Arnie Wilson: Frank Gardner OBE on Adapting to a Sit-Ski

From ski writer and guest contributor Arnie Wilson, exclusively for Ongosa - BBC Security Correspondent and ex Ski Club of GB President Frank Gardner on adapting to sit-skiing after a life-changing injury.

Published on Thu 28 Mar, 2019Frank Gardner BBC Correspondent

Arnie Wilson writes:

You could say that the BBC’s Security Correspondent, shot six times at close range while on assignment in Saudi Arabia in 2004, and left severely wounded and dependant on a wheelchair, was even more inspired by the possibility of skiing after his narrow escape from death than before it.

After all, the need and yearning for speed which thrills most of us from time to time, can be eclipsed abruptly when you’re in a wheelchair. And the ability to hurtle down the slopes in a “sit-ski” – a moulded bucket built onto a carving ski, even closer to the snow than if you were skiing “normally” – can be an almost magical tonic.

“Imagine a wheelchair without the wheels” says Gardner (pictured above with Graham Bell), “where you sit wedged tightly into a moulded bucket, balanced on a spring and resting on a single carving monoski. For balance, you have a pair of mini-ski poles, or outriggers, with tiny skis on the end that fold away so you can use the poles to push yourself along in the queue for the ski lift.”  

“For me, the hardest part about adaptive skiing is not the actual skiing itself, it’s all the faff involved in getting on and off the slope. You have to plan it carefully, working out where you’re going to leave the wheelchair when you get on a lift and how you’re going to get reunited with it. What happens at lunch? Where are the toilets? (Almost invariably downstairs in some basement!).”

Gardner is a regular at the City Ski Championships, this year celebrating its 20th anniversary in Courmayeur, Italy. Says Amin Momen, boss of the organisers, Momentum Ski: “I first met Frank when we organised a celebrity ski race for Ski Sunday in 2008.

“He then came as one of the panel guests for the Financial Times Forum eight years ago when the event was held for the first time in Crans-Montana, Switzerland.  He was amazing - not only as a panellist with his insight into current affairs, but just a wonderful person - and an amazing sit-skier who opened our celebrity race. He cursed me at the time for asking him to do so - it was from the top of the Piste National - a World Cup downhill. And as it was the first run, without any warm-up!” 

Frank Gardner Skiing

Says Gardner: “The thought of hurtling down a race course was terrifying. Until I actually started. Going first was the hardest part but Konrad Bartelski was at the event and did his best to relax me.” 

Gardner, awarded an OBE by the Queen in 2005, and President of the Ski Club of Great Britain until 2017, didn’t take up downhill skiing till he was 22, although he’d done a fair bit of cross-country. His baptism of fire was also in Val d’Isère. As he told the Telegraph’s Henry Druce: “I was in with a group from university who’d all skied before. There’s an icy red run called the Matisse, which they shot down with ease, and which I slid down painfully, sometimes face first.”

Poignantly, his last “able-bodied” ski descent was in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria. “It was late in the afternoon, and I said to my wife and two daughters, ‘Just give me 30 minutes, I’m going to have one last run.’ I thought to myself – ‘you never know when you’ll get the chance again' so I bombed down until my legs were screaming for respite. Totally exhilarating. Four months later, I was shot through the nerves connecting my legs to the spinal cord. Fortunately, somebody invented sit-skis.

“The hardest part at first was squeezing myself into it. I had to get used to it forcing me into a bent-double “W” shape. A day’s training with a Paralympic instructor was enough for me to get the hang of controlling the thing, though. 

“You’re only using half your body, so it can be very frustrating not being able to shift your weight on to another ski when you’re gathering speed. But you’re still in the mountains, still in the sun – sometimes – and I’ve got this fun thing where I flick my hips to turn. I’ve been told this is all wrong but I like it, so I’ll carry on doing it. 

Frank Gardner skiing with Konrad Bartelski

“I’ve found that in general, Alpine resorts are behind US resorts in catering for adaptive skiers. In Colorado they make it incredibly easy and welcoming whereas I’ve had some bad experiences in France and Germany with lift operators who grumble about having to slow down the lift for you. We nearly had a disaster in Val d’Isère in 2018 when the liftie at the top actually sped up the chairlift, tipping us off it in a heap and we narrowly avoided snapped legs and hitting heads! It’s a lottery though, as some of them can also be so helpful. Restaurant operators on the slopes have mostly been very understanding and accommodating.”

“Using the lifts can be a real challenge. I’ve had some narrow escapes on T-bars when I’ve missed the release catch on my sit-ski and nearly got dragged back down the mountain. Part of the skill with adaptive skiing is getting the logistics right. Screw up here and you can find your wheelchair is on a completely different mountain while you are stuck strapped into a sit-ski at the bottom of a run as everyone else is happily heading home.”

Ski photos © Konrad Bartelski

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