A Cancer Survivor’s Ski Story
14th January 2023 | Catherine Bellsham-Revell
Last modified on January 19th, 2023
When Catherine Bellsham-Revell was diagnosed with cancer, she reassessed her life. It led to her donning some race gear and joining the Ladies’ Ski Club which celebrates its 100th birthday on 23rd January. This is Catherine’s story.
Skiing has always been for me a source of joy.
I first put on skis when I was six years old.
Tears immediately followed, but by the end of that first week, despite the gallic bellows of “Madame Horrible”, an ESF monster of the old school, as we failed to understand or do what she wanted, my sister and I were smitten and I cried again when the skis had to come off.
I was lucky enough to get a job as a saisonnaire in Les Deux Alpes in the early ’90s when I was 18.
Here I tried to obtain the longest possible skis (they looked better in the lift queue), skied on very limited amounts of sleep and laughed at French men on monoskis.
I didn’t learn much about my particular metier of chambermaid though, despite months of practice.
A brief foray into university ski racing followed and then I tried to ski as much as possible when demands of work allowed.
After that, with a family, the determined effort to get my stepchildren and children into skiing to provide me with a set of ready ski companions is still going well.
In June 2019, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
It’s a nasty one and the treatment is pretty invasive.
Lots of surgery was followed by six rounds of chemotherapy.
Time spent in recovery from surgery and contemplating the different outlook on life that a cancer diagnosis brings led to me spending too much time on Instagram.
I found the wonderful Dame Deborah James, who was an amazing source of positivity and hope.
I also found the story of Max Parrot, a snowboarder who had been diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma in January 2019.
He was then undergoing a six month course of chemo, but was still at times being able to snowboard in the mountains.
Well, I thought, if he can do it…….
Following Max’s example as best I could whilst being confined to South London, I headed off to Chelski.
Sadly a casualty of the pandemic, it was an urban ski centre just of the Kings Road, with rolling tilted mats, like a giant ski treadmill which allowed you to improve your technique.
The instructors were brilliant with me; some days, just after chemo, I wasn’t much good and did a lot of flopping but just before my next chemo, I was almost back to my old self.
One of the instructors at Chelski told me that Chemmy Alcott ran adults’ race training camps, specifically women only ones.
I had to say I thought this was bizarre – wasn’t that for my kids?
But it stuck in my head as I finished my treatment.
I managed to get a ski holiday in before the Covid pandemic, but then the world completely changed.
Even so, the thought of a ladies’ ski training camp was firmly embedded.
So I signed up for Chemmy’s course in November of 2021.
I’d done a bit of internet stalking on the other attendees (justified, I thought, as I was going on my own) so I’d found out that the Ladies’ Ski Club were coming en masse to the course.
I was a bit perturbed when a message on the WhatsApp group asked whether people were taking catsuits.
Oh dear, I thought, imposter syndrome kicking in. These people wear catsuits!
I don’t even know what to wear under a catsuit or how on earth you go to the loo when catsuits are involved.
Also, aren’t they freezing??
On the plus side, though, despite being fiendishly excellent skiers who I thought would laugh at me as I’d laughed at those French men on monoskis, they were extremely friendly on the WhatsApp group, offering to bring a catsuit for me.
I didn’t ask them the loo question.
Following numerous hurdles (change of country, vaccination panics) eventually I got to Geneva airport looking for other likely race camp ladies heading to Saas Fee.
I cautiously approached a group of ladies of a certain age and immediately found myself swept up by this fantastic group.
It was like being back on the school or university ski trip or the heady days of my ski season.
No arguing with offspring about sun cream or attendance at ski school.
These women ski hard and are partial to an alarming green drink in the Apres bar, but some of them are the same age as my Dad.
It was a complete revelation.
We had a brilliant few days with excellent training from our coaches (Chemmy and Lewis) in GS and slalom although the weather was a bit of a challenge; it was unbelievably bitter on that high glacier with those creaky old T-bars.
I was glad they’d decided against the catsuits so I could wear three ski jackets.
One day the Swiss Ski schools’ instructor candidates sat sheltering in the lift station drinking out of thermos flasks but we battled on through the minus 25 blizzard.
Perhaps not such a good idea in retrospect as a few of us got stuck on the T-bar in Antarctic conditions when the lift operators had given up and gone home.
Inpromptu, we had to dive into some invisible off-piste to get home.
However, frostnipped nose aside, when the ladies asked me to ski with them at the AICC races, I didn’t hesitate, despite being made aware that we would be racing on the Lauberhorn, where even the best in the world have to have an exhausted lie down at the end.
And so on to Wengen in March which, by comparison to Saas Fee, was blissfully warm.
Along with very friendly welcome drinks and vast amounts of cheese we had time for some excellent free-skiing and some training runs directly opposite the North face of the Eiger.
We also managed a couple of attempts on some gates on the top part of the Lauberhorn, finishing before the Hundschopf, which I was pleased to note would be where the race would also end. Thankfully.
And then it was time to don the catsuit and head up to Kleine Scheidegg on a trainload of racers.
Over the next couple of days we did two GS runs, one crazy team night slalom and a Super G.
The runs were open before the racing for very confusing course inspections.
Luckily my start number was high enough that there were some helpful ruts in the snow by the time I had my turn.
The Ladies’ Ski Club team were very visible in the gorgeous pink and blue catsuits.
It was an education watching the racers – some were amazing and, to my untrained eye, wouldn’t have looked out of place in the World Cup Others were doing slower, yet beautifully stylish, turns through the gates.
I was racing in the 18-45 category.
This was where most of those who wouldn’t have looked out of place in the World Cup appeared to be racing.
With a start number of 65 I went into the iconic Lauberhorn start hut amongst lots of young Swiss racers wearing what appeared to be the same kit Beat Feuz wears (albeit in a ladies’ cut) which was a slightly crazy moment.
I did have to ask Maud, who was starting us, to give the person behind me a bit more time as I was genuinely worried about being overtaken.
But the absolute pleasure of being able to go as fast as you can down the mountain (give or take a few gates) was just incredible.
The photos of the race show that. I’ve just got a great big grin on my face.
Max Parrot won a gold at the Olympics.
I was a very long way from emulating that (particularly in THAT 18-45 category).
But I’ve found a new angle to my skiing and met some absolutely wonderful women I want to ski with for many decades to come.