Imagine yourself gliding through the snow, skis bonded firmly to your feet and snowflakes flying wistfully through the air. Skiing is the same for all of us. Though perhaps ‘us’ encapsulates the brave, the dedicated, and at times, the outright loopy. Freezing temperatures, treacherous terrain and the penchant for a cheeky tipple before the final stretch could not dissuade us from our annual quest. In fact, mysteriously, that’s all part and parcel of the allure!
Now imagine what it would take to dissuade you from the slopes…
A fall or two? We’ve all been there.
A rainy winter? Ahhh liquid snow; one of Mother Nature’s finest, if not most weary, winter charms.
How about the loss of sight? Certainly not.
Lyn, Ray, Pam, Sheila, David & Laura are part of a self-organised group of visually impaired and sighted people with one thing in common – the love of cross-country skiing! And this time they’re heading back to Lapland, an old favourite and a great cross-country location to stay at The Akas Hotel. With guaranteed snow and plenty of trails and terrain to suit the varied abilities within the group, Akaslompolo was an easy choice. Incidentally, they’re keen to keep up numbers so if you’re free from February 28th, get in touch!
You do have to fit the bill though…
“…upbeat, energetic, like-minded people who are interested in skiing, beautiful countryside, some exercise , good food (and perhaps also wine) and generally having fun with lots of laughter thrown in!”
Reckon you could give it a go?
“Many sighted guides have skied with us for several years, in some cases over 20 years, testimony that they also get a great deal of enjoyment from the holidays too! Though I don’t think any sighted ski guide can wholly know how much unbounded pleasure their involvement gives to skiers. Their commitment and time are truly appreciated – without them none of us would have experienced cross-country skiing.” Ray
What is at the heart of these holidays however, is simply that. That these are holidays for all. Having chatted at length, it’s clear to see that all skiers (sighted and partially so,) truly regard these holidays as a time to truly enjoy the pursuit; sharing the pleasures, achievements, and most of all, the fun.
The group is mixed ability; beginners, improvers, intermediate and advanced, visually impaired, fully sighted and everywhere in between. And whilst the group doesn’t have charitable status at the moment, nor (at present) is it officially a club, they’ve grown year on year with new skiers and fully sighted guides from all over the UK and beyond, racking up trips across Austria, Italy, Norway, Finland, Canada and the USA. Not bad, I’m sure you’ll agree!
“Some of us, both skiers and guides, have been around the visually-impaired cross-country skiing circuit for a long time, but each year we also welcome new faces. It’s an exciting mixture of old and new friends, people with long experience and those who are very much learning. We respect the fact that each person, (skier or guide) is an individual with their own ideas, preferences and requirements. But everyone comes with the desire to have an enjoyable holiday and it’s amazing how quickly the group gels. At the end of the day what we all want is good skiing and good company!” Lyn
Blind and partially-sighted skiing is not a new phenomenon, though it is unfortunately still inaccessible for many people. If Kelly Gallagher rings any bells, you’ll remember the phenomenal achievements at the superG in Saatchi, where Kelly took the gold for downhill skiing in 2014, and you may even remember Peter Young, bronze medallist in cross country skiing at the 1984 and 1994 Paralympics. Whilst this has helped to improve general awareness of the sport, and, as Pam and Sheila shared, to stimulate others to take up more challenging and exciting activities, further awareness and interest in becoming a sighted ski guide, is essential to the success of these trips in the future.
So what is the role of a ski guide?
“At its most basic level, the role of a ski-guide is to be the eyes of the skier and to communicate what they see. So, in any given situation the guide needs to be sufficiently competent in their own skiing that it will, for the most part look after itself, leaving them free to concentrate on the skier. Obviously the level of competence a guide will need depends on the speed and ability of the skier and the terrain and distance to be covered. Whilst it is true to say that we need a good number of guides who are happy to ski with our more experienced skiers, we also have guides who choose only to ski with beginners/improvers. There’s room for everyone and everyone is welcome!” Lyn
So do you have to be a certified ski guide? No!
“In many ways the best way to learn to be a guide is through experience.”
The experienced team, which does include qualified and licensed instructors, provide plenty of support, information and practical help on guiding techniques and vocabulary pre-departure; the latter being a particularly important part of the role…
“The most important skills are communication and observation. Skier/guide pairings usually change each day so it is important to start with a chat about what the skier needs and how. Whilst skiing, it is the job of the guide to inform the skier about: the tracks ahead (direction, undulation etc); any hazards (overhanging branches, skiers close by etc); perhaps, technical possibilities (“you might want a half-plough here”, etc)…” Lyn
Peter adds (in his own inimitable way): “You need to use a very clear unambiguous vocabulary (bad examples – somebody is going in the correct direction – so I say “that’s right”… & he turns right, into a snowbank.”
Thankfully, David adds that “falling is an integral part of the skiing experience and that skiers should not, and generally do not, hold their guides responsible for falls resulting from tree roots hidden under the tracks, over-hanging branches, tight bends in the track or unexpectedly fast running descents, etc!”
Needless to say, experienced guides and of course the skiers are more than willing to teach and explain along the way and the whole process is a learning curve for all, whether that’s skiing techniques, guiding techniques and, or, anything in between.
Ray adds: ” If anyone reading this is interested in getting involved please do get in touch; a mere enquiry puts you under no obligation!”
The team are committed cross country skiers which in turn has its own rep to contend with, but when asked what it is that makes cross-country so special, there’s really no way to argue with Laura’s response: “I enjoy skiing to different locations/villages: much more interesting than just going up and down a hill, and having to queue for lifts..”
So what are the challenges?
Laura: “I love undulating terrain, and especially the challenge of negotiating tricky downhill runs.”
Peter: “Keeping up with younger fitter skiers when guiding them!”
David: “There are still skills to be further developed, the residual effects of a distant RTA permitting, which would enable me to enjoy more challenging routes, but other than this a little publicity around the ‘blind skier’ symbols on our tabards/rucksacks might raise awareness among skiers generally and help reduce the potential risk of collisions”.
Sheila: “Like any skills-based activity you have to keep striving to improve year on year. Without practice skiing skills soon fade”!
Ray: “For the vast majority of skiers, including me, ski technique can always be improved. Being a bit of a light-weight, I sometimes find it difficult to apply the breaks (snow plough) on steep descents when the snow is compacted but practice makes perfect!”
But without pain, there is no gain. And by gain we’re talking vast open spaces, peace, tranquility and fine dining, with a swim, sauna, and a good socialise to wind down after 20-35km of skiing…
So if you’re a competent cross-country skier with a friendly disposition and a willingness to assist visually impaired people to get the most out of skiing, you might want to join the group and they would be thrilled to have you!
Even if you wouldn’t feel confident or experienced enough to guide but fancy some company and you’re happy to give them a hand, I can safely say you’ll have an amazing time with a wonderful group of people!
Blog arranged by Alana Morris at Inghams with content compiled by Lyn Street (skier and holiday organiser), and contributions from Ray Brough, David Longman, Laura Evans, Pam Curwen, Sheila Tucker and Peter Verity!
“We would like to thank Inghams for their support, excellent customer service, understanding and generosity!
We would also like to thank you for reading our blog!
If you might like to ski with us or to be kept informed of our plans, we would very much like to hear from you. Please feel free to either message us via Inghams facebook, twitter, email, at email@example.com; or search “visually impaired cross-country skiing” on Google groups.
The more people we have on our database, the bigger we can dream and the more visually impaired people can experience the challenge and joy of cross-country skiing!”