This time of year is when the skiing season usually hits its peak as thousands set off in search of a winter vacation.
Wherever the snowy destination may be, the mental and physical benefits of these getaways date back centuries, while the sporting stories that come from the mountains have provided powerful inspiration for generations.
The story of Michael ‘Eddie the Eagle’ Edwards is a perfect example – a man who defied convention, mockery, and, when soaring through the air at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, some might say physics.
Although the Gloucestershire-born ski jumper never made it to another Olympic Games, his famous tale has left a legacy in not just winter sports but also lessons on how to break boundaries and bounce back from setbacks.
Nearly two decades later, keen skier Catherine Cosby set off on her own path in parallel to Eddie’s story – not by reaching the Olympics, but proving that anyone can ski through starting the Ski 2 Freedom Foundation.
The initiative has since enhanced the lives of more than 7,000 people across all ages and abilities by allowing them to experience winter sports and activities, and has supported several people on the autism spectrum.
Its continued success has led to the recent birth of Mountains 4 All, a non-profit Switzerland-based hub that Catherine operates to meet the dreams and aspirations of Ski 2 Freedom’s beneficiaries and anyone wanting access to year-round mountain experiences.
“Ski 2 Freedom is a shop window, as much as a charity, for anything that is magical about the winter,” Catherine explained. “It’s creating a far better environment for people to visit, which will be much more empowering to that individual when they leave.
“It’s important to get to know the family and understand what they want out of it, and to get the right place at the beginning to build familiarity and trust with the instructor.
“I had families reach out last winter who first came on board when I started back in 2007, so it was nice to follow their stories and seeing the progress these kids have made is incredible.
“Very often, I’ll drive over the mountains to a ski resort and meet up with a family, sometimes ski with them or have a coffee or lunch, and that’s a heartfelt moment.
“The instructors feel that personal connection too; everyone is part of the family.”
It is personal experience that inspired Catherine on her journey with Ski 2 Freedom. Her daughter Alexandra was diagnosed with Rett Syndrome in November 1986 and, at the time, was one of around just 200 known cases in the world.
Catherine always loved the mountains and knew of their potential, so after conversing with a French ski school about its adaptive equipment on a family skiing trip, a world-changing idea was planted in her mind.
“I’ve had so many amazing families, individuals, and groups, and I’ve never stopped learning from them. Learning from one family has helped me help another, so the ripple effect is phenomenal.
“My daughter’s legacy, her purpose, has been this extraordinary wave of something that has swept globally – Antarctica is the only continent I haven’t helped in.
“It’s also getting the message across that we have some really good places in the UK, so even that [winter sports] could be a weekly activity.
“Autism has such a wide spectrum and range of abilities, and we talk about skiing, but snowboarding can work really well for them if there is any kind of dyspraxia. Cross-country skiing is brilliant for those who don’t want to be crowded by people.
“We are launching tender loving care packages so we can get funds and donations that go towards giving a family a contribution to the cost of ski instruction, or to an experience like a sleigh ride or going to the Top of Europe, or time out for the parent.”
After all, since moving from England to Switzerland, Catherine knows the types of activities the mountains can offer more than anyone.
Across Ski 2 Freedom there are over 50 different activities that people can try, from traditional winter sports and cultural activities to canoeing, fishing, hot air ballooning, yoga, and ziplining.
“Sometimes there is this connotation that sport has got to be aggressive and competitive, but actually, sport takes in everything – it’s what people enjoy.
“There is no doubt that exercise is important for our wellbeing – growing people’s self-confidence and giving them the opportunity to have a healthy mind and body, and interact with people and savour new experiences – and Spautism is such an amazing concept.
“We are all part of society, we are all individuals, and autistic people have a different creativity, an alternative way of looking at life, and dealing with the challenges it presents.
“It’s working to open up people’s eyes to the fact that if we get rid of the word ‘disability’ and really concentrate on the individual, we can do so much more and that’s where Mountains 4 All came in.
“Some may be born with a smooth path ahead of them, but for most of us, it’s learning how to go around obstacles. Those who do that or learn to empower themselves with an outside experience will end up having a far more fulfilling journey than those who go up the smooth path.”
These days, Catherine is never truly fulfilled until she gets positive feedback from a family, which drives her to make sure there is something for everyone who gets in touch.
“Spending a few hours in the mountains is as special as anything. It’s that feeling of the space, fresh air, and the natural elements of the mountains that we all need. I’ve had families who never had any intention of skiing but wanted a Winter Wonderland experience.
“There are a lot of young people who might be interested in dinosaurs, art, trains, or music, and there is an enormous number of destinations in the mountains that can align with these other experiences. There’s so much you can do in the mountains to empower somebody with autism.
“It broadens horizons because you see far more [on the mountains], so opportunities might suddenly come by that would never have been thought about, whether they love it and want to come back to help out on a farm, or agriculture, it goes on.
“There is a gentler way of life and a community spirit and people are helping each other without making an issue of it.
“It’s sheer magic.”