Words by Sam Haddad
A grey inner city housing estate is about as far removed as you can get from the white winter wonderland that is an Alpine ski resort. Growing up in the former, you would have no reason to expect the latter to ever be something you got to experience.
Skiing is expensive, more than ever these days, with even double-income middle class families struggling to take their kids away to the mountains, let alone less financially-fortunate parents. But one charity wants to change that.
Snow-Camp believes that a ski or snowboard trip can have a uniquely transformative effect on a young person’s life, especially someone who has grown up in a deprived urban area, while teaching them essential life skills at the same time.
"The mountains have always been a rejuvenating and inspiring environment. I felt the kids we were working with, in these very oppressive inner city estates in London, would be the most able to benefit from sharing that environment…"
I ask Dan Charlish, Snow-Camp’s co-founder and director how the charity started. He says: “It came about in 2003. I’d done a season and had a few friends in the snowsports world and I was doing a lot of youth work with kids in Stockwell, south London."
“I wanted to bring the two together and start something that would enable some of the kids we were working with to experience snowsports but also grow as individuals through that experience."
Why was an Alpine setting so important? “The mountains have always been incredibly special for me, a really rejuvenating and inspiring environment. I felt the kids we were working with, in these very oppressive inner city estates in London, would perhaps be the most able to benefit from sharing that environment and having that shift from inner city to mountains. I thought that could be quite powerful."
But for Charlish it was also a valuable way to teach life skills. He says: “Learning to ski and snowboard provides just the right amount of challenge and requirement of perseverance, plus commitment and teamwork. Then it delivers you this amazing reward. Suddenly you’re linking your turns and thinking: ‘Wow what have I done now, how has this happened!?’"
"You’re skiing down a green run with your hands in the air whooping. Who’s done that? You’ve done that."
“And you can use that from a youth work perspective with young people. You can say: ‘Look, back at the start you wanted to stop and quit and throw your toys out the pram. But we’ve had a chat, we’ve focused, you’ve committed to doing this and now we’re here. You’re skiing down a green run with your hands in the air whooping. Who’s done that? You’ve done that.’"
“I think it’s a really nice message to be able to show the young person. If you can achieve that what else can you achieve in life, you can achieve whatever you want."
It does feel like a powerful message. “Yes, says Charlish, “And one that is important for inner city young people to have particularly when there is low confidence and self esteem and limited aspirations for their futures. Snowsports are a tremendously aspirational sport. A sport they never thought they’d get the chance to do. It helps them see they can aim higher."
In the early years Snow-Camp took one group of young people a year straight to the mountains and the charity was entirely staffed by volunteers working their evenings and weekends. In 2008 a lottery grant enabled them Charlish and his other co-founder to give up their jobs and they developed their offering to young people. It now starts with a two-day course in an indoor centre, building up to BASI instructor qualifications, mountain trips and placements with major snowsports companies, such as the Snow Centre, Ski World, Ellis Brigham and the Ski Club Of Great Britain.
I speak to one of this year’s apprentices, Shayleigh Kitto. How did she get involved in Snow-Camp?
“I’m from Greenwich and I used to go to the youth group XLP. One day they said to me: ‘Do you want to go to Hemel Hempstead [Snow Centre] to ski or snowboard for two days with this charity. I didn’t think much about it or that it would lead to anything. Then I went and fell in love with the sport straight away. I said to Gavin [Hanmer – Snow-Camp’s programme manager]. I want to keep going!"
"I just loved the idea of telling people I’m a skier. They’d say: ‘What? No.'"
What did she love about it? “The adrenaline of trying this new sport, of being able to ski. Where I live it’s not a big sport, you don’t hear about it, you only see it on TV. But I just loved the idea of telling people I’m a skier. They’d say: ‘What? No. How can you ski?’ They’re so intrigued."
Was it hard? “At first I thought: ‘Oh my gosh this is going to be so difficult…’ But after the first day something clicked with skiing for me.
Had she previously thought skiing was just for rich people?
“Definitely. We all think it’s a rich sport, it costs so much money to learn to ski. It isn’t something people like us get to do. At first that put me off, then I started skiing regularly at Hemel and it showed me a different side of things, how it’s not necessarily a rich sport. It’s easy to go Hemel and ski or snowboard."
Last April she got to go to the mountains for the first time, through Snow-Camp. She went to Pila in Italy. How did she feel? “Speechless. I’d never seen anything like it. Witnessing mountains for the first time, it’s not what we get to see: snow, sun and mountains, with no vehicles. It was so relaxing, it really showed me a different world. And made me want to progress so I could be in the mountains 24/7. I now want to work in the snowsports industry. I also had a great time in Liechtenstein, we skied fresh powder, it was the first time I’d experienced it. It was amazing."
I ask who her role models are. “I’ve met Snow-Camp patrons like Chemmy Alcott and Jenny Jones and they are role models but for me personally it’s people who have already been through Snow-Camp such as JonJoe Boulter. He is just 19 but is already doing his Basi Level 3 Instructor Course [with the Warren Smith Ski Academy]. My goal is to be where he is now."
"I’m now a skiing instructor and I don’t stop travelling!"
I ask if learning to ski has been a life changing experience for her? She says: “Definitely. Of my friends I’m the only one who has gone out and started working doing this massive thing. I’m now a skiing instructor and I don’t stop travelling!"
Snow-Camp originally relies heavily on donations from skiers and snowboarders. People that Charlish says: “Understand what it feels like to stand on the mountain on a blue-sky day and cruise down. They know what that means to them regardless of their social position and they’re best placed to understand why that would be particularly amazing for a young inner city person."
“Most people who are snowsports enthusiasts are outgoing and can be quite altruistic and have got a positive attitude to life. They tend to get it the best. But of course we have a range of other trusts and foundations and corporate supporters that just believe the way in which we support young people is effective, innovative and a bit different from the norm."
Snow-Camp works with young people aged 13 and over. Charlish says it works best for that age group as: “You have teenagers who are at a crossroads in their lives. Maybe they’ve got problems already, they’re not sure what they’re going to do, they could be making some mistakes already and on various lists."
"Then you can say: ‘Guys this is the point you need to make a decision to go this way. If you come with us not only do you get to do this cool stuff with snowsports, we can find you employment in the industry. That’s a more constructive way than the way you’re going."
The criteria for signing up is young people is they have to have never skied or snowboarded before, and they’ve got to have no financial means to go. Snow-Camp recruit young people through youth projects, which Charlish prefers to finding people through schools.
He says: “If you’re a young person and you’ve got money you aren’t going to be hanging around a youth project in Stockwell, even though they have great youth workers who are doing an amazing job. When young people have money they go somewhere else."
“It also helps that we can go to that project and do a presentation about Snow-Camp and bring along instructors and say: ‘Look they look like you, you could be them in one year.’"
"The strong guy falls on his face in the snow, then the little guy comes past him thinking: ‘I can’t believe it check me out’. It’s a great leveller…"
Charlish also emphasises the young people don’t need to be sporty already. He says: “That’s the beauty of snowsports again, it breaks down that sporting hierarchy. It’s always the same in the estates the best guys at football are always at the top in the gangs, they’re the most sporty and the strongest but with this none of them have done it before."
“The strong guy falls on his face in the snow, then the little guy comes past him thinking: ‘I can’t believe it check me out’. It’s a great leveller, as the big guy has to learn to laugh at himself and the little guy suddenly has his confidence through the roof. Then we talk about it in life skills afterwards."
“Some of the young people we work with might be pretty unfit, and the great thing about skiing as opposed to say football is that you can get someone who isn't that sporty on a pair of skis and they can control their speed and come down and feel like: ‘Oh my god I can’t believe I’ve actually just come down and done that.’"
I ask for a comment from Delancey, the British Ski and Snowboard team sponsors who also work with Snow-Camp as their official charity partner. They say: "Snow-Camp’s enduring enthusiasm and innovative use of snowsports and life-skill programmes continue to change the lives of more young people every day."
“To date, over 6000 children have been reached, with many now achieving university places or working within the ski industry as a direct result – which is particularly awe-inspiring given that many of those had previously felt education and employment were out of reach."
In a country without mountains, where skiing and snowboarding can seem like an out-of-reach pipe-dream for so many young people, it’s amazing to see a charity leap over those massive obstacles of finance, inequality and geographical distance to make it happen. It’s inspiring stuff, especially, as Charlish says, for those of us already fortunate enough to know how spirit-lifting and life-changing a day spent charging down on a mountain can be.