Sensational on the slopes
“It’s just so beautiful,” says Marie Perchan, a skier from Detroit. “The crisp air on your face, on a sunny day the warm sun, and all the noises – the wind in the trees and the birds and the people going by.”
When you can’t see, as Perchan can’t, skiing is far more sensory. And Perchan has no trouble skiing, as long as a well-trained guide skis just few feet behind her calling out calm but crucial directions, steering her clear of trouble.
“I’ve never skied with perfect vision,” says Perchan, who was born with vision problems and eventually lost her sight.
For just a $50 contribution, Perchan can hire a guide for five days from Foresight Ski Guides, a nonprofit agency founded a few seasons ago by part-time East Vail resident Mark Davis, whose own sight was taken by a rare form of multiple sclerosis in 1999. Davis, a longtime skier and former banking executive, now has partial vision – but he’s legally blind and requires a guide when he heads up the slopes.
The idea for the group came to him when he was still recovering from the shock of losing his sight, when he was left behind in his parents’ East Vail condo when they’d hit the slopes, Davis says.
“They’d go skiing and I’d sit in the house,” he says. “And I thought, “I’ve been skiing for over 40 years.'”
Around the same time, the Colorado Ski School for the Blind shut down at Vail Mountain and guides became prohibitively expensive, he says.
“I thought it was kind of crazy that, without a guide service, it would cost me $250 to go skiing,” he says.
Foresight, now two ski seasons old, has a well-trained batch of volunteer ski guides, but Davis said the group needs more, especially in ski towns like Vail. Last season, Foresight logged nearly 40 days on the slopes. This season, Davis says, the group will log that many in January alone.
“Our biggest challenge is we’ve got a great group of volunteers who live on the Front Range and we really want to get the word out to people in the valley,” Davis says. “We’ll train them, we’ll pay for lift tickets during the training. We really need to develop a base of volunteers here.”
Skiing is but one of the adventurous outdoor sports in Nino Pacini’s life. In the summer, Pacini, a blind skier and software analyst from Detroit, rides a tandem bicycle, kayaks, water skis and hikes. In the winter, he also snowshoes and cross-country skis.
“I need to get outdoors,” Pacini says.
While some blind skiers prefer to free-ski, Pacini says he’s thrilled by the technique of a turn.
“For me, it’s the technical beauty of a turn, holding the edge and working the muscles, that perfect beauty – even though I can’t see it,” he says. “I ski totally tactilely. I ski with the soles of my feet because my guide doesn’t have time to tell me that the snow up ahead is grainy with ice crystals every 4 millimeters.”
As long as he has a guide, Pacini says, just about any activity is possible.
“A lot of activities are impossible without a guide,” he says. “But when I’m tandem-cycling, I work on being the best stoker I can be because I want the person in front to enjoy it. I don’t want there to be an attitude of taking the blind guy out.
“That’s probably how it starts,” he says. “But it never ends that way.”
Paul Schafer, an avid skier who was born legally blind and gradually lost what remained of his sight during his teens, says he skis because he enjoys it. But, he says, he also feels a responsibility to serve a model for “anyone – disabled or not.”
“People are easily impressed with us because their expectations are not that high,” says Schafer, a programs analyst for the State Department in Washington, D.C. “But my expectations are that high.”
Schafer – whom Davis says is one of the best blind skiers he knows of – didn’t start skiing until after he became completely blind. He says he heard about the sport from friends in his fraternity.
“I like a challenge,” says Davis, who also has been a competitive equestrian rider. “A visual impairment is more an inconvenience than anything. I believe I have a responsibility to show people who are unaware about who people who have disabilities can do.”
Schafer says he sticks to groomed blues and blacks, but has begun venturing in un-groomed areas and even small moguls, he says.
“I’ve just started to feel how to maneuver them,” he says, recalling a recent trip down the black-diamond Wow run in Sun Down Bowl.
“It was challenging, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle,” he says
With as little as 48 hours prior notice, Foresight also can provide a skier with equipment from Vail Sports at Golden Peak, lodging at the Cascade Club in West Vail, even a ride from Denver on Colorado Mountain Express, Davis says.
Re-learning to ski was as big a lift as losing his sight was traumatic, Davis says.
“After something like this happens, your mind races all over the place trying to figure out how you’re going to do life,” Davis says. “It was equally emotional, on the positive side, to get back up on skis and do something I was good at and enjoyed.”
The fragrance of freedom
Perchan, a retired budget analyst, started skiing in 1984 with Optical Illusions, blind ski club in Detroit. She says she now does many of the same outdoor activities her friend Pacini – with one exception.
“I garden; he doesn’t garden,” she says.
Gardening loses none of its luster from not being able to see the colors and shapes of the flowers, says Perchan, who is planting a “sensory garden” for the visually impaired back home in Detroit.
“You can feel how beautiful the flowers are,” Perchan says, “and a lot of them are so fragrant.”
Guiding the blind “incredible fulfillment”
With Foresight Ski Guides, a nonprofit agency founded a few seasons ago by part-time East Vail resident Mark Davis, a guide follows blind skier down the slopes, calling out which way to turn, telling the skier about changes in steepness, where other skiers are, and to stop if necessary.
When the slopes are clear, the guide calls out “free ski” and the skier is on his own for a little while.
As much as the guides do for him, Nino Pacini of Detroit says he wants his guide also to have fun.
“I want to develop a relationship with the guides where we both have fun,” he says, “where the guide gets something out of it, too.”
Mark Masto of Littleton, who’s been guiding blind skiers for almost 20 years, says he gets plenty out of volunteering.
“It’s incredible fulfillment,” says Masto, one of Foresight’s senior guides. “To take someone who’s had their vision taken from them and help them be free for a few hours.”
A crucial part of the experience is the “warm up,” where a guide gets to know the skier, learns how they ski and, eventually, forges a bond of friendship and trust, Masto says. Trust between the two is critical, Davis adds.
“It’s all about communication and trust,” Davis says. “The guide has to trust that when he shouts out an order that the skier will do it right away and not in five seconds.
“This isn’t a sport of interpretation,” he adds. “The skier has to trust that the guide isn’t going to lead him off a cliff or into a tree.”
Davis says volunteers have to be pretty competent and confident on the slopes.
“It isn’t rocket science, but it’s a different perspective and a different way of skiing,” Davis says. “You have to be good enough not to pay attention to your own skiing. You have to give 100 percent of your attention to the blind skier.”
Kevin Kanan of Avon has been with Davis from the start. Kanan was inspired to guide when his father lost his sight to diabetes, he says.
“Once he was re-taught to ski, he felt like he could do anything and that his blindness wouldn’t stop him from living his life,” Kanan says.
How to contact Foresight Ski Guides:
Phone – 1-303-860-0972
Fax – 1-303-894-9383
E-mail – ForesightSkiing@aol.com
Web site – http://www.foresightskiguides.org
Mail – P.O. Box 18944, Denver, CO, 80218-0944
Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.