A wide shot of the Andes Mountains with a snow covered Mt. Ausangate in the center. The 2020 team of eleven are hiking in the foreground on a beautiful day.

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Skiing Without Seeing?!?
23 Feb
By 2020
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By Randy Pierce

“When the sun sets the stars come out” – unknown

NEVI Fest Group photo. Courtesy of the NEVI Fest Facebook page: www.facebook.com/NEVIFest

Why does a totally blind person find himself on a massive mountain skiing by the sounds of the skier ahead of him?

Roughly thirty participants of varying levels of visual impairment accepted the opportunity presented by NEVI and joined forces with the Maine Adaptive Ski Program on Mt. Sugarloaf to answer this question! I’m going to share a bit of my experience for part of that answer.

I’m also going to tell you that the organizations, volunteers, and certainly the participants were all sources of inspiration which tower over that hill and will help encourage and motivate me for a long time!

In fact, I find it a little ironic that I was asked to help kick off the festival by sharing a bit of the motivational speaking we do for 2020 Vision Quest. I was glad to share experiences, anecdotes, and philosophies which are part of my enjoyment of life. The many questions and comments made it clear there were many kindred spirits in the room and a fine adventure was undoubtedly ahead for all of us.

In 1982, I took one group lesson at the Wilderness ski area in Dixville Notch, NH. It comprised of very little time and three short runs down the bunny slope. I was fully sighted back then and virtually nothing of the experience was with me 31 years later! I knew of many blind skiers including some totally blind like myself–but knowing and choosing to put the kind of trust required into a guide was going to be an entirely different approach.

Randy and Brent on the slopes. Photo courtesy of Brent Bell, Professor of Outdoor Education at UNH.

Certainly I’ve come to put that trust into Quinn over a long time together and fortunately my good friend Brent Bell has had time earning my trust on the mountains and in life. It helped to know he had past experiences with blind skiers and we were working together to problem solve. I have long taken the philosophy that I’d rather be a “problem solver” rather than a “risk taker.”

We spent time prior to being on the snow talking about the approaches of communication, the equipment and the process of skiing so that when Monday morning arrived we had a reasonable understanding of how to approach things. Stepping onto the snowy flats by the bunny slope we attempted the basic athletic stance, and shuffles soon led to short slides and using a wedge to control my speed or stop. This led more quickly than we expected into turns and soon we were gliding down the hill with steadily decreasing awkwardness. The three-day progression of what we learned together is obvious in my work and in Brent’s guiding.

Our basic technique was that he would ski ahead of me and I would triangulate on his voice to know the elevation changes and the precision of his turns. This required him to keep up reasonably steady “chatter.” That chatter would develop steadily into words that would give me further information such as “Right turn starting now” or “Sweeping left turn” or even “Hard left turn – turn – turn – turn!” It also requires that chatter not result in misinformation from common speech dualities such as right for the turn and “right” for “correct” or “right” for the descriptor such as “right now!” That’s why the amusing term of “filler” was often used as we progressed and I need to hear his voice for location but not hear an erroneous unintended word.

The folks at NEVI and Maine Adaptive Skiing have many tools for helping folks with this learning process, such as the bamboo pole which put me between two skilled skiers and provided speed control on their end while I learned to focus and practice parallel turns or “carving!” Often an instructor would ski behind and share observations and suggestions for both the blind/visually impaired skier as well as the Guide. The goal was clearly to build a steadily more effective and safe team.

As my skills and speed increased we switched to the speaker pack, allowing Brent to ski facing forward with a steady sound source for me to follow. This cut through the wind of higher elevations, the ski sounds on icier and faster turns as well as the distances speed variations occasionally caused. In short, the learning and fun of the experience seemed to continually progress and we think it’s pretty evident in a video shot on each of the first three days I spent learning to ski blind!

Randy’s First Day on Skis

Randy Learns to Carve on Day 2

Third Day’s Final Run

Those are the basics of how we approached my learning to ski blind. Our initial question was why would someone undertake this experience? I heard one younger participant express themselves: “I’ve never felt so much freedom in my life.” Many people find themselves tethered by aspects of their lives. I suspect many find the ski slopes an outlet for escaping from that if only for a time. This too is even truer for some of the visually impaired world. For blind people, it can be a cane-tapping obstacle after obstacle or perhaps holding the arm of a sighted human guide or even my favorite hand on the harness of the Mighty Quinn, Guide Dog extraordinaire! It still has our immediate personal space connected to another restrictive influence upon our motion, even as all three may grant us well appreciated safety and efficiency of moving.

Upon the slopes we likely have a guided influence but one which expands the borders well beyond our personal space and increases the opportunity for speed and the ability to cover so much more ground than we might ever normally experience under our own control. I certainly found it exhilarating–all the moreso when I realized gliding was such a smooth speed that if I did not drag my ski poles to increase my awareness of the terrain and speed, I would often have little appreciation for just how fast I was moving!

I heard so many moments of individual growth and accomplishment, not only among the participants, but amongst the volunteers sharing the experience with us all. Pride of accomplishment brought me back to the old “Thrill of Victory and Agony of Defeat” mantra of the television program “The Wide World of Sports.” This particular occasion really showcased the victory of everyone who made the choice to be involved in the experiences made possible by the NEVI dream.

Quinn looks anxiously out at Randy: "Dad, what are you doing?!?"

This was their second annual international festival and so many people are essential to a dream becoming a reality. Scott Anderson and Bruce Albiston may get the forefront and deservedly so, but the list of other names who were pivotal to an incredible experience are worthy of a separate blog. I look forward to helping their organization more directly in the near future to achieve their vision of growing still more this year.

Attendees from Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and Sudan were only some of the many distant travelling participants. Literally hundreds of volunteers made it all work seemingly seamlessly and almost all of them will tell you that missing the chance to be a part of this experience in any way is a lost opportunity for something truly special. Thank you to everyone for yet another life changing enrichment of my already adventurous and fortunate life. I hope to share this with many others in the future!

I would be remiss to not share the role of the Mighty Quinn in all of these adventures. We were given a condo directly on the ski slopes and our sliding glass door looked out onto the slope where the Mighty Quinn would watch for our passing and our return.

In the morning we’d step out our door onto the slope and ski down to breakfast. At lunch we’d ski to the door and take Quinn for a lunch time adventure with him guiding and getting his rewards. In the afternoon we repeated the process while he watched yet again. At the end of the final run he’d take over for dinner or whatever adventures awaited. We made sure that it included one of his favorite experiences as an evening inner-tube sledding adventure became a chance for Quinn to stretch those mighty legs and chase us down the slopes.

Despite all the fun and excitement of the ski adventures it always comes down to those who change our lives. There were many of them on this trip but always foremost is my magnificent Dog Guide, the Mighty Quinn!

Randy and Quinn go inner tubing at the end of the day!

4 responses to “Skiing Without Seeing?!?”

  1. Teresa Roberts says:

    What an adventure! I’m glad Quinn got to have some fun too.

    PS: I think if I ever try skiing, I want the two guides and a big bamboo pole. the first time. I can see just fine, but it might decrease the odds of my breaking my neck due to a hazard of seeing: looking at the view or the cute snowboarders instead of what I’m supposed to be watching.

  2. jose says:

    very, very cool.

  3. Jim C says:

    “That’s how Brent and Randy ski together!” What a thrill that must have been. Wow.

  4. […] captured much of last year’s experience in words and video on our blog “Skiing Without Seeing” and as such I want to focus on a personal moment of growth which may have value for many of […]

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