The sky’s the limit for everyone on the slopes of Kamloops
VERONICA Connors absorbed an indelible lesson during her career as an oncology and palliative care nurse: life should be lived with relish, for who knows when it will end.
‘ ‘ My patients were getting younger and younger and they were telling me to go and live the dream, because they could no longer live their dream,’’ she says.
Heeding this poignant advice, Connors and her husband, Neil, bought a condominium at the Sun Peaks Ski Resort near Kamloops in British Columbia, Canada, four years ago and took jobs there as snowshoes, trudging along a groomed path called Chemin des Planetes ( hence the astrological sculptures).
Given the late hour and the heavy snow, I hitch a ride on the back of a snowmobile laden with guests’ rucksacks, ski bags and a woman with a baby.
Frozen, I stagger from the SkiDoo into the warm entry hall and step straight back in time. When it was built, the Hotel Weisshorn favoured le style anglais. Guests dressed for dinner and gentlemen smoked only in the fumoir. More than 100 years on, the original decor remains but heating and modern showers have been added, and sartorial expectations have come down a peg (jeans and GoreTex prevail, with red felt slippers provided by our hosts).
In the traditionally furnished salon sits the original piano, which was carried up the mountain on the backs of six men over several days. Beside it is a wood-burning water heater cum shower ( no longer in use). There is Wi-Fi now, yet the telegraph machine still hangs on the wall and wide corridors are dotted with porcelain water pitchers and black-and-white portraits.
After a four-course dinner — including foie gras mousse, veal chops and excellent Valais wine in the casual wood-lined dining room among a few Swiss families and small groups — I retire to my seasonal ski instructors. It was nirvana for the couple, who had spent years holidaying at Whistler with their now-grown children.
But after caring for terminally ill patients in her home city of Brisbane, Connors thought it indulgent to spend her days skiing with healthy holiday-makers.
‘‘I needed another outlet to be the giver I am,’’ she says.
An opportunity presented itself on the frosted runs that stretch off into the distance above Kamloops. Disabled people were being drawn here by the resort’s adaptive sports program and could be seen flying through the snow, their instructors following close behind.
Named Adaptive Sports at Sun simple bedroom. The next morning, blinding sunshine cascades through the windows, revealing dozens of peaks, including the Dent d’Herens, the glacier of Les Diablerets and the Dent Blanche, which tops out at 4358m.
Somewhere in another world far below, skiers are queuing in hire shops, clattering on to buses and shuffling in lift lines. I have a third coffee and feel pretty smug about it. I don’t need to worry about anyone else stealing the first tracks of the day up here.
There are no groomed pistes from the hotel but there’s ski touring or snowshoeing from the door as well as the fantastic and little known off-piste of the Val d’Anniviers.
Something of a cult destination for powder, its best-known area, Grimentz — across the valley and connected by a free bus — is still likely to draw blank stares back home; with only a couple of hotels and cosy restaurants, it’s way off the map compared with big hitters such as Verbier. For families and piste skiers, the shared lift pass of the Val d’Anniviers covers a respectable number of slopes across four separate areas — Vercorin, Grimentz, Zinal and StLuc Chandolin — linked by free, clockwork-efficient shuttle buses.
But the real appeal is the empty off-piste. To make the most of it, guests can book a local mountain guide in the nearest resort, St Luc, Peaks, the program works closely with the resort’s Snow Sports School and is supported by donors such as the Sun Peaks Corporation, Rotary and the Kamloops ice-hockey team. Trained ski instructors volunteer their services and use adapted equipment such as sit-skis (for people who can’t stand) and beepers with which to guide the blind.
Of particular appeal to Connors was the program’s support for the local disabled community, whose access to the popular Canadian pastime of skiing was severely restricted. One of their initiatives, a 10-week ski course for disabled youth, is particularly valuable for students who are usually sidelined or in Grimentz. Earlier in the week, while staying in Grimentz, I j oined a guided Freshtracks Exploration group holiday offered by the Ski Club of Great Britain.
Local guide Vincent Thaler led during physical education classes.
‘‘These kids were always disadvantaged because they’d be sitting in the canteen while their classmates were out having a great time,’’ Connors says. ‘‘A big focus for us is to get them ski-safe so that they can ski with their classmates. We are holding on to tethers behind them so they can’t just fly off by themselves.’’
Accredited with the Disabled Ski Association of British Columbia or the Canadian Ski Alliance, the volunteers nudge their charges towards an impressive level of competence.
‘‘It’s not just a case of ‘Oh, we’ll take these disabled kids for a ride’,’’ Connors says. ‘ ‘ We’re actually us cheerfully down one of the classic powder routes, called Chache, a winding descent that starts bang off the lift and curls through widely spaced trees for an hour, spitting you out at the village of St training them to ski with a view to improving their skiing enough that they could even j oin a disabled racing team.’’
One of Connors’s former students, a teenager with cerebral palsy, is now being groomed for the London 2012 Paralympics.
Connors recalls another teenager who took up skiing less than a year after being paralysed in a mountain-biking accident; and the parents who cried at the joy their autistic son felt as he took his first glide on skis.
She also mentions Cindi King, who took up the sport again after a mountaineering accident that left her a paraplegic and an amputee. King says she remembers wonder- Jean, where a shuttle bus whips you back to base for more. Offpiste routes such as Chache are what Val d’Anniviers is all about.
Back at the Weisshorn, a group of ski tourers heads off after break- ing why she waited so long to try this new adventure ‘ ‘ and start living my life to the fullest’’. She had always been afraid of downhill skiing, even before her injury.
‘‘Flying down that hill for the first time was exhilarating and freeing to my spirit,’’ she says. ‘‘It opened up a world of new possibilities in all aspects of my life. If I could conquer my fears of downhill skiing, the sky was the limit.’’
Hotel Weisshorn sits above the Val d’Anniviers ski slopes