New memoir “Snow Blind” celebrates the power of skiing for the visually impaired
Johnson’s new memoir is a beautiful tribute to the uplifting joy of skiing and an inspiring tale of human resilience
On July 2, 1991, William Johnson was shot in the head during a random shooting on the streets of Atlanta, Georgia. He survived the attack, but the bullet left him permanently blind at the age of 41.
This year, three decades after that life-changing incident, Johnson has released a memoir about how he embraced his new reality, faced the many challenges that accompanied it, and regained a life full of joy and independence.
The memoir is titled “Snow Blind”, because one of the most pivotal experiences in Johnson’s life after the injury was learning how to ski without vision using guides. Just six months after losing his sight, Johnson was on the slopes in Aspen, carving powdery turns in the fresh mountain air.
“I was doing reasonably well in my personal life, getting around and adapting, but going snow skiing really proved to me that I could do darn near anything I wanted,” Johnson said. “I think it proved the same to some other people in my life, possibly including my employer. You know, here’s this guy that had this tragedy befall him, and what am I doing? I’m out skiing!”
The memoir starts with Johnson waking up on the sidewalk after the attack, and he takes the reader through a first-person experience of relearning to live in the world without vision. There are so many things to master to regain full independence as a blind person – from something as big as learning to navigate with a cane, to as small as figuring out how to tell the difference between a one dollar bill and a twenty – and Johnson gives the reader intimate insight into what it takes to acquire these skills, while maintaining a can-do attitude throughout that is deeply inspiring.
“I approached everything with a childlike eagerness to learn,” Johnson writes in the book. “I couldn’t picture my life as a blind person, good or bad, and I didn’t have a step-by-step plan for getting from where I was to where I would be. I simply had a core belief that I was OK, and I wanted to take the next step forward.”
Skiing Vail with Foresight Ski Guides
Now 71, Johnson is retired from a successful career in consulting – which he was able to return to full-time after rehabilitation – and he is still skiing every winter, primarily in Vail and Steamboat.
In the book, Johnson describes his experiences learning to navigate the mountain as a blind skier in Aspen, and how placing his full trust in the guides allowed him to attain a sense of independence and freedom to glide safely down the slopes.
“When I was learning, I needed to kind of grit my teeth and realize that the guide who was with me had done this before and knew what he or she was doing, and trust that the way we were going about it worked and that I was going to be just fine,” Johnson said. “It always did, and it still does, take an enormous amount of trust in somebody else, but it is absolutely a blast. It is so much fun, I just get a big kick out of it.”
While the skiing in the book primarily takes place in Aspen, Johnson said that Vail has become his most common ski destination of choice due to the excellent guiding services that are available here. Foresight Ski Guides is a Vail Valley organization that focuses exclusively on providing guides for blind and visually impaired skiers. It was created in 2001 by local Mark Davis, who also lost his sight in his forties as a result of a rare symptom of Multiple Sclerosis.
“He started it with just the highest concern for the safety of the skier that I’ve seen anywhere,” Johnson said. “There’s a good stable of guides that have always been very experienced, and typically go out with a shadow that can help do some blocking, so we kind of feel like we’re by ourselves when we’re skiing.”
Foresight currently has over 20 volunteer guides whose services are free to all visually impaired skiers and snowboarders. The organization will also provide lift tickets, rental gear, and discounted lodging in order to make the experience of being on the mountain as accessible as possible for all.
Christine Holmberg is the executive director of Foresight, and she said that they strive to remove as many barriers to access as they can because they have seen how transformational snow sports are for those without sight.
“It provides an outdoor activity that will get them fit, keep them fit, and give them these transformative experiences like the sense of freedom, the sense of flying that they don’t get doing other activities,” Holmberg said. “Because it can be more challenging for people with vision loss to have access to these types of exercises and recreation, we wanted to make sure that we could keep it as accessible and affordable as possible.”
Johnson has now skied Vail countless times using the Foresight guides, hitting his favorite runs such as Avanti, Ramshorn and Riva’s Ridge.
“Being out on a ski slope, it just really is freedom,” Johnson said. “The guide’s voice seems as though it’s my own voice, so the decisions I’m making – a left turn, right turn, hold the next right – just seem to be my decisions. The skill level and the experience and the sensitivity to what position the skier is in that the guides exhibit is just fantastic.”
The power to overcome
“Snow Blind” is a beautiful tribute to the uplifting joy of skiing, as well as an inspiring tale of human resilience and the power of a positive mindset. In documenting his experience, Johnson provides a framework and a perspective that will help readers to face the challenges in their own lives, and find the light that shines through in every situation.
“I wasn’t a professional writer to start this, and my expectations were to at least document this crazy escapade in my life of being blinded and recovering the life that I had,” Johnson said. “The feedback that I’ve gotten from a number of people is that it was inspiring to them, and that it helped them accept the situation that they were in and decide to tackle it. To not let life’s events get them down and conquer them, but to get out and do their part. I’m really happy that that’s the message that people get out of it.”
“Snow Blind” by William Johnson is out now and available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes and Nobles, Apple Books, and as an audiobook on Audible.
Foresight Ski Guides is a non-profit organization that provides trained guides for blind and visually impaired skiers and snowboarders. To learn more about the organization or how to become a volunteer guide, visit foresightskiguides.org.