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Skiing gives blind students vision as Challenge Aspen hosts visitors in Snowmass

Challenge Aspen volunteer Sophie Burgess, right, celebrates with Leah Mayberry after Mayberry, who is visually impaired, made it down a short slope while learning to ski on Sunday at Snowmass Ski Area.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

It was nothing but pure bliss for Leah Mayberry when she skied down the hill off the magic carpet at Snowmass on Sunday morning.

“I did it! I did it! I did it! Woohoo!” she yelled.

Mayberry is one of 14 visually-impaired students from the Tennessee School for the Blind and the Governor Morehead School for the Blind (North Carolina) visiting Snowmass to learn to ski.



For the past 20 years, Tennessee School for the Blind seniors have been coming to Snowmass through Challenge Aspen. The students have the chance to learn to ski with the help of Challenge Aspen’s adaptive instructors and volunteers, explore downtown Aspen, and visit the Glenwood Hot Springs before heading back to Tennessee.

Joseph Gray, who came on the annual trip to Aspen with Tennessee School for the Blind in 2004 as a senior, returned as a chaperone with the Governor Morehead School for the Blind on their inaugural trip. He skis with someone in front of him and mimics the moves his leader makes, but he said it is much more than just copying the person in front of him.




“A lot of it is just creating kind of a cadence in my head,” he said.

Gray recognizes the sound it makes when he makes one turn, and then continues to try and replicate the sound with the turns after that.

“Also, while going, you are hearing the wind go by. For me, that’s everything. It’s so invigorating,” he said. “And then, going up the lift — the further up you go, sometimes the quieter it gets. Sometimes, it’s just being one with nature.”

Challenge Aspen volunteer Ed Mettelman enjoys with one of his athletes while skiing Sunday at Snowmass.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

After graduating from high school, he went on to become a Paralympic track-and-field athlete. The courage and ability to overcome his fears he learned from skiing stayed with him, he said, and he applied those that to his track and field career.

When he retired from track and field, Gray took a coaching position at the Tennessee School for the Blind and chaperoned the trip a few more times. He now works as a teacher and community employment specialist at Governor Morehead School and took the seniors on the school’s first ski trip.

“I hope (the students) gain what I gained, and that was a level of confidence that is unimaginable,” said Gray.

An instructor teaches a Challenge Aspen student Sunday.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Each student is paired up with a Challenge Aspen volunteer buddy. The student and their buddy are then put into a group with three other students and volunteers and a ski instructor, who jumps from pair to pair to help. The ski instructor leader for each group is a certified adaptive-ski instructor, with certifications in cognitive and visual impairments.

The volunteers go through intensive training to work with visually-impaired students. Volunteers must pass a background check and participate in both indoor and outdoor trainings before they can take part.

“We spend a lot of time helping (volunteers) understand how to communicate properly — the little things like do you want to take my arm or my shoulder. We always ask before we touch, so we make sure that we’re creating a safe space and comfort for that person who needs to be guided,” said Challenge Aspen CEO Lindsay Cagley.

When Mayberry went down the hill with her partner Sophie Burgess, they were both holding a bamboo pole. Many of the volunteers and students used tools such as that to help navigate down the mountain. However, students agreed that the hardest part about skiing was not getting down the hill but getting up the hill on the magic carpet.

Challenge Aspen volunteers and athletes point toward the camera while learning to ski at Snowmass Ski Area.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

“It just comes to a sudden stop, and it jolts you,” said Mayberry.

Despite the magic carpet, she and Burgess had a very successful day.

“Leah has been great. She has had the best attitude on the hill,” said Burgess. “I think she’s been fantastic, saying yes to everything, really trusting, and really excited about it, which has been so much fun.”

Tydarius Greene also said the hardest part of the day was the magic carpet. He and his volunteer, Ed Mettlelman, had a rough first day because of ill-fitting equipment.

“I tried it yesterday, but my boots were a little bit tight. I was able to go down twice today, though,” said Greene as he went off to try the snowshoes instead.

The majority of the students stayed at the Meadows, but a few journeyed over to the lifts to try out some longer green runs. The students will have their final day on the mountain Monday and then will get to journey into Aspen on Tuesday for souvenir shopping and exploring downtown.

“I hope this allows (the students) to tap into potentials that they didn’t even know they have. Once I was able to learn, I was so excited to share this experience with a group of kids. To be at another school, to share (this experience), it feels really good,” said Gray.

A Challenge Aspen volunteer helps a blind athlete while skiing at Snowmass Ski Area.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times
Tydarius Greene, a visually-impaired student from Tennessee, listens while being interviewed about learning to ski with Challenge Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times
Challenge Aspen volunteers help students load the magic carpet while learning to ski Sunday.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times
Challenge Aspen’s Kaylin Williams, right, helps a student head toward the ski hill at Snowmass Ski Area.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

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