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Making it downhill without seeing

Veronica Whitney/Daily Staff Writer
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Amanda Aswell skis down Dealer’s Choice in Vail in nice, controlled parallel turns, still fast enough to keep up with most experienced skiers. She also chews gum as if to say, “I can do more. I’m confident. This is a piece of cake.”

And then Aswell skis faster than Drew Aswell, her 23-year-old husband, a soldier who just came back from Iraq.

Though Amanda Aswell, 23, of is blind, skiing down a blue run looks easy for her.

“A lot of it is feeling it under your feet,” Aswell says modestly when she gets to the bottom of Game Creek Bowl. “Knowing that Mark is behind also makes me feel really safe.”

The man who makes Aswell’s skiing possible today is Mark Matso, a blind skier guide for Foresight Ski Guides. Matso, 57, of Littleton, has been guiding visually impaired and blind people for the past 23 years.

“When you’re guiding a blind person, the most important thing is to be precise and be in constant communication,” Matso says. “It’s not rocket science.”

But the reality that there are people who can see and still hit trees and other people on the slopes makes the details of Aswell’s skiing sure seem like rocket science.

Getting down the hill

Skiing for the blind or the visually impaired people is a different experience on the mountain, Matso says.

“The key for us to be successful is being able to communicate,” he explains. “We ski close and we talk loud! It’s harder on colder days, when you can barely move your lips. Then you have to bring yourself to do it.”

What strikes you when skiing with Amanda is that she seems to be safer than most skiers. Not only that, the skiers around her seem to be just as safe.

That’s because Aswell’s skiing happens under the full supervision of an experienced blind skier guide, says Mark Davis, president and founder of Foresight Ski Guides.

“Everything is based on responsibility and trust,” says Davis, who has multiple sclerosis and has lost most of his sight.

Matso and Aswell are wearing bright orange vests. Matso’s reads “Blind skier guide” and Aswell’s, “Blind skier.” As soon as they get off the chair, Matso guides Amanda with his pole toward the catwalk.

“We’re heading into a catwalk,” he tells her, while she holds tight to his pole. “Now slow down a little bit with a wedge. It’s getting steeper.”

Soon, the couple is on top of Dealer’s Choice, a blue run.

“The snow is good, though there have been quite a few skiers on this run today,” Matso tells Amanda. “There’s almost no one on the trail now, though. So I want you to make your first turn left and hold and then turn right and then left again.”

With a wide smile, still chewing her gum, Aswell plunges into what she calls one of the moments she feels “the most free.”

This blind skier is skiing by herself, with Matso just telling her as in a lullaby, “Now left, now right, now left and hold … now right.”

As Aswell and Matso pass her, a skier redirects her camera from her posing husband to Aswell and snaps a shot.

Getting up the hill

Aswell was 9 years old and living in Colorado Springs when she had an allergic reaction called Stevens-Johnson syndrome and lost her sight. She had never skied before. She started skiing when she was 10 at Vail and Beaver Creek.

“I was a kid, and kids don’t get scared,” says Aswell. “You have to have a really good guide.”

After she became blind, she kept doing the things she loved. She even took on more difficult stuff.

“I do everything I did before but differently,” she says.

For Matso, being a blind skier guide gives him the fulfillment of allowing someone to ski on their own.

“Skiing is one of the few sports that blind or visually impaired people can feel freedom doing it,” he says. “They can ski on their own without being touched.”

These days Aswell, who the guides call “modest,” can ski Riva, The Slot and Avanti, all black and blue runs in Vail.

“I can ski most nicely groomed blues and some blacks. Sometimes, when it’s not so crowded, they’ll let me go free,” says Aswell, also an avid horseback rider and water skier. “Other than riding, skiing is the only time I can go out, feel free and go fast.”

In between runs, Aswell takes a moment at the top of Vail mountain.

“We’re at the top of the catwalk,” Matso says. “Let’s take a moment to enjoy the view. Amanda, the sky is a deep blue and you can see so far down the valley. It’s beautiful.”

Aswell smiles, taking a breath and taking in what she cannot see.

From Iraq to Vail

When she learned that her husband of two years, Drew, was coming home from Iraq, Amanda scheduled the ski trip to Vail. She had been skiing there in January and thought it would be a treat for her husband too.

Foresight Ski Guides made it possible by providing transportation, ski guides, lift tickets, equipment and lodging.

“It is the first time we’re skiing together,” says Drew , who graduated from West Point and has served in Iraq twice over the past year.

Drew and Amanda have known each other since 10th grade. Both are Army brats who are used to adjusting, since they’ve moved more than a dozen times.

“It makes me really proud to see Amanda ski,” says Drew after taking his first run with his wife – this is Drew’s fourth day on skis and he’s also skiing nice parallel turns down the blues. “Skiing is a lot less dangerous than what I usually do.”

For Drew, who is now on a monthlong leave, being away from his wife is tough sometimes.

“But she has a good life,” he says, heading to the next run. “She was here for a week in January while I was freezing my butt in Baghdad.”

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or vwhitney@vaildaily.com.

With Foresight’s help

By Veronica Whitney/Daily Staff Writer

When he lost most of his sight in 1999, Mark Davis, who had been skiing for more than 40 years, realized he didn’t want to sit at home while family and friends were on the slopes.

“I had always been in an independent guy and loved the outdoors,” says Davis, 47, of Vail. “But here I was, sitting alone, feeling sorry for myself and very much resenting that I couldn’t ski.”

Then he discovered the Colorado Ski School for the Blind.

“A season pass for $75 and a trained guide got me back on skis,” says Davis, who went on to found Foresight Ski Guides in 2001. The nonprofit group from Denver helps blind and visually impaired people to ski. The organization provides transportation, ski guides, lift tickets, equipment and lodging. The cost is a suggested $50 contribution, which allows the blind or visually impaired person to participate in the program for five days. Lodging and meals are available at discounted rates.

Two years after founding Foresight, Davis and his more than 20 guides – all volunteers – have helped hundreds of blind and visually impaired people ski again or for the first time. His guides even got a blind skier to come down Pepi’s Face this winter.

“This winter we doubled what we did last year,” Davis says. “So far, we’ve had about 25 skiers and more than 100 skier days.”

Foresight also provides guides for Nordic skiing, snowshoeing and snowboarding. Not surprisingly, the program brochures have information in Braille.

“We couldn’t do this without the help of our sponsors,” Davis says. “One of our strongest advocates is Bill Jensen (Vail Mountain’s chief operating officer).”

Though he can ski confidently without a guide behind him telling him what his next move should be, Davis also skis with a “Blind skier” orange bib and close to a guide.

“I can see as if looking through wax paper,” Davis says. “When I lost my sight, skiing became a matter of how I could do it rather than if I could do it.”


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