Skiing with retinitis pigmentosa: Learn how this Paralympic alpine skiing duo succeeds on the hill
December 13, 2017
Visually impaired Paralympic skier Kevin Burton and Paralympic ski guide Brandon Ashby aren't joking when they say they met on a blind date. The two had never met before when they were paired up for a day of skiing on an Austrian glacier.
"You have to take three gondolas up until you hit snow," Burton said. "We get to the top and we're just socked in. Clouds."
Ashby said it was the worst visibility conditions he'd seen.
"I can maybe see 10 feet in front of us, and being on a glacier early season, there's no ropes or anything like that," Ashby said. "You can easily ski out of bounds and end up in a crevasse. Kevin's like, 'Don't worry about it, if you disappear I'll stop and go the other direction.'"
Needless to say, the two weren't doing any ski racing that day, but it helped break the ice between them and build the trust necessary to compete as a team.
That's crucial because Burton hopes to compete at the Paralympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, this winter, and without a good guide, he's helpless on the hill.
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He has retinitis pigmentosa, which leaves him with severe tunnel vision.
"I couldn't ski without a guide," Burton said recently on a ride up the lift at Deer Valley Resort. "(Ashby's) completely in charge of my safety and the people around me's safety. If I was to try and ski out here today with the public out on the hill, I would run into people all the time."
To him, the terrain appears flat through the small window of vision he has. And because he has no peripheral vision, signs, trees and any other obstacles on the slopes are a serious hazard. To navigate the hill, Burton keeps his small patch of vision on Ashby's orange vest, and listens through a headset in his helmet while Ashby describes upcoming obstacles and gives technical advice as they cover the mountain's terrain.
"I've never had to talk so much in my life," Ashby said.
Burton didn't always have vision problems. He started to realize his eyesight was contracting in 2008 when, while shopping for new glasses, an optometrist noticed scarring on his retina.
"Once he mentioned it, I started comparing my vision to other people and realized that I had significantly less than a lot of other people do."
At the time, he was a translator in the Navy. His loss of eyesight precluded him from staying in the service, but before retiring, the Navy put him through a three-month blind rehabilitation program. "They taught me how to use a mobility cane, use screen-reading software on computers; I did woodworking, cooked, grilled, and I did it all blindfolded because it's a degenerative disease and at nighttime I pretty much go totally blind," he said. "I realized it's not the end of the world. You can still do things and have fun even if you can't see. And it was through that program that I actually started skiing as well. They set me up with a blind ski camp (through Team Semper Fi), so I put on the skis and fell in love."
For several years, Burton trained with Chris Tatsuno, a Colorado-based adaptive ski coach, but early this season Tatsuno injured his Achilles tendon.
Ashby, an experienced ski racer in his own right, was contacted through friends on the U.S. team.
"I had actually just finished a coding course, and I was getting into the world of writing code and making apps," he said. "This was something that came up that was sort of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You can't really say no to that."
At the top of the ski lift at Deer Valley, the two disembarked then skied to the lip of the run, where they waited for the crowd to thin. Then, with a word into his headset, Ashby slowly pointed his skis downhill and pulled away. Burton waited until Ashby was several feet in front of him, then followed. Soon, the two were ripping down the mountain, carving wide turns across its face. Only Ashby's Day-Glo vest hinted at Burton's eyesight condition. Their pace was blistering.
The speed, Burton said, is his favorite part; it's also the base of downhill skiing — his best event.
"My technique still isn't up to par with some of the other skiers," he said. "But with downhill it's more (about) how fast you are willing to let yourself go. I love going fast; we do alright in it."
They go the fastest when their communication is flawless.
Ashby said when everything clicks, the two are "absolutely hauling."
Sometimes they don't have time to explain themselves over their headsets.
"We are kind of getting to the point where we are communicating without using words anymore," Ashby said. "There are a few kinds of grunts that I know, or I'll hear (expletive) and I'll know to slow down a little bit because Burton just had a little mistake back there."
When they are on the road, Ashby and Burton spend nearly every hour together – they room together at hotels, eat, and train together. After a long day, they review technique and tactics.
The routine can be hard, but the two have enough in common — military service, a similar sense of humor, and a love of skiing — that helps make the work enjoyable.
"You have to find somebody you get along with well or you'd be ready to kill each other after just a few days," Burton said.
So far, things are working out for them. Burton and Ashby have earned two golds and a silver medal at the North American Cup race in Canada this season and expect to pick up more medals as the season continues.
"It's the best job in the world," Burton said.