Skiing without seeing |

Skiing without seeing

Being blind is something I can hardly comprehend.

Even after three hours of skiing with my hat pulled over my eyes, relying on a guide from Challenge Aspen to navigate my way through the lift line, on and off the chairlift and down the hill, I still can’t really say what it’s like not to see.

“I am blind,” writes an author on, “so when we meet, you won’t feel ill at ease if you remember …

“If I appear to handle myself well and get around all right, but at times bump into things and seem somewhat clumsy, it may be because I am not totally blind. Contrary to popular belief, most blind people are not totally blind.”

I signed up for a lesson in skiing blind to learn what needs to happen for someone without vision or with severely impaired vision to ski. It’s a lot less than you might think.

At the Big Burn Bears’ corral on Fanny Hill at Snowmass, I meet my guide, Lisa Fisher. Lisa’s a longtime local who has been teaching skiing and guiding blind skiers for decades.

She tells me to take off my skis and to lean them and my poles against the fence. Then she tells me to close my eyes. I choose instead to pull my hat down over my eyes and hold it in place with my goggles, which I turn around so the lens is looking backward.

I’m 100 percent blind; I can’t see a thing. Lisa hands me my skis and tells me to touch them and get a sense of them. Then she takes them from me, asks if there is a left ski and a right ski. I say “no” and she places them on either side of me. Then she tells me what she did. I feel for the bindings with the toe of my boot and click in.

“I’m a person just like you, except that I can’t see well or at all,” the author with the Braille Institute writes. “Please don’t shout at me (I’m not hard of hearing) or address me as if I were a child. Don’t ask my companion, ‘Does he take cream in his coffee?’ Ask me.”

“What do you think you want to do today?” Lisa asks.

“I was thinking we could go up to the Big Burn,” I answer.

Lisa doesn’t really say anything about the Big Burn. She suggests we start by trying to get to the bottom of Fanny Hill, and hands me the end of a bamboo pole that feels like the kind of rod the Skico uses to warn of hazards on the hill.

“Everybody starts this way,” she tells me.

We shuffle straight on to Fanny Hill. Lisa explains that the bamboo pole is useful because it allows her to guide me and it allows me to stay in contact with her for my first-ever blind run. We inch toward the Poma lift.

“OK now, turn left,” she tells me. I promptly go into a snowplow ” on Fanny Hill, mind you ” and make my first blind turn.

I can feel the ski moving in a way that I’ve never felt in my 36 years as a skier. I actually hear the ski turning in the snow. My balance shifts from my left side to my right. It feels, at first, like I’m just riding along, as if the turn is taking action by itself. I feel the turn affecting me in a way that I’ve never experienced before.

“Wow,” I say.

Lisa turns with me and tells me to come to a stop. I do, and promptly fall over.

“That’s something that happens when people who have their vision try this,” she says, laughing.

“If I am walking with you, don’t grab my arm; let me take yours. I’ll keep a half-step behind, to anticipate curbs and steps,” says the Braille Institute authord.

I stand up and we pick up where I fell off. Three turns later, Lisa asks me to stop again. This time I wobble, but I don’t fall down.

Overhead and immediately behind me, a lift tower is buzzing away. The swooshing sound of snowboards and the cutting sound of skis are all around. A few turns later and we’re at the lift line.

Lisa gives me her arm and helps me navigate the lift line maze. She tells me when to turn and how much to turn, using terms that my mind’s eye can visualize: “Turn five minutes to the left” or “Make a 90 degree turn left.”

After Lisa tells me we’re on a straight shot to the lift, a Fanny Hill lift attendant steps up beside me. She says hi, tells me her name is Margo, and promises to help me on the lift. She asks me my name, and I tell her it’s Allyn. It seems like all the lifties we pass say hi to me too.

“I want to know who’s in a room with me,” the author writes. “Speak to me when you enter. If you aren’t familiar enough for me to know your voice, tell me your name. Also, introduce me to other people who may be in the room. Include children, and tell me whether there is a pet present. Guide my hand to a chair or couch. Speak to me when you leave.”

The massive engine that drives the lift slows down. Lisa guides my hand down to the edge of the chair as it comes up behind us. I sit. The engine cranks back up. We’re in the air.

My gut tells me to wedge my skis into a snowplow as we unload the lift. I know there are some benches just after the landing, but I’m not sure where. I keep snowplowing. Lisa tells me not to. I ignore her. She tells me not to more strongly. I still don’t listen.

“You know why we don’t snowplow off the lift?” Lisa asks after we come to a stop.


“It’s called the ACL. Think about what could happen if we both snowplowed off the lift standing right next to each other.”

“We’d get tangled,” I say.

From the top of the Fanny Hill lift we turn right and follow the trail back down to the Big Burn Bears’ corral with me on one end of the bamboo pole and Lisa on the other. I’ve got this blind skiing thing down, I think to myself. Next stop: Dallas Freeway.

We ski into the corral and Lisa takes the bamboo pole away. She hands me my ski poles and asks if I’m ready.

“Sure,” I say.

“If the door to a room, cabinet or car is left open, this is a hazard to me. So are toys or other loose objects on the floor. Warn me about any projecting shelves, lampshades or other items I might run in to,” writes the author.

Although I can’t see anything, I’m fully aware of all the obstacles and hazards on the ski slope. Signs. Lift towers. Other skiers and snowboarders. Bamboo poles. Lift line mazes. Snowmaking equipment. Fences. All of it. Lisa’s guidance is crucial. When she says “Stop,” she means stop. When she says something like “Left turn now,” she means right away.

We push across the slope. I’m using my poles to advance and trying to remember her advice to “see with my feet” as I listen for her instructions.

She’s standing above and in front of me when she finally directs me to let my skis go down the hill. I move the tips a little to the left and my skis begin to move. I’m aware of the motion and the forward movement, but have no real bearing as to where I am on the hill, what’s coming from above or in my path below. Lisa really is my eyes.

“When you’re ready, left turn,” she says.

I’m ready, so I turn. It’s a snowplow with a stiff downhill leg. The cool thing is I complete it and then make a right turn. She tells me to quit the pizza turns. I straighten my skis and make a fairly solid set of intermediate turns. It’s about as good as it’s going to get that day.

This time when we enter the maze at the bottom of the Fanny Hill lift, Lisa shows me how to use my ski pole to guide my way through by feeling for the ropes that separate the lines. I’m essentially unaware of where I am in line. I couldn’t tell Lisa, you or anyone else whether we entered on the left side or the right side of the lift.

When we finally reach the straightaway to the lift, my favorite lift op steps up next to me, grabs my arm and says, “Hi, Allyn, it’s Margo again.”

“Hi, Margo. I can tell it’s you,” I reply, as if voice recognition is some major achievement.

“Don’t avoid words such as ‘see’ or ‘look.’ I use them,” explains the author. “Don’t stumble over terms such as ‘visually impaired’ or ‘partially sighted.’ I am blind and I know it. You know it too. Be comfortable with it. I am.”

At the top of the lift, I remember not to snowplow, and it turns out to be OK. Lisa gives me a few reminders about things like the need to listen to her and the importance of stopping if we lose voice contact.

We cut across the hill to a point in the middle where Lisa says it’s safe for me to make a few turns without having to worry about trees. Then she starts, “OK, left turn … right turn … left turn … right turn … and stop.”

My feet are my eyes, I remind myself. But, really, I can’t see anything, with my feet or any other part of my body. Lisa asks me to point my pole down the hill, and I point across it.

When we try to ski along the right side of Fanny Hill, where there is a little more pitch and privacy next to the trees, I invariably drift to the skier’s left, toward the condos and swimming pools. That’s because the true fall line on the upper section of Fanny Hill is to the left toward the condos. Because the trail is cut across the hill, it appears to have a double fall line, one into the condos and the other down toward the lift. Blind skiers, Lisa explains, always find the real fall line. There’s no such thing as a double fall line for the blind; it’s simply an illusion that “the sighted” have to deal with.

When everything is clear, Lisa tells me to make some turns as I please. I hit several solid intermediate turns in a row. Every now and then, Lisa says “stop now” or “left turn now” to steer me away from danger.

Nearly every time she asks me to point down the hill, I point across it. One time I even point up when she asks me to point down. Only when I was allowed to ski did I actually find my downhill side.

That first solo run never seems to end. I just keep turning and turning and turning. My legs begin to ache, especially the muscles immediately above my knees. It feels like we’ve skied 10 miles. Fanny Hill is feeling a lot like Highland Bowl right now.

“I won’t have much trouble with ordinary table skills,” the Braille Institute author writes. “I may ask that you indicate the location of various foods on my plate, or tell me where my beverage is placed. If I spill something on myself, I may not know it. It’s OK to tell me, and let me know where the spot is located so that I can clean it later.”

By the time we arrive at the bottom of Fanny Hill, I’m nauseated. I’ve been blind for an hour and a half. All the new sensations are wearing me out.

We take a run down Fanny Hill with my hat pulled up and my eyes wide open. I still feel sick, so we stop in the Cirque Cafe for a Coke. I begin to feel better. Lisa takes the break as a chance to point out some of the differences between my experience and that of a blind person.

“Blind people can hear the trees,” she says. “They can tell when the trail is narrow and when it’s wide. They can tell when there’s a crush of people around them. And they always know which way is down. Their radar, in other words, works better.”

I don’t have the least bit of doubt about any of that.

Suddenly, our time is nearly up. The lifts are set to close in just 20 minutes, but I am determined to take it to the next level.

“Let’s go up Coney Glade,” I say.

Lisa consents, although she is clearly worried that my case of vertigo may make me really sick.

But after a short test on the steep section between the top of Fanny Hill and the bottom of Coney Glade, we agree that I’m ready for Hal’s Hollow, a blue run in the old Burlingame section of Snowmass, immediately above Fanny Hill.

We’re all alone on the slope, I can tell that much. Lisa lets me string 10 or 12 turns together. Then she stops me, points me away from the trees and lets me make some more turns. She notes that my sense of downhill direction has improved between my first run and this final one.

We reach the corral safely. The lifts are closing. The day is over. I’m glad we didn’t make it to the Big Burn, although with Lisa’s expert guidance, I’m sure I would have conquered Dallas Freeway or Sneaky’s or whatever run we chose.

“Thanks Lisa,” I say.

I’m still not sure what happened to me that day. Skiing blind was like nothing I’ve ever done. I have the utmost respect for those brave souls willing to put skis on their feet and trust in a guide. I’m still sure that I have no idea what it’s like to be blind.

“Don’t think of me as a blind person,” the author for the Braille Institute concludes. “I’m just a person who happens to be blind. Walk beside me and be my friend.”

Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is

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