Skiing for light | SierraSun.com

Skiing for light

Emma Garrard
Sierra Sun

Emma Garrard/Sierra SunThis photo illustration simulates impaired vision due to Glaucoma.

At first, the concept of cross-country skiing blind didn’t seem too bad. Having skied so many times at Tahoe Donner Cross Country I felt like I could ski the trails with my eyes closed.

Little did I know.

As part of the guide training for Sierra Regional Ski For Light, I was blindfolded to have a better understanding of the perspective of the blind or visually impaired skiers I would later be assisting. I was excited for the challenge.

I had two guides, Carol Herrington and Wend Schaefer. Herrington is an experienced ski guide and Schaefer is in training. After Schaefer braved the blindfolds it was my turn.

I willingly put on the blindfold and felt around on the snow for my skis. My guides started by telling me to feel the entire ski so I knew what it was like, describing the tip and tail and the “kick zone” on the center of the ski used to get the skier up the hill. As I stood by my skis, my two guides told me where they were and I reached down and found my bindings using my sense of touch. I accomplished the first task fairly quickly and Wend told me to turn my skis “star right.”

The next step was getting my skis in the tracks. They didn’t slip in right away as anticipated. My guides told me when my skis were parallel to the track, which made it easier to get in.

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At first I was hesitant to stride, timidly using my poles like a guide stick by feeling the snow in front of me, rather than using them for power. My poles also served an unintended purpose: to slow and stop myself. All of a sudden the familiar was foreign and I had no idea what the trail I knew so well looked like ” certain there must be a tree directly in front of me. I couldn’t help but constantly ask questions like “Is it straight for a while?”

Embarrassingly it took me a few seconds to know which way was right or left and then to react. Would I be given a command and panic, or not be able to react in time? Guides have a command called “Sit” ” used as a last resort for safety ” directing the skier to drop to the snow. I was listening for those words, which surprisingly, I never did hear.

My guides constantly talked to me, skiing just a few feet behind (or so I assumed), which was comforting. I started to relax a little when they told me how long the track would last.

Not being able to see I paid more attention to the sounds of my skis gliding, poles planting, my constant breathing and the voice of my guides.

Once I realized my life was in the hands of my guides I just had to submit to them. After a bit, I eased up and tried to glide a little more, especially when I was in the tracks. In the words of partially sighted skier and SRSFl skier coordinator Betsy Rowell: “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when I found (ski) tracks. They give more of a guidance.”

Finally I felt as though I had found my groove when my guides told me to shorten my stride to get up a gradual hill. Soon I could hear other skiers around me.

“Hold on, there is a skier going by,” Herrington said. “That woman won the Great Race twice.”

I could only imagine I might recognize her on another day.

“There’s a couple of kids coming up in the tracks,” Herrington said. Having no idea where they were, I accidentally clipped one of their skis. I said “Sorry,” and kept on skiing, not knowing if the child had fallen down and if I were at fault.

“The trail is turning at 9 o’clock,” Herrigton said. She always used the ‘clock system.’

My next challenge was trying to get down the hill. I was instructed to change tracks in order to ski in a half-snowplow, putting one ski in the track and the other at a right angle. The hill was steep at first and then gradually flattened out. At times I had a strange sensation of not knowing in what direction I was heading.

Soon I was striding back to the lodge amid words of encouragement from my guides. I had completed my first trail as a blind skier on “Cup of Tea,” the easiest trail at Tahoe Donner Cross Country.

Thank goodness I am an experienced skier and did not have to learn the basics of how to ski.

Cross-country skiing is usually something I do in silence, or in recent years listening to an Ipod. Sure, I do ski with friends and we talk, but not out of necessity. Blind skiers rely on the commands of their guides to ski. When they are learning, their guides are constantly talking them through the process.

At first it is hard to imagine what it would be like not seeing the glistening snow between the trees, or looking up to see our dazzling bluebird skies. I have always enjoyed the feeling of skiing and skiing blind made me appreciate the sensations more: how the snow felt and how the gliding skis sounded. When some of the blind skiers explained to me why they like skiing, they cited the same reasons as do most sighted skiers, and some even more:

“You can get out away from everyone and get some good exercise,” skier Margie Donovan said. Donovan has been blind since birth. “(Skiing feels) fresh, warm, invigorating, smooth. I like the feel of the skis just gliding down the track. I think it’s really cool when you are coming in and out of trees. I can really feel the trees.”

For other blind skiers, cross country skiing is about the companionship that develops on the trails.

“The camaraderie and friendship of the guide and skier,” were reasons to enjoy skiing given by Jeff Thom, who also has been blind since birth. “The freedom that it gives you … you can do it essentially in the same way (as sighted skiers).”

During the last 15 years some blind skiers have gotten so good their guides can’t keep up with them.

“We’ve got skiers skiing on black diamonds,” coordinator Rowell said. “We’ve had guides come back saying ‘I can’t keep up with my skier.'”

The concept of guiding blind skiers was started around 1955 by Erling Strodahl, a blind skier in Norway, and companion/ guide Olav Pederson. Pederson later moved to the U.S. and started Ski for Light in 1975. There are now more than 10 regional programs in the U.S. and Canada, including Sierra Regional Ski for Light, which was established 15 years ago. Last year 250 guides, volunteers, and blind and visually impaired skiers participated in Sierra Regional Ski For Light.

– There are more than 10 million blind and visually impaired in the U.S.

– Each year more than 30,000 blind and visually impaired youth are left on the sidelines of their schools’ physical education classes.

–More than 1,000 blind and visually impaired skiers from all over the world participate in Ridderenn (Knight’s race), an annual week-long ski event held in March in Beitostoelen, Norway. Skiers even compete in biathlon, but use laser guns instead of rifles.

Successful blind and visually impaired athletes

– Legally blind runner Marla Runyan qualified for the 2000 Olympic Team in the 1,500 meter race event and competed the finals. She has also finished as the top American in the Boston and New York marathons.

– In 2001 Erik Weihemayer was the first blind climber to summit Mt. Everest. He is also an acrobatic sky diver, marathon runner and cyclist.

The 15th annual Sierra Regional Ski For Light three-day event will be held in Truckee March 10 through 12, 2007. For more information on SRSFL, go to http://www.srsfl.org or contact Vicki Post at (415) 928-2711.