Monthly Archives: September 2014

Day 4: Conquering the Mountain At Last!

“Breathe, Ro! Keep breathing!”

In what feels like a ginormous step forward, this morning I will be leaving the safety, comfort and security of the nest behind and leaping into the great unknown. That means moving beyond the magic carpet and heading over to Perisher’s Happy Valley with my instructor, Mark. While this feels like a huge step and I am understandably afraid, it is time. I have been working hard towards this, working on my turns and fitness so that I am ready. Time to put the cake in the oven and turn up the heat. After all the health crap I’ve been through in the last 12 months, I want to kick some serious butt and tell those mountains I’m back and I mean business. Even a huge, ginormous mountain is not going to hold this woman down. Just you wait. I’m going to turn that mountain around…again!

While so many beginners must just get out there onto the slopes without so much as a private lesson, I am the tortoise not the hare…slow and steady wins the race. My caution stems from my various medical issues which I’ve outlined in previous posts but I have also come to appreciate the benefits of solid training and building good technique step by step like building a Lego creation. This training has given me more control over my skis and when I’ve felt myself starting to lose it, I’ve been able to correct my position and turn to slow down instead of falling. I’m also not too proud to admit that I’ve appreciated using a lot of the terms the ski instructors use to teach the kids: making pizzas, skiing like a banana or stopping like french fries. These terms are all so visually graphic that they work very well for me and so much better than technical talk.

There have been a lot of discussions with Geoff and the kids and my instructors about the best way to get me off the magic carpet or beginner’s area and onto a real slope and back down the mountain.  Now, we have a plan. Mark will tow me across to the quad chair which we will ride up to Mid Station, home of all those sumptuous hot chocolate slathered in swirls of rich cream served with marshmallows which melt into a gooey dream.Only this time, I will be skiing passed the hot chocolate and down Happy Valley and will then catch the Happy Valley T-Bar back up to Mid-Station. Usually, you would then ski down Front Valley to return to the village but this is too much for me so Mark will take my skis back while I catch the quad chair down.

How it Went

We took the magic carpet up the top and skied across and then I held onto one of Mark’s poles as he started towing me. Being towed was great fun. I just glided over the snow while Mark did all the hard work…especially as he heaved me up a small hill near the chairlift. Oh my goodness. I’d only been on a chairlift once before and it’s rather nerve wracking juggling skis, poles and trying to get onto a moving object without falling over backwards but the only dramas were in my head. Managed to get on and off without a hitch. I was seriously impressed.

After totally freaking out last year when I looked down from the top of Front Valley, I decided not to look down this year. Indeed, I just kept watching the back of Mark’s skis following him down. All I saw was skis and snow although the snow gums around me sort of registered. We were about half way down when I needed a bit of a rest and we pulled up under some snow gums and caught my breath. I am so pleased we stopped because those trees were so beautiful, peaceful and serene…an oasis of calm in the midst of my stressful challenge. It was hard work trying to follow Mark and implement his instructions. I’m not sporty so I’m not used to moving my body around like this.

Yet, the journey continued. My legs were sore but I hadn’t fallen over and the T Bar was now within sight. I could let myself ski that little bit faster and enjoy the last bit of the ride.

At around this point, Geoff and the kids appeared. They first saw me starting the trip down from Mid Station. The kids were coming up the Tbar but fell off. They were still ahead of me. They saw us resting under the tree and wondered whether I’d stacked or whether I was ill but couldn’t reach me. They skied back down and came down again and by this stage I’d gone.

When I reached the bottom and was skiing towards the TBar, Mark called out: “Welcome to Skiing”.

I’d conquered the mountain again and surprise or all surprises…I hadn’t fallen over at all.

Once again the terror is taking

There is something mystical about mountains that has lured dreamers, artists, poets, adventurers and also the completely overwhelmed who are both physically and emotional stonkered. They are either a challenge to be conquered or the barrier blocking the road to our dreams and even our bare neccesities often enough.

When asked why climb Mt Everest, English mountaineer George Mallory was an  who took part in the first three British expeditions to Mount Everest in the early 1920s, famously said: “Because it is there.”

My personal battle with mountains is a bit more complicated. Ever since I was diagnosed with this auto-immune disease which attacks my muscles, I’ve had this weird new desire to climb a mountain. Not so much because it is there but because this disease has put a a road block up around the mountain and stuck up a nasty, forboding sign:  “Strictly No Entry, Rowena!!”

Of course, that kind of rudeness only makes me more determined.

At the same time, my disability is what it is. Not everybody can, or even wants to climb up Everest and when I came up with an alternative plan to ski down the mountain instead, I was stoked. While all these others survivors had climbed up mountains, I hadn’t heard of anyone else skiing down the mountain instead. This was my very own, personal challenge and last year I pulled it off.

However, rather than this success being the beginning of a whole new positive chapter and being able to finish a motivational book which

For three years now, I have been doing battle with the m

Skiing Like A Banana

Just to recap, I am skiing down at Perisher with my husband and two kids. While the rest of the family are good skiers, I have a muscle wasting disease which also affects my lungs as well as a neurological condition. I have joined the Disabled Winter Sports’ Association (DWA) and am having daily lessons with a private ski instructor who has adaptive ski training credentials. Last year, I managed to ski down Perisher’s Front Valley and after subsequently being severely ill, I am trying to ski down the mountain again…turn my mountain around. This is my personal challenge and it’s definitely not a piece of cake!

Welcome to Day 3.

I was seriously intending to tackle the mountain today but I was feeling quite unsteady on my feet and giddy getting my ski boots on. I was also a bit short of breath. Decided to play it safe and spend another day on the magic carpet…the beginners run. Don’t want weird medical stuff happening out there on the mountain. No nasty surprises.

At the same time, this being day 3 and I was still on the magic carpet, I was starting to wonder. Was I playing it too safe? Why couldn’t I just catapult myself out there and do it? I knew I could do it so what was holding me back?

In retrospect, timing is everything. The time has to be right and like an egg about to hatch, the chick inside has to be ready to come out. A yolk is never going to survive. It’s way too early and it has to wait.

Of course, this kind of thinking goes quite against the grain in our modern fast-paced automatic world. Everything has to be instant…immediate. When there isn’t the time for things to ripen naturally, we blast it with chemical sprays or other accelerants and make it happen now…ready or not.

I can’t operate like that. I have to take it slow…inch by painstaking inch. Being slow, isn’t something that wins you many medals. At least not upfront but the rewards are there in the long run. You are still standing to collect your medal at the end of the race. Just ask Winter Olympic Gold Medal Skater, David Bradbury.

I christened myself the “Queen of the Carpet” half in pride, as a bit of a joke but there was also an undercurrent of sadness. I wanted to be a real skier and get out there on the big slopes. Get out of the nest. Surrounded by kids and parents wielding cameras, iphones, ipads and anything they could to capture their little darlings for eternity, I had clearly outgrown the nest.

At the same time, I was working hard on my techniques and was developing the skills that would get me down the mountain upright on two skis feeling positive about the experience instead of being scared out of my wits and or crashing all the way downhill and vowing never to ski again. For me, having that positive experience is way more important than collecting notches on my ski pole.

However, although I was merely going up and down the beginner’s carpet, I was focusing on improving my techniques and was really improving. It was a definite case of slow and steady wins the race but I was still in the nest and to win the race, you have to compete.

I don’t know what most skiers aim to achieve at the snow. Whether it’s a matter of actually learning how to ski and understanding what’s involved and working on your technique or whether they just want to get down the mountain anyway they can… as long as it’s not in a box.

It probably depends on how long you’re staying and whether you’ve caught “the bug”. We go down for 5 day blocks and find that really enables us to not only pick up where we left off last year but also to extend ourselves. Skiing is a dangerous sport and even if you’re being cautious, you can still get mowed down by someone else and pay the ultimate price.

This more cautious approach is quite different from skiing down a run and ticking it off your list. Our son told us that one of the boys in ski school had gone down an advanced black run and he was very impressed. However, when we quizzed him further, it turned out that the boy fell down the whole way and that didn’t count.

So here I was on Day 3 back on the magic carpet yet again but this time with my new instructor, Mark.

After living and breathing through my big toe yesterday, today Mark was teaching me to ski like a banana. Of course, I didn’t have to dress up like B1 or B2 from Bananas in Pyjamas. All I had to do was lean over my downhill ski like a banana.

I’m not too proud to admit that I found all this banana talk very helpful. It was something I could picture immediately and understand. At the same time, leaning over my downhill ski felt all wrong and back to front. After all, shouldn’t I be leaning uphill, away from the slope? Leaning downhill made no sense at all. Wouldn’t I fall over? Then again, I’ve never been good at physics.

In addition to learning to ski like a banana, Mark introduced me to the Eiffel Tower, this time as a how NOT to ski. This is where you ski with your legs wide apart and you’re body is in an A-frame, like the Eiffel Tower. Instead, I needed to ski with my legs together keeping my skis parallel.

There was motive in all this Eiffel Tower and banana talk. The plan was to improve my turning so I could use turning to stop and slow down instead of relying on snowploughing, which is really tough on your legs. Considering that my legs experience noticeable muscle weakness, I particularly need to be strategic and take advantage of any strategies I can to save my strength. That’s not simply being lazy but strategic. However, skiing without snowplowing felt like riding a bike down a steep hill without brakes…unnerving if not outright terrifying. However, my skiing had improved and it was time to leave the brakes behind and move on…onward and upward!

At the same time, leaving snowploughing behind felt really strange because it’s really hammered into you as a rank beginner. Like many other skills, you often have to unlearn what you know to progress to the next level…as strange as that might feel at the time.

We all have to graduate and leave the nest.

Indeed, that was the next thing on the agenda. How was I going to get down the mountain? Instead of skiing down Front Valley like I did last year which is fairly steep and very scary, the new plan was for me to try Happy Valley. I’d never been down there but at least the name sounded right. The plan was for me to get towed across to the Quad Chair. Get off at Mid-Station and ski down Happy Valley and then take the Happy Valley T-Bar back up to Mid-Station and then for me to somehow get my skis back down without me while I take the Quad Chair back down as a foot passenger.

The usual thing is to ski down Happy Valley and take the Happy Valley T-Bar up and then to ski down Front Valley. This was too much for me in one hit and so we needed to cut a few corners. However, as you can see, there’s a small hitch to the plan…

How do my skis get back down without me?

Hmm, interesting challenges ahead.

That night, the family went out for dinner and I asked Geoff and the kids for their advice. We had quite a long family discussion about how I should proceed. As much as I had outgrown the beginner’s magic carpet, it was quite awkward to get me to the next level…to take on mountains other than Front Valley.

Decided to have a chat with them at the booking desk tomorrow to see what they recommend. Despite all my procrastination, I really am needing to leave the nest and venture onto some “grown-up” slopes.

Moving onward and upward…I hope!

Beware of the Big Ski Toe!

“…the wind began to moan and groan:

away off in the distance she seemed to hear

a voice crying –

“Who’s got my hairy toe?

Who’s got my hairy toe”

So there I was out on the magic carpet on Day 2. Initially, we were going to ski across to the quad chair and head over to Happy Valley. However, my lesson was at 3.00 and so I’d done an hour of practice that morning and my legs were tired and almost out of action. That meant that we stayed on the carpet to improve my technique instead.

While this might seem less challenging than taking on the mountain, it was hard work. We were almost moving in slow motion to improve my technique and my muscles were working hard. Ursina addressed this directly. By working on my technique and how I positioned my weight and my body, the aim was to ski more efficiently. In particular, the plan was to snowplough less and to use my turns to slow me down which put much less pressure on my legs. Of course, I felt quite awkward trying to get my body and my brain to work together when they were both feeling equally awkward and jerky. I really had to switch my brain into high gear and it was jolting in protest all the way.

Not unsurprisingly, I’ve never been an athlete and aside from my violin lessons (yes, playing the violin is physical as much as musical), I haven’t given much thought to which body part you stick where to maximise performance. I’m not that into physics or how things work either. I just like to press a button and everything goes! It just goes!!

While I had been a bit apprehensive about having a different instructor, the lesson went really well and I was comfortable straight away. Indeed, I had 3 different instructors during the week and this turned out really well. They were all adaptive ski instructors, which means they are specially trained to teach people with disabilities and serious illness. Yet, what I found particularly beneficial was that each of my instructors had their own perspective or box of tricks and this really helped to consolidate my technique and I improved so much. Of course, it was also very beneficial to have private lessons so we could work intimately on my technique one-on-one. This meant that we were focusing on exactly what I needed to change to improve. That’s the benefit of having a private lesson and thanks to the special rates for DWA members, the lessons were half price. I also found that while each instructor had their own approach, they briefed each other really well so my lessons fitted seamlessly together, building up my performance brick by brick. I was really impressed at how it all came together and so was Tom when he came back. I wasn’t an expert but I was in the flow.

Confession time. I'm heading up for a hot chocolate not to ski.

Confession time. I’m heading up for a hot chocolate not to ski.

Getting back to my big toe, when was the last time you seriously thought about what your big toe was doing? I mean, don’t you just shove a sock on it and hide it in a shoe?!! Okay, so I admit that I occasionally cut my toe nails and might scream and hop about when I drop something bang right on top of it but otherwise my big toe is the very much neglected thing at the end of my foot.

That all changed in this ski lesson where I had to focus all my energy on putting my weight on my big toe.

Well, I’m sure my lesson involved more than my big toe but that was the focus. I know she explained the theory at the time but now that I’m back home in front of my lap top, the explanations aren’t coming back to me. That’s probably because I filed it somewhere under “physics” and I’m much better with things filed under “p” for “photography” and “poetry” instead. There’s actually a lot of physics involved in skiing. However, I’ll cheat and consult my in-house physics expert. I promise to keep the physics lesson short and sweet. That way neither of us will turn into geeks.

Actually, Geoff was otherwise occupied watching the last lap of his car race so I resorted to Google.

Just as well I did Google those big ski toes. Turns out that you only put your weight on your big toe to turn. If I hadn’t checked that out, you could have been skiing turning round and round in eternal circles getting dizzy. Obviously, I am not a certified or otherwise ski instructor. I’m still an awkward, fumbling beginner. Now, I remember that I had to straighten myself up in between turns and have my skis parallel. I think that’s how it went. As I said, physics isn’t my thing and I have a memory like a goldfish but I still remember that verse from primary school:

“Who’s got my hairy toe?

Who’s got my hairy toe”

For some strange reason, every time my instructor mentioned my big toe, I heard those words echo in my head.

No doubt you’ve heard this poem/story at school or beside camp fire. As much as this haunting verse used to scare the begeebies out of me, I absolutely loved it…especially the ending where the narrator shouts out: “You’ve got it!!!” and you totally leap out of your skin and then laugh your head off. For some strange reason, there’s something about scary stories that makes kids laugh. Weird!

Anyway, enough of big toes, hairy toes and scary monsters.

I still had to get myself off the magic carpet and down a mountain.That’s been my challenge all along.

Not only getting back up that big, bad scary mountain but also skiing all the way down.

The Australian Alps

The Australian Alps

That’s right. Turning my mountain around for a second time. I was getting close. So very close and yet…

My goodness!

I could feel one hell of a headache coming on!!

The ski journey continues…

xx Rowena

Dipping My Toe in the Snow.

Wow! After more than seven long hours of driving and spending our first night in Jindabyne, we arrived bright and early in Perisher, otherwise known as “the snow”.

As I looked around soaking it up, I felt like I’d landed in a huge tub of cheap, whiter-than-white, vanilla ice cream. You know the stuff that’s pure white and not one of the better, creamy vanilla ice creams. The snow was deliciously thick and the skiers out on the slopes looked like those miniature figures you stick on top of birthday cakes. All we were missing was the candles, a match and Happy Birthday!

The weather wasn’t the best on our first morning. It had rained a lot the day before and the mountain was shrouded in mist. You couldn’t even see mid-station, let alone the summit. Visibility is a good thing when you’re skiing. By midday, the mist had lifted clearing the way for azure blue skies, which we enjoyed for the rest of the week. It was serious beach weather and all that was missing was the water. However, despite the balmy sunshine, it was still only 6-8°C out there and definitely NOT bikini weather…even for our daughter!!

Sun shining through the Snow Gums, Perisher.

Sun shining through the Snow Gums, Perisher.

While our kids went straight to ski school and my husband headed out to the slopes as soon as he could get the rest of us organised, I’d booked an adaptive ski lesson at 11.30 and had a bit of a wait. I am a member of the Disabled Winter Sports’ Association and I receive lift tickets and ski instruction half-price. We also received some much appreciated financial assistance under the Flexi-Rest program.

My instructor helping me on the Magic Carpet last year. I didn't need that hand this year. Could get up the carpet myself.

My instructor helping me on the Magic Carpet last year. I didn’t need that hand this year. Could get up the carpet myself.

I was stoked to book a lesson in with Tom, my ski instructor from last year. Tom is a specially-trained, adaptive ski instructor. He’s mean on two skis but I’ve heard that he’s also a legend in a sit chair. While it’s an achievement to be able to ski at this level, it is such an inspiration to see someone use their physical strength and expertise for good and to help people who are experiencing a few extra challenges, achieve their dream of skiing. This not only takes exceptional skiing ability but also a detailed understanding of the subtleties of so many different disabilities, treating people with respect and knowing when and how to encourage while bearing real and potentially risky limitations in mind. I was going to say that this is a gift, a talent but it’s no doubt taken a lot of hard work, a good set of listening ears and a real passion and empathy for helping people with disabilities to reach their potential.

I can’t tell you what this has meant to me and our family. It really is a terrible thing when you can’t go on a family holiday and do things together. That one member of the family is shut out and excluded when with a bit of patient, qualified assistance, they could be taking part. While I always appreciate a bit of “me-time” and having a break, it’s quite something else to be shut out of family activities. Through Tom’s help, the bird was set free from her cage and truly able to soar!!

Last year, Tom actually skied backwards down the mountain for me. That’s right. Tom skied backwards down the mountain so I could ski forwards feeling safe yet encouraged. This was much the same way as you see a parent encourage their toddler to walk beyond their first few tentative steps. How many people can say that anyone’s done that for them? Not many, I’m sure!! But Tom did that for me. Being a ski instructor, skiing backwards down a mountain wasn’t a big deal for him but it made a huge difference to a completely freaked out, panic-stricken me. There I was gobsmacked, perched on the very edge of the world holding my breath as I looked down, down, down. Perisher Village had shrunk into nothing more than a handful of dots. It was such a long, long way down and I was held in the very grip of fear. Indeed, I was frozen to the spot until I fell over. As much as I wanted a skidoo to come to my rescue, Tom went backwards down the steepest part at the top of the mountain holding my hands to encourage me down. I’m surprised that he wasn’t needing to dangle chocolate in front of me to lure me down, I was that frightened. At the same time, I desperately wanted to pull off this challenge. It had been in the pipeline for an entire year and I wanted to ski down this blasted mountain and turn my personal mountain around. I wanted to ring that victory bell!!!!

So having reached the bottom of the mountain, you can understand why Tom is my hero and has earned my respect. Oh please! I’m not some shameless, gushing cougar. No, I’m a skier! Tom and I discuss life, philosophy, writing, books and of course skiing while we’re out on the slopes. You do get to have a bit of a chat while you’re on the magic carpet. It takes awhile to crank you up even a small slope.

So there I was (along with Geoff who wanted to see how I went) a year later meeting Tom for my lesson on day 1. It was great to catch up but at the same time, I was apprehensive. How was I going to go after getting through pneumonia, a flare up of my auto-immune disease (which attacks and destroys my muscles by the way) and chemo? This savage trifecta might have knocked me down and tried its best to wipe me out but I’d got up again. Not just on my own strength but because effective treatment is available and also through the power of prayer. God wasn’t sleeping on the job either.

When it came to getting back onto the snow again, that’s where having a qualified instructor really made a difference. Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t have known quite how to get myself back onto the snow. However, Tom had me moving my legs back and forwards to get used to gliding and we did a few other bits and pieces and my ski legs almost came straight back to me. I was pleasantly surprised and somewhat amazed.

In no time at all, I was back up on the magic carpet and we were both seriously impressed. I had pretty much picked up where I’d left off last time. I was fairly smooth aside from some serious jolts and wobbles getting on the magic carpet. We did some snowploughs, turns and once again he drew the `S’ in the snow with his pole to illustrate turning. It all went so well…almost uneventful, which was pretty hard to believe after everything I’d been through. Last year, Tom even had to remind me to breathe on my first couple of days. Talk about progress!

It turned out that Tom was going to be away for a few days and so I’d be having some different instructors. I was initially very wary because Tom knew me so well and I hate having to explain my issues over and over again. Tom had also been quite literally my tower of strength last year. I am quite tall and when I fall over, it can be quite difficult for me to get myself up again even on land let alone on slippery skis in the snow. I knew Tom could do that. It really helps when you know someone knows you in this way and can help you.

Yet, while Tom and I are great mates, it was good for me to go with the other instructors because they each brought something new or emphasized a different element and so I developed quite a lot of depth to my skiing. It also meant that I came to rely more on my own strength and appreciate that it was me and not just Tom that was bringing about my success. I was practicing for an hour every day in addition to my lesson so I’d made quite a commitment to improving my skiing and was working as hard as I could. While practice might make perfect and it is tempting to try to get value for your ski pass, I do have a “smaller engine” and I really had to pace myself to get through the day. Two hours of skiing for me was my limit.

Close up a snow gum. They are so tenacious, enduring often extreme conditions yet so beautiful.

Close up a snow gum. They are so tenacious, enduring often extreme conditions yet so beautiful.

While my first day of skiing went exceptionally well, I hit an unexpected snag. Someone took my skis. Everyone stacks their skis on the racks provided and given that it’s mostly hired gear, you can understand people getting their skis mixed up. However, I had been using Geoff’s own poles and these were clearly labelled in not one but three places. At first, we spotted a pair of similar skis near where I’d left mine and thought there had been a mix up. Night skiing was on so people were still hanging around at the end of the day waiting to go out again so there were still quite a lot of skis out there. Soon those skis had been claimed and things were looking bad. Geoff rang through to the ski hire company and fortunately, someone had dropped my skis back to a ski hire place in Jindabyne. It turned out their skis were a different colour to mine on a different rack so you’ve really got to wonder what they were thinking. There I was with all sorts of memory issues from chemo brain yet someone else mixed their skis up and took mine!! You could say it takes brains.

That night, Geoff logged in and check out our ski stats. While my altitude metres were pretty woeful and that included my trip up to mid station as a walker to get my hot chocolate, I did actually score the most lift rides for the day. That’s the advantage of taking the magic carpet. It’s short and sweet.

The easy way to get down the mountain.

The easy way to get down the mountain.

As pleased as I was with my progress, the mountain was still looming ahead. How would I work up the courage to get down the mountain again?

I still didn’t know.

Stayed tuned for further installments!

xx Rowena