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French ski resorts that are accessible for everyone

PUBLISHED: 12:45 15 November 2017 | UPDATED: 15:43 16 November 2017

Handiski is available at a number of French ski resorts including Le Grand Bornand © P Lebeau / Aravis

Handiski is available at a number of French ski resorts including Le Grand Bornand © P Lebeau / Aravis

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If you have a disability or limited mobility then you may think that a skiing holiday is impossible, however there are a number of French ski resorts that have made their ski slopes, accommodation and amenities accessible to everyone

The sight of disabled skiers and snowboarders doing the seemingly unthinkable during the Winter Olympics always leaves spectators open-mouthed in amazement. Many will be inspired to follow in their tracks, but could easily be daunted by the logistics of getting on the mountains if they have a disability or limited mobility. However, France is among the world leaders in making its ski resorts accessible to people with disabilities or life-challenging conditions.

The mountains have long been a place of rehabilitation and rejuvenation, and a combination of technology and changing attitudes has helped to make a snow holiday more inclusive. Over the past 20 years, resorts have realised that people with disabilities and other health conditions come as part of a family or a group, and it made economic and social sense to break down barriers.

It is not just people in wheelchairs who need specialist help to get the most out of a mountain holiday. Cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome, blindness, deafness, multiple sclerosis, autism and Parkinson’s are just some of the conditions that are now being catered for in ski resorts. It is a case of finding the resort that matches your needs – which, given the huge choice, is not as straightforward as it sounds.

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Handiski in Le Grand Bornand © P Lebeau AravisHandiski in Le Grand Bornand © P Lebeau Aravis

Choosing the right ski resort for your needs

France has 150 ski schools that include handiski, the term the French use for specialist equipment and instruction for disabled skiers. Most are offered through the École du Ski Français (ESF). Look out for the adapté label, which shows that a resort has specialist equipment and instruction, as well as adapted accommodation and accessible restaurants. Within the Savoie Mont Blanc ski area, 32 resorts have these facilities. However, there are plenty of ski resorts without the official label that still have excellent adaptive facilities. Val d’Isère is a prime example, with both ESF and Oxygène ski schools offering lessons for the disabled.

There is plenty of room for confusion in trying to find the ideal resort – along with a lack of knowledge as to what is available. This is something that Catherine Cosby discovered ten years ago when she set up the Ski 2 Freedom Foundation, which swiftly developed into a vital link between travellers, ski schools and tourist offices. Her daughter is severely disabled, which inspired Catherine to spread her love of the mountains to people who might have thought that such holidays were off limits.

“Accessibility in French resorts is an integral part of my work in helping not just those wanting to benefit from being there, but also identifying what changes could be made to help more,” says Catherine. “Our information resource meets the needs of anyone whose health or general well-being may be affected by a life-changing, life-challenging or terminal condition – whether it’s physical, cognitive, degenerative, genetic, sensory, audio or mental. Exercise, fresh air, food and being surrounded by nature all help to restore life’s equilibrium. Our work as a charitable organisation is advocating mountains for all.”

As Catherine says, it goes “beyond the perimeters of what is often defined as disabled”. She explains: “Requests come in from a range of needs – from those with dyslexia wanting to know if there is a version of a piste map suitable for them, to someone wanting to ski again after a stroke or a ski accident, to someone who is quadriplegic and fully ventilated.”

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A skier using dualski and outrigger poles at La Plagne © Adam BatterbeeA skier using dualski and outrigger poles at La Plagne © Adam Batterbee

Adaptive skiing in La Plagne

One of the most popular Alpine resorts for adaptive skiing is La Plagne, which features the latest handiski equipment. The various forms of sitskis (monoski, duoski) strap skiers into a seat while they use outrigger-type poles to ski. On a tandemski, you ride in front while an instructor steers from behind. Parents who are good skiers can take a course so that they can steer their child on a tandemski.

People with little upper-body strength can use a kartski, which has long levers and is usually guided by an instructor. La Plagne is the only resort in France to feature the vertiski, in which paraplegics are strapped upright. The equipment comes free with a lesson, and there are discounts on lift passes for disabled people and their ski buddies.

Adaptive skiing in La Rosière

La Rosière is another resort that has been expanding its adaptive ski programme over the past 20 years, and also works with Ski 2 Freedom. Its ESF director, Simon Atkinson, is one of ten instructors trained in adaptive skiing.

“People are quite surprised by how many different types of disabilities can be catered for,” he says. “Depending on the requirements, we can give technical input to help the person ski without assistance, or simply allow people to take to the slopes for the first time and ski in the company of their friends and family.”

As well as the equipment, ski lifts are adapted to take the apparatuses on everything from drag lifts to gondolas. Resorts list the ski lifts that are accessible for handiski equipment and wheelchairs. Some ski instructors use sign language to teach deaf skiers, while blind and visually impaired skiers go with a guide and are connected via Bluetooth.

Adaptive skiing in Tignes

Paralympian alpine ski champion Kelly Gallagher, who won Britain’s first-ever gold on the slopes in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, trains and races in Tignes, another highly rated resort for adaptive winter sports. Born with oculocutaneous albinism, Kelly has a visual impairment and skis with a guide. “We’ve got Bluetooth radio communications in our helmets, and he’s describing what we’re doing,” she says. “Once you have a guide – it could be a private lesson or even in a group – as long as one person has the comms, they’re able to talk to you. I normally wear a bib, and the guide will have an orange vest, which gives other skiers an indication that they should allow you a little more space.

“As long as there is someone skiing with you, and you feel confident in that little cocoon of safety, the mountains are as open to you as they are to anyone else.”

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A chair lift makes the slopes in Morzine accessible © Ski 2 FreedomA chair lift makes the slopes in Morzine accessible © Ski 2 Freedom

Getting around the resort

Off the slopes, people with disabilities have to contend with many issues, namely getting around the resort. It pays to be selective: newer purpose-built resorts such as Les Arcs 1950 have a wider range of accessible accommodation, and, in Les Arcs’ case, the chairlift comes right into the bottom of the traffic-free village.

Like Les Arcs, La Plagne is part of the vast Paradiski domain in Savoie, which is linked by the double-decker Vanoise Express cable car. The brutalist architecture of La Plagne’s Aime 2000 might not be to everyone’s taste, but this huge, cruise-liner-like complex has all its shops and restaurants under one roof, making it simpler for people who cannot move around easily.

Les Menuires has flat central areas that are connected by lifts. Tignes, Courchevel and Megève are among the resorts that have heated pavements. La Clusaz’s website has an unusually exhaustive list of shops and restaurants that have and have not been adapted for people with disabilities. Valloire’s clear, flat streets make it easy for wheelchair users, and while Méribel is good for people with visual impairments, it’s not quite as practical if you are in a wheelchair. Val d’Isère is also flat, and has accessible accommodation right in the centre.
Walking around a resort can be a problem for people of limited mobility, or just plain old age. Catherine Cosby suggests wearing crampons on snow boots to prevent falls, and that goes for people pushing wheelchairs. “Wheel blades are brilliant,” she adds. “They’re like mini-skis about the width of a laptop and they just clip on to the wheels of a wheelchair. You can stick them on anything. I’m trying to get more ski shops to stock them for hire.”

Choosing your ski accommodation

The location of accommodation can also be a minefield, particularly for mixed groups of abled and less-abled skiers. Ski 2 Freedom’s website goes into detail about the hundreds of properties Catherine has inspected for their accessibility. Some hotels and residences have access problems that might not be immediately obvious, such as steep footpaths.

Groups of skiers need to balance the desire for ski-in, ski-out accommodation with practicalities. Not all disabled skiers will be able to ski all day, and they could end up being marooned in a chalet in a hamlet or partially up a slope. Morzine, Les Gets, Val d’Isère, La Rosière and Samoëns – to name just a few – all have lively village centres with more to offer in après-ski activities.

“Wanting just to ski is a very English thing,” says Catherine. “If you go to a really French resort, they’re full of people who aren’t skiing. They’re up in the mountain with their dogs, or they go tobogganing after lunch. They’re having a holiday.”

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Megeve in the French Alps © Adam BatterbeeMegeve in the French Alps © Adam Batterbee

Access to the slopes

Access to the slopes for non-skiers is a factor to bear in mind, too. Val Thorens and Châtel, for example, have a good number of cable cars and pedestrian-friendly chairlifts so that non-skiers can join family and colleagues for lunch on the mountain. And the same tandemski that disabled skiers use can be hired as taxis to transport less-abled people – anyone from grandparents to pregnant women – to mountain restaurants so that no one is left out. It also gives people the exhilarating experience of whooshing down a mountain in complete safety, whether or not they have ever strapped on skis before.

Après-ski activities

Many après-ski activities have been adapted including more hair-raising experiences such as paragliding for people in wheelchairs. Some are slightly gentler, such as dog-sledding. Cross-country skiers – with or without disabilities – can explore the 120 kilometres of world-class trails in Les Saisies, a small resort in the Espace Diamant area with a large offering of adaptive sports.

Avoriaz, another purpose-built resort with accessible ski-in, ski-out facilities, is the location of Aquariaz, a huge water park with everything from raucous water slides to relaxing baths. Last winter, Balnéo at Le Palais in Megève expanded to include a fully accessible thermal baths complex with indoor and outdoor hot pools.

It is not just the Alps: many resorts in the Pyrénées have been expanding their adaptive offerings. Cauterets, Saint-Lary-Soulan, Peyragudes and the Grand Tourmalet ski area all offer handiski as well as adapted accommodation and accessible restaurants. La Mongie also provides the unforgettable experience of visiting the Pic du Midi observatory (at 2,877 metres), where the gondola and restaurant are accessible.

While resorts are making it easier for people with disabilities or limited mobility, there is still one area in need of improvement. As anyone who has awkwardly clumped downstairs in ski boots knows only too well, there are very few mountain restaurants with ground-floor toilets. Lift stations almost always have adapted toilets, but if you want to enjoy a lazy lunch on a mountainside terrace, be prepared for a bumpy ride. But the lure of the peaks can overcome that. “The enjoyment of being in the mountains, the fresh air, it’s incredible,” says Kelly Gallagher. “Just because I can’t see doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy being up there.”

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