So, you fancy spending your precious elective at a ski area somewhere in the world?!
Well, there's worse places to be for a month or two for sure! For many years now, I have acted as an initial point of contact for UK medical students wishing to spend their clinical elective period at a ski area. Unfortunately, a combination of factors - increasing workload but also sadly far far too many students letting me down - has meant that I have decided to step back from active involvement in student placements. Please note that this includes responding to emails requesting contact information overseas - such emails will not be replied to - sorry! Nevertheless, I have put this page together to help those of you who fancy a spell with a ski area doctor or a ski patrol as your elective so that you can do the planning yourself.
What can I expect from this type of elective?
Hopefully a fantastic experience in great surroundings with fun people whilst enjoying yourself skiing and snowboarding! I've helped place many students over the years and not one has come back yet and said, "wish I'd never done that or gone there...". This sort of elective usually appeals to those who already love skiing and/or boarding and are looking to combine these interests with their medical studies. Generally, students either attach themselves to a ski patrol team, a doctor working at or near the ski area or a medical centre/hospital near the ski area. If you plan to spend time with a ski patrol then you will need to be able to ski to a fairly advanced standard, as the work of patrollers cannot be held up by slow student skiers. Although snowboard patrollers are less common, more and more patrols do have specific snowboard patrollers but make sure you check this early on. Increasingly, patrols are employing specific snowboard terrain park patrollers which is a pretty cool job, so you could always try and hook up with them. There are some specific potential problems on a snowboard patrol - for example it's not easy to tow a casualty sledge when you're on a snowboard. Not impossible, just not as easy as for skiers. If you telemark ski to a decent standard then you should be in luck, as this lends itself ideally to the life of a ski patroller (I'm a telemarker by the way).
For more information on the general life of a ski patroller, click here.
What you get out of an individual elective depends on what your university requires you to do and what you want to do. In my experience, students are usually guaranteed great experience of acute snow sports injury management - which is a nice mix of emergecny medicine and orthopaedics. Whatever else you see/do is often down to your initiative and enthusiasm. Some students have acted as members of the ski patrol, involved themselves with ongoing injury data collection/research or otherwise helped out at the ski area in question. Others have preferred to spend as much time as possible free skiing!
One important thing to remember though is that few ski areas now give students a straight freebie. If you want to ski for free, then you'll usually have to put a bit of work in. Fair enough really.
Where and when can I go?
This depends on the timing of your elective! The main seasons for both hemispheres are as follows:-
December to April - Northern hemisphere (USA, Canada, Europe, Scandinavia, Japan)
June/July to September - Southern Hemisphere (Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina)
If your elective falls out with these times then getting a placement at a ski area will prove pretty difficult. Many shut shop outwith the ski season, certainly in the high French Alps. There is always the Dubai snow dome though....
What can I do for a project?
Basically, whatever you want within reason!
If the resort/clinic that you're interested in operates a ski injury survey then you can help collect the information and then analyse a set period of data. You could do a questionnaire of uninjured skiers/boarders - what do they think of helmets - and then compare the responses from the two snow sports and see if there's a difference. Or look at a specific area relating to injuries - use of wrist guards, carving skis, children's injuries....the list is endless. Read the injury study page on Mike's main website for more inspiration. The commonest mistake is to try and undertake too big a project - your time is limited and you want to spend at least some time enjoying yourself so keep it simple and straightforward, otherwise you'll never get out on the snow or down to the bar yourself. Not what you want.
What about accommodation?
As with all ski resorts, finding cheap accommodation (especially for a prolonged period of time) can be tricky. Few ski centres will provide accommodation for you, although most will be able to help find you something or at least point you in the right direction. If you are attached to a specific doctor, you may be lucky and they'll offer to put you up (usually at a bargain rate, but don't rely on it). Remember that many of my colleagues have students all season and simply cannot offer accommodation to them all. If you are planning for your boyfriend or girlfriend to come out and visit you then consider this in your search for accommodation and don't just expect that they'll be able to stay in your room. I've seen this cause no end of bother on a couple of occasions and it's only courtesy not to take your hosts for granted. Past seasonaires are a good source of info on cheap beds in a resort and the Dark Snow snowboard forum is a great place to see if you can get some advice...skiers, just pretend you're boarders!
Finally, a good old student trick I've used myself is simply to turn up with nowhere booked, head to a bar, get blethering to a few locals and someone somewhere will eventually come up with the goods! One place where this might not work so well though and it is ESSENTIAL to have accommodation fixed before heading out is Whistler Blackcomb in BC. Minus 30oC is not the weather to be out sleeping rough in, eh Cheryl ?!
Will I get a free lift pass?
Depends again on the resort and don't take it for granted that you will. Chances are if you're closely associated with the workings of the resort (ski patrol, on site medical clinic) then yes you will (or at the veryt least will not have to pay for your own uplift). But as I said, don't expect it to be a God given right. Remember ski areas are commercial operations and they cannot and will not give out free lift tickets to every Tom, Dick and Harry who pretends to be helping out! Earn it and you'll get it....and be thankful. Check with your contacts before you go and remember to take passport photos with you just in case they're needed for the pass.
How do I make contact?
Decide when and where you would like to go. Once you've decided this, then you can usually get the contact details from Google to send a letter and/or an email. Many resorts have an "info@" email address. If its a foreign resort, use Babelfish to translate your text into the appropriate language if you need to. Ask for the "head of ski patrol" or the "chef du piste". Remember, people may be away on vacation (especially if you email out of season) or simply dead busy so allow 2-3 weeks of silence before sending a follow up letter or email. As I have already mentioned, at many resorts everything closes out of season and so there might be no one there if you send an email outside of the main ski season. In my experience, the next best thing is to contact the local tourist office (again through Google) as they often know who is about and how best to contact them.
When should I start making plans?
I really can't stress enough that the sooner the better! This kind of elective has become exceptionally popular in the last five years, to the degree that vacancies in the most sought-after resorts are often filled three or four years in advance. Remember that like ourselves in Aviemore, many clinics have pre-existing commitments to local universities and also receive many applications from local students, who don't have the hassle of visas etc to sort out that you might face. So, in general, as soon as you think this might be for you, start making enquiries. Although last minute slots do occur, they are generally rarer than condoms in a power cut.
I am always keen to hear from students who have managed to organise successful electives. Perhaps you would be willing to share your experiences here so that other students can benefit as well. Please send me an email using the contact page.