For a group of visually impaired veterans visiting from the U.K., the past two weeks spent skiing Whistler Blackcomb has been an illuminating experience, one they’re not likely to forget.
“When I was medically discharged (from the military), I thought all this sort of stuff had gone out the door,” said Steve Sparkes, a former Royal Marine who lost part of his vision while serving in the Falklands. “You think it’s all over with, it’s finished, but (skiing) really opens your eyes … It just gives you the confidence to move on and do bigger and better things.”
Sparkes, or “Sparkey” as he’s affectionately known, was one of five skiers in town from Blind Veterans U.K., a charity that assists current and former British military personnel who’ve become visually impaired through service, accident, illness or old age.
Working with the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program (WASP), the British charity has been organizing the trip to Canada for over three years. They also received free airfare from British Airways; lift passes from Whistler Blackcomb and accommodation from Lodging Ovations.
Typically, BVUK sends a group of about 50 visually impaired skiers to the Italian slopes each year, but this time they decided to bring the top five skiers to Whistler, taking advantage of the resort’s world-class terrain and the expertise of WASP staff.
“The aims and goals for this trip were to take them outside their comfort zone and improve their skiing in a challenging environment that Whistler can allow us to do safely,” said BVUK’s lead guide and trip planner Neil Graham. “We can do more in Whistler than we can do in Europe … There’s more challenging runs, the customer service, the satisfaction.”
WASP employees have been on hand every step of the way to assist the group, which also includes ski guides and several other BVUK staff, taking them to new terrain and providing some instruction — not that the British skiers really needed it.
“There isn’t anywhere that I wouldn’t ski with them,” said WASP instructor Wylie Buchanan. “Every time I give them the option to go around or ski the hard stuff, inevitably, they all choose to ski the hard stuff.”
The skiers have tackled some of the toughest terrain Whistler Blackcomb has to offer, easily completing black diamond runs with the help of their BVUK guides, who typically lead the visually impaired veterans down the mountain with the help of a communication system they’ve recently installed in their helmets.
“We’ve got a communication system so we can talk them down, describing the lumps, the bumps, the contours, all the undulations … and tell them exactly where to turn,” said Graham. “Because we knew we were coming out here to do a bit more challenging skiing, it was important that the guide and the skier were in harmony.”
All but one of the BVUK guides have skied in Whistler before, and most have developed a strong relationship with their ski partner over time, like Vicky Stewart, who began guiding veteran Mark Brewin 10 years ago. Before they met, Brewin had never skied a day in his life.
“We just got a really good relationship now, we trust each other,” said Stewart, who lives in Scotland and skis with Brewin a few times a year. “It makes me feel really good that I’ve helped someone else out, and that his skiing’s come on so much. It just makes me really humbled, because I think if it was me, God, would I even ski?”
Key to the guide and skier relationship is continually pushing the veterans’ boundaries, adding new challenges for them to overcome each year.
“There’s always been another barrier that we’ve crossed, another challenge we’ve took on,” said Sparkes. “The first couple of years it was just getting down the slopes from top to bottom, now we’re getting down in style with technique.”
An important aspect of the BVUK program for Sparkes and the rest of the skiers is bringing other younger visually impaired veterans into the fold and showing them the benefits of an active lifestyle.
“One of the things for us personally is building bridges for lads that come behind us, because there are lads that are not just blind but have got limbs missing as well, so this is a perfect place for them to come and try their skiing. It’s so equipped for the situation,” said Sparkes.
BVUK will sponsor the trip to Whistler every three years, but Graham would love it if it became an annual event. He also wants to collaborate with other veteran assistance programs, like Canada’s Soldier On initiative, to run multilateral ski camps and competitions in Whistler. Injured or ill veterans from Canada, Australia, the U.K. and U.S. will arrive in Whistler on Wednesday (Feb. 27) for an adaptive sports camp, although BVUK is not involved.
For Graham, one of the trip’s biggest rewards was the hospitality shown to them by locals and especially, Whistler’s adaptive sports program staff.
“We can’t sing their praises high enough,” he said. “The Canadians have been exceptional in their kindness and hospitality.”
Visit www.blindveterans.org.uk for more information about BVUK.