute addition to the trip who has cerebral palsy, has come without a carer and everyone is pitching in to support her. Still, being part of a big team gives them the chance to share the load, exchange experiences, enjoy the Alpine scenery, mountain air and also learn to ski.
Bethan tells me it has been a week charged with emotion, tears, cheers and a lot of laughter. For the whole venture to be successful, the skiers must have complete confidence in their ski buddies. Every outing takes time and a good dose of encouragement, with each skier taking it at their own pace (although do I detect a little bit of rivalry between our two lovebirds?).
Jenny and Austin, the group’s hardcore skiers, determined to eke every last drop out of their last day are still on the slopes of La Chaux at closing time. Just as Jenny’s legs can carry her no more, the cavalry arrives in the form of Téléverbier slope patrol to give her a lift down to the gondola on a skidoo (taking her for a spin over the jumps in the snow park en route): a wonderful unplanned bit of Verbier magic.
Sharing an afternoon with this outstanding group of human beings has been eye-opening and inspiring. The charity is doing an awesome job of sharing the sport of skiing and the Verbier we all love with those who might otherwise not make it here, and frankly, why shouldn’t they? Ski4All Wales, you rock!
Text: Kathryn Adams