Inclusivity in the mountains

The incredible thing about the increase of technology in the ski industry is the accessibility of the mountains. We see that in Zermatt every day, whether it’s the funicular dug through a mountain up to Sunnegga or the new 3S gondola up to Klein Matterhorn. If you think about it critically it’s incredible that we as a species are so rich, that our basic needs for food, water and shelter are so low down on the things that we actively worry about. That for fun we build feats of engineering brilliance to inconceivable heights for the sole purpose of fun. I can only imagine the hilarity of trying to explain this to generations past.

In my humble opinion the most magical thing to come out of this technological drive is the adaptive sport revolution. The quantity of folk teaching and participating in adaptive skiing and snowboarding is on the rise; this is no doubt down to equipment but also hugely down to organisations striving for fully accessible opportunities.

What is adaptive skiing?

For any readers who don’t know what adaptive skiing is let me explain. Explaining things is one my favourite ways to pass time, seen as through I’m writing this on day fifteen of coronavirus isolation time is not a limitation! Adaptive skiing is the process of adapting the science of skiing to the way in which an individual moves or interacts with world, whilst also adapting the way in which we teach to best suit every style of learning and sensory make-up. Thus allowing those of any ability, physical or cognitive impairment to experience learning how to ski. To do this we use ski specific mobility aids and highly engineered bits of kit as well as up to date proven teaching methods. The kit that’s best known in the adaptive skiing world is a sit ski, this is only the tip of the equipment iceberg, there is so many different bits of equipment out there that allow folk with many, many varieties of physical impairment succeed in skiing.

There are literally no limits!

About me

My second favourite thing after talking about adaptive skiing is talking about myself so let’s do that for a while. Hi! I’m George, I came to Summit new this winter with three years experience teaching adaptive skiing, five years of ski teaching in total and a passion for inclusive learning opportunities. The drive for me into adaptive skiing came from the challenge of seeing my father have a negative experience learning how to sit ski way back when I was tiny. Dad is a wheelchair user and lives with a C6/7 spinal cord injury, this effects his mobility from his neck down, with limited arm strength and no core and no use of his legs. We got Dad back on skis my first year teaching adaptive skiing back in 2017. From the start he wasn’t looking for an ‘experience’, he was looking for independence. From his first run being fully dependant on his instructor to three years later skiing with him down a Canadian blue run fully independently blew my mind. So, I’m hooked! I’m in this industry for life now, I don’t see how I could leave, now I get to travel the world working and learning from many different people and noticing how various organisation work towards the same goal. Inclusivity on the mountains.

This winter

My standout five days of this Winter was working with Mathew and his incredible family. Mathew was on a forty day European tour from Australia and chose to spend five days over Christmas learning how to ski and experience festivities in a magical Swiss mountain town. Living with a quadruple above knee and elbow amputation, the obvious set up was a sit ski, with little knowledge of Mathew’s goals for the week or my own personal inexperience working with prosthetics, we set up for mainly a bucketing lesson. Bucketing is when the instructor is holding onto the back of the sit ski and the movements needed to turn the ski can be done by the participant but is backed up with assistance from the instructor. After an incredible family rip around on day one and a few insightful discussions on the science of Mathew’s prosthetics, we introduced outriggers on day two.

A technical insight...

Bit of technical insight quickly before I delve into the depths of Mathews lesson! A sit ski (ideally) fits like a massive ski boot for your legs, hips and body. It needs to support your back comfortably whilst giving you access to all your muscles you have available to twist and bend.

Outriggers! Outriggers are tiny crutches with skis on the end, they are to simply help with balance, like stabilisers on a bike. So, if you twist your sit ski to turn, you can then feel the snow with your outriggers; this will allow you to bend your body in a way in which you can balance.

This was my first time working with prosthetics and outrigger. For the next week, every day we made an adjustment to the equipment. From combining duct tape and buffs to make the outrigger cuffs narrower, adding extra straps to better secure Matthew’s hips in the ski and extra padding in the seat for a tighter fit, the science of fitting sit skis is wild and one that needs constant adjustments.

An experience for the whole family

Mathew came into this week with such an open mind on what he wanted, with goals of sliding and experiencing the mountains combining with an Aussie can-do attitude he finished the week leaving with co-ordinated skills and essentially taking the first step into developing independence on the mountains.

The magical moment of the week was a whole family run down Findeln on day three. It was Mathew, his wife Di and their daughter Emily’s third day on snow. Their sons, Luke, Ben and Will who had skied before all came together accompanied by their instructors, Tom and Nicole, for an incredible family ski. Mathew was on tethers two metres ahead of me turning independently, the boys were hitting every kicker they could see. Nicole, Di and Emily were picking their way down the trickiest terrain they’d experienced yet. It was magical to be part of. A true family wide achievement. The energy was contagious and unforgettable.

A reflection on learning

To get success from a student the importance to listen and empathise to an individual situation is huge. I can look back at my own memorable educators, teachers and coaches. The ones that I learnt the most from are those who connected with me, taught me what I wanted to learn and from a perspective that I could understand. Whether you’re teaching an engineer ‘nerding’ out on the science of a ski turn, a six year old imagining the ski slopes are a magical jungle or a sit skier focusing on steering from their lowest functioning point, the ability to deliver information tailored to the learner is what really sets each individual up for success.

This week with Mathew epitomises the importance of inclusive programming. We were one team on the mountain all learning how to achieve the same goal of fun. I’m sadly not planning on returning back to Summit next winter, but it fills me with joy knowing that Summit has the equipment and expertise to continue creating a barrier free place for families to excel in mountain sport, this attitude transfers across into the alpine and snowboard programs where teaching is student centred and to the highest level. Summit Directors, Sarah, Ash, Niamh and Ellie what you have created is incredible and I’m excited to see where Summit Adaptive goes. 

Winter 2019/20 will not be forgotten.

Thank you.

George Shelton

George Shelton

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