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Skiing with a purpose in Eagle County

Harmon S. Graves
Special to the Daily
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the DailyVisually impaired skier Kevin McGowan participated in a training session at Vail with senior guide Ron Donelson, left, and Don and Nada Graves, right, trainee and shadow, respectively.
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VAIL, Colorado – Standing on the edge of the entrance to Northwoods, one of Vail’s moderately challenging but groomed runs, Foresight’s guide Bill Isaacs asks his visually impaired skier, “Where’s the fall line?” Without hesitation, Tina Ament, an expert skier with no vision, confidently points directly down the fall line, sensing, rather than visualizing, its course. At this point in the run, all extraneous conversation ceases and concentration begins in earnest.

“Exactly,” Isaacs said. “Now turn the tips of your skis slightly to the left, and we are going to make a quick right turn, a quick left, and then I will call ‘free ski!'”

Those are the words every visually impaired skier longs to hear – freedom from white cane or guide dog, listening only to the distinct call, “right turn, now left turn,” a simple predicate to the joy of a moderate-speed, rhythmic series of turns – more often than not, the length of the run, safety permitting.



Cruising toward the lift line, the guide, wearing an orange vest with the imprimatur “Blind Skier Guide,” guides his visually impaired skier, similarly emblazoned, with “right turn, now left turn, and hook up” – a simple control technique by which his impaired skier extends the tip of a ski pole toward the guide which is grasped by him while skiing along side. This allows the guide to control the final approach to the lift line by releasing or exerting pressure against the extended pole. Those watching this maneuver remark at the ease with which skier and guide melt into the lift line as if no impediment exists. This does not occur by happenstance.

Foresight Ski Guides, a nonprofit ski guide program, was co-founded by Mark Davis, his father Roi, and a team of strong skier volunteers in 2001 after Mark lost his functional vision to a rare complication of multiple sclerosis. Although a “hot dog” skier in his own right before this set-back, and with some assistance by the Vail Adaptive Ski School, Mark was soon back on the slopes, but with greater respect for their challenges. Foresight Ski Guides was formed to assist not only the accomplished skier, but those desiring to take up the sport with only rudimentary skills. These fearless visually impaired participants (“VIPs”) and generous sponsors breathed life into this nascent program.



So where was Davis to find volunteer guides needed to supplement his initial cadre? That was easy. Davis sought accomplished skiers who had, or were willing to learn, skills in dealing with visual impairments. His net was cast among those who had participated in ski programs for the disabled here in Colorado and as far east as New Hampshire, those who had previous experience guiding a sight-impaired family member, former ski instructors, and those who simply exhibited a love of the sport. In short, he sought those with existing skills and a desire to supplement them, willing to give back to the sport that has brought them so much joy over the years.

Training is intense, but with a well-defined course and goal in mind. The volunteer guides – people from all walks of life – must develop and maintain a solid knowledge of the mountain, emergency protocol, highly honed ski technique, and perhaps most importantly, a working knowledge of typical visual impairments which dictate the guiding technique and skiing limitations. Ski or snowboard instruction is left to the ski school at Vail and Beaver Creek, with only a comment by a guide here and there as “something to work on.”

A skier without any vision is, quite logically, guided from the rear, whereas, a partially impaired skier can usually follow the orange vest donned by his or her guide. The key to safe guiding rests with the proximity between visually impaired skier and guide. On weekends and holidays, with more skiers and snowboarders on the slopes, a shadow guide is added, skiing closely behind, whose orange vest alerts overtaking skiers of the team in front.



Directions must be heard and, understandably, a totally blind skier finds comfort in the sound of her guide’s skis close by and turning with her. Chatter is kept to a minimum, but an occasional “looking good!” lets the skier know that his guide has not done a nose plant in the snow behind him or left him to drift out of control into deep moguls, trees or fellow skiers.

I asked Tina Lubarsky, a competent snowboarder who has very limited vision, “What gives you the greatest comfort working with a guide?”

Pulling her goggles up and on to her helmet, as if for emphasis, she turned to me and said, “With a guide, I can concentrate on what I am doing and have some fun, without worrying that I will run into someone or something, or that someone will crash into me. It’s a huge comfort knowing my guide will steer me away from these hazards and my shadow will protect me from behind.”

The guide and shadow work as a team, both in close proximity to the VIP in front or close behind, with the shadow mirroring the graceful turns of the two in front. This in-tandem skiing has provoked many remarks in the lift line that the trio looks like a colorful ballet snaking down the mountain.

Both roles are important on a busy weekend. Leonard Bernstein, the late conductor of the New York Philharmonic orchestra, was once asked, “Considering the entire orchestra, what is the most difficult instrument to play?” He smiled and robustly replied, “The second fiddle! I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find someone who can play the second fiddle with enthusiasm, that’s a problem. And if we have no second fiddle, we have no harmony.”

The shadow guide is no less important. With the shadow, the VIP and forward guide weave confidently down the mountain in sync and harmony with other skiers, knowing the VIP’s back and side are covered from the occasional exuberant, out-of-control, skier.

With the popularity of snowboarding, does this blend well with the ski guide program? Most assuredly, yes. Guiding techniques are essentially the same. The only rhythmic shortcoming that may be experienced by guide, VIP and shadow occurs in deep powder on a slightly bumpy slope. The snowboarder may choose to make slower, tighter turns, which then invites a shadow, on skis, to make wider turns so as not to overrun the snowboarder. Nothing is lost in the teamwork – rather, the protection from behind is widened. The forward guide, whether on a snowboard or skis, simply has to set the pace.

At the end of the day, the team completes an assessment of the skiing/snowboarding experience. The greatest joy bestowed upon the guide and shadow is “Thanks, this has been a great day, total freedom – something I long for – which you and our wonderful mountains have provided to me. I’ll be back. See ya soon!”

We all hope for that.

The 2010 season closed with Foresight’s ski session for kids from the Colorado School for the Blind, a popular program for students ranging in ages from 7 to 18 years, and a few die-hard VIPs and their guides, in these final days in April, lathered with sun screen, waited until 10:30 in the morning for the overnight glaze to soften and enjoy some of Colorado’s best spring skiing.

Harmon “Don” Graves is a lawyer in Littleton and freelance writer with more than six decades of skiing behind him, including training with the U.S. Army’s Mountain and Cold Weather Command at Camp Hale, Colorado, in the mid-1950s. He has completed his training through Foresight Ski Guides and has guided and shadowed totally and partially blind skiers over the past three years.


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