When I agreed to be a blind skier's guide, he assured me I needed no special training. "The key thing about being a guide is communication," Wade Kuntz said. "You've gotta tell me where to go left or right."
I'd called Kuntz to learn how people with little or no vision find the courage to hurl themselves down steep, snowy slopes. He explained that blind skiers depend on their guides to tell them about the terrain and when to turn and when to stop.
Learning to ski can be difficult for anyone, but it may be especially challenging for people with limited vision, because sight is so connected with the human sense of balance.
Vision-impaired people who are just starting to ski also need to learn to put complete trust in their guide, said Brian Tekulve, snowsports director at Mt. Ashland.
"It can be a slow process," Tekulve said.
Many ski and snowboard resorts offer lessons for people with brain injuries or physical disabilities such as impaired vision, deafness or limb loss. Large resorts, such as Mt. Bachelor, generally have a wider range of instruction for what is known as "adaptive" skiing. Small ski areas like Mt. Ashland generally don't have the resources to maintain the full range of instruction for adaptive skiers, Tekulve said.
He said people with disabilities who are interested in skiing should call the Mt. Ashland business office (541-482-2897) to talk about their goals and discuss their disabilities to determine whether ski school staff might be able to help. Lessons need to be arranged in advance.
A nonprofit organization called Oregon Adaptive Sports offers a wide range of adaptive programs at Mt. Bachelor. For more information, see the website at oregonadaptivesports.org.
Many ski areas, including Mt. Ashland, offer a free lift ticket for anyone who serves as a blind skier's guide.
— Bill Kettler
Some guides ski right beside the blind skier, calling out the turns as they descend. Others use portable radios. He mentioned he'd been grounded for a while because friends and family members who usually served as guides hadn't had time to ski — health problems, a new baby, and the demands of daily life trumped a day in the snow.
I'd mentioned early on that I skied, too. Kuntz, 42, offered to show me how his ski guides use portable radios to talk him down the slopes.
"You don't need any special training," he insisted.
Who could say no?
I drove to Eagle Point on a bright, clear morning to pick him up. Kuntz can't drive — he's legally blind. He has retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary eye disease characterized by progressive loss of sight. It's often described as extreme tunnel vision. Some people liken it to looking at life through a soda straw.
"I can see the center," he explained, "but not peripherally."
His field of vision is less than 20 degrees, a tiny slice of the 190-degree field that the rest of us take for granted.
"If I look straight out I can't see my feet," he explained as we drove to Mount Ashland. Inside his circle of sight, he sees broad variations in shape and color, but not details. His vision measures about 20/400, where 20/200 (that's the big "E" at the top of your doctor's eye chart) is the standard for legal blindness. In the mountains, that means he can see the dark band of trees that define both sides of a ski trail, but none of the details in the snow.
We put on our boots and jackets in the parking lot and slipped on bright orange bibs — "Partially blind skier" in large black type on his, "Guide" on mine. He handed me a little portable radio with a voice-activated microphone, slipped another radio into his coat and clipped a tiny speaker around his ear. He explained that he would grab the end of my ski pole and let me lead him across the parking lot to the snow.
As we stepped into our skis, I was nervous. It had finally dawned on me how little Kuntz could actually see, and now I was responsible for steering him down the trails.
He'd told me he learned to ski growing up in Montana.
"I have a few years of skiing under my belt when I had better vision," he'd said. OK, I thought, but you never know how well someone really skis until you're out there with them.
At the top of the run, Kuntz told me where he could see the trees, and I said I would stay uphill from him as he descended, telling him when to turn. He headed downslope with a whoop, making some very stylish turns as I tried to anticipate his rhythm and speed to direct him away from other skiers and hazards. My anxiety faded as I watched him execute crisp turns with beautiful form — torso always pointed downslope, knees flexing as he made turns that I could match only in my dreams.
I skied down to him and we shuffled toward the chairlift, where a series of ropes herd skiers and snowboarders into a single line.
"Left," I told Kuntz as we neared the rope. To my utter amazement, he turned left and ran into a rope. Then I realized he'd done exactly what I'd told him to do. What he hadn't told tell me was that the guide must always say "right" when he means right and "left" when he means left.
"No, right," I said, apologizing for my mistake. He stepped back, changed direction, and used his pole to follow the rope toward the chairlift. I did better steering him past several more turns in the rope lines.
"No guide is ever gonna be a perfect guide," he said, as we waited for our chair.
When we were next to go, the lift operator asked if we wanted to slow the chair down to get on. Kuntz said he was fine with normal speed, but he asked to let one chair go up empty before we stepped up.
"That's in case somebody in front of me falls (getting on the chair)," he said. "I wouldn't be able to see them or steer clear of them."
When our turn came, Kuntz grabbed my shoulder so that we would be right next to each other when the chair came up behind us. We mounted as smoothly as I have with anybody and rode up.
We did a half-dozen runs before lunch, and I grew more comfortable with steering him down intermediate and advanced terrain, gradually letting him run farther downhill as I grasped his skill. He skied straight downslope with quick, precise turns, always in control across a constantly changing surface I knew he could not see.
"How do you do it?" I asked when I caught up.
Kuntz explained that he learned to ski at a tiny resort in Montana in the days before grooming machines smoothed out the irregular bumps skiers make as they carve turns in the snow. Staying upright on uneven terrain became second nature. When I pressed him for what was going on in his head, he said, "I visualize or pretend I have a shoe lace attached from my knee to the top of my (ski) binding. I treat my knees like shock absorbers, and keep them pretty much together. When I do a series of bumps or a rut, I'm able to recover from that."
He said skiing is "fresh air therapy" for his job as a claims representative at the Social Security office in Medford. "My wife, Courtney, sees the difference when I come home from skiing. I'm much more mellow and relaxed."
He said he'd like to encourage more people with disabilities to enjoy outdoor sports.
"Being outside," he said, "is the whole game."
Bill Kettler is a freelance writer living in Rogue River. Reach him at email@example.com.