Vision-impaired skiing – one of the loves of my life
Floating down a snow-covered mountain on skis brings a feeling of complete freedom
Peter Gorey: “I slowly progressed over the years from lounging around on my bum to my current status of being able comfortably, if not always elegantly, to slide down a mountain at high speed.”
Ever wondered what it’s like to hurtle down a ski slope at speeds of up to 70km per hour with little or no eyesight?
Sounds a bit daft, doesn’t it? You would probably even question their sanity.
Well, one of those people is me and, yes, I gladly hurtle down a ski slope at such speeds.
Nineteen years ago I began my career as a Vision Impaired (VI) skier in the picturesque Austrian town of Mayrhofen. I found myself forcing my feet into those twin monstrosities known as ski boots. Having somehow managed to complete this painful task, I then proceeded to attach my boots to two long planks. Finally I was given two poles to cling on to and I was ready to rock and roll in the Austrian Alps.
A bit more rolling than rocking as it turned out. I spent the vast majority of my first week on my backside, reflecting on the fine mess that I had got myself into.
Yet, there was something that kept pushing me to get back up and try again. It was a feeling of complete freedom, however brief. It’s a sensation that goes hand in hand with the whole concept of floating down a snow-covered mountain on skis, and one that those of us with little or no sight can rarely experience.
So I slowly progressed over the years from lounging around on my bum to my current status of being able comfortably, if not always elegantly, to slide down a mountain at high speed. In order to partake in this completely deranged activity of course I do need a sighted partner in crime, an equal lunatic known as a VI Ski Guide.
The VI Ski Guide is the kind of individual who will give, and ask for nothing in return, apart from the odd pint at the bar – although Alastair, one of my regular guides, tells me he gets almost as much of a thrill out of guiding me safely down the mountain as I get out of skiing it.
Our ski guides act as our eyes on the slope, keeping us on the piste and negotiating us safely through the obstacle course of other skiers, snow boarders and the occasional tree.
There are a variety of methods that can be used to get us safely down the hill. Some VI skiers follow music, others simply use whatever sight they still have to stay close behind their guide.
As for myself, my current preference is to ski in front with occasional voice assistance from a guide behind me, using the little bit of tunnel vision I have in order to make my own decisions as I dance my way downhill. This method also allows me to give my guide the occasional heart attack when I decide to accelerate at short notice. I do like to keep them on their toes.
At the end of the day comes the obligatory visit to an apres ski bar. Finding a good location in the chosen resort is arguably the most important task facing any self-respecting VI Ski group.
Reconnaissance parties are assembled and sent out to cover every inch of the town with a view to finding the best hostelry for pain relief via inner lubrication. Having assiduously assessed all reports, a decision is made as to which establishment will be favoured for the week.
My most memorable, or perhaps more accurately least memorable, apres ski experience came two years ago in the French resort of Les Deux Alpes. I had just downed a pint of a relatively standard beer when word filtered through of a lager type brew with the enticing name of “Judas”.
Yes, the King of Betrayal was casting his dubious spell over me and what a spell he cast. For the first and only time in my life there followed 12 hours for which I cannot to this day account.
Thankfully as far as I am aware no serious crimes were committed in Les Deux Alpes in those 12 hours, and our ever vigilant guides got me safely back to the hotel where I am told I fell asleep in the lounge.
So that’s it. VI Skiing; one of the great loves of my life. And as is the case with human love, it can be a risky activity.
But then again so is getting out of bed!