My brother Gareth was badly injured in an accident in Australia a couple of years ago. It’s left him with mobility difficulties, which means he can’t take part in sports like he used to. Gareth was a very keen and competent skier prior to his accident, and he had the opportunity last August to take part in a disability winter sports camp in Australia, which introduced him to the world of sitskiing. He made great progress during the 4 days he spent on the ski slopes, and was once again bitten by the skiing bug!
Gareth came over to the Portes du Soleil for Christmas, along with the rest of my family, so it was the perfect opportunity for him to build on what he’d learnt in Oz, and was a new experience for me and the rest of my family to learn about!
Gareth booked a week of sitski lessons with Tigrou, an ESF instructor in Morzine, and one of just a handful in the area qualified to teach sitskiing. Day 1 started on a dualski, with Gareth firmly strapped in to the seat, affixed to two skis. The skis had a set of bindings at the back for Tigrou, who maintained full control of the sitski throughout the lesson. Because the instructor has full control, this type of sitskiing is perfect for anyone regardless of the severity of their disability: children, people with little upper body strength, and even frail-but-thrill-seeking grannies! It is quite a white-knuckle ride, the sitski is seriously fast!
Day 2, Gareth transferred to a uniski, a sitki with only one ski on the bottom. With a uniski, the sitskier has a pair of “outriggers” instead of ski poles, which are like mini crutches with a small ski on the bottom. The outriggers help with balance and direction, much in the same way as ski poles. With this set-up, Gareth was able to control the sitski himself, with Tigrou skiing behind and helping out with balance and steering.
Over the course of the next 4 days, we were able to explore the full extent of the Portes du Soleil, skiing together as a family, and with Gareth increasingly taking sole control of the sitski, and Tigrou helping out less and less. It was great fun, and brilliant to all be able to ski together, rather than have Gareth stuck on the nursery slopes like a traditional beginner skier.
It is quite possible to become and independent sitskier, and once you’ve mastered the art, the possibilities are endless. We've made a short video to give you an idea.
Like anything else. it can get extreme. The Winter X Games Mono Skier Cross footage is just insane! It would take a braver person than me to head down this course, well worth the watch!
After a couple of days off for Christmas and Boxing Day, we decided to go it alone, and took Gareth’s own sitski up to the nursery slopes in St Jean d’Aulps for a maiden descent! It turns out this was a lot harder than we thought! Our first obstacle was the draglift. A slow-moving button lift with a very gentle slope all of a sudden seemed pretty daunting! After falling off the draglift three times, we abandoned using the lift and resorted to pushing Gareth up the hill ourselves!
Getting back down the nursery slope proved just as challenging, the poor conditions meant that the snow has hard and icy, and the nursery slope was about a third of its usual width. With little space to get enough speed up to successfully make his turns, Gareth spent as much time on his backside as on his sitski! After a few more goes, we abandoned for the day and went for hot chocolates all round instead!
Not wishing to be defeated, the next day we decided to give Les Gets a go. Unfortunately, with very poor snow conditions and crowded slopes, we all found it challenging! (Although Gareth did manage to get both on and off the chairlift without an instructor and without falling over, which was an achievement in itself!).
We were lucky enough to meet Martin Lister and his son Matthew, who came to our rescue after seeing us struggle to help Gareth get down a particularly icy section; I think our confidence was really beginning to waver! Martin told us he had had many years enjoying sitkiing with his son William who had muscular dystrophy, and they had sadly lost William just a few months prior. Martin and Matthew offered Gareth some practical advice, and with Matthew at the reins, Gareth successfully navigated the last section of the piste. It was really encouraging to meet other families with experiences to share, and Martin and Matthew were very kind and helpful indeed!
The practical aspect of “disabled” skiing was also new to us. On the whole, we didn’t encounter too many problems. We were pleased to find was that disabled parking bays were available at the Prodains lift in Morzine (and later in the week at Les Gets too), which made things much easier. We also learnt that for disabled skiers and a companion, a discounted lift pass is available, which was a real added bonus. More difficult was accessing some of the lifts once in the sitski. It’s difficult to get the sitski through the turnstiles without getting stuck! We mostly had to approach the chairlifts directly from the side (and jump the queue!), but over in Chatel, the “turnstiles” were generally much better, as they were set up to allow mountain bikes through, so the sitski got through with ease.
Finding the right equipment is nigh on impossible too. For lessons, the ESF have equipment available, but I did not find a single ski shop in the Portes du Soleil that has sitskis for hire for Gareth to use for practice outside of lessons. Sitskis are very expensive to buy new (think in the thousands!), so it’s quite limiting for a beginner looking to improve on their basic skills outside of lessons. I was fortunate enough to meet Catherine Cosby of Ski 2 Freedom, who was very helpful. The Ski 2 Freedom foundation was set up to help facilitate access to alpine activities to any person with any kind of disability, anywhere in the world. Catherine is currently fundraising for a new sitski which will be made available on a permanent basis to anyone looking to sitski in Morzine. On the whole, Morzine is a pretty disabled-friendly town, so hopefully the addition of a permanent sitski will allow more skiers like Gareth the possibility to enjoy the mountains with as much ease as the rest of us! (If you would like to donate, you can do so via the Ski 2 Freedom website: http://www.ski2freedom.com/en/index)