Telluride Skiing With Vision Impairment – Navigating a complex environment with limited vision

I started skiing with an instructor, Bill Glasscock, who has specialized in adaptive skiing, so I can learn to ski safely with my vision limitation. Bill started the adaptive ski program in Telluride, and has actually coached completely blind skiers to make it safely down slopes with just audio direction. He has 36 years of experience teaching skiing in the winters, and kayaking in the summers. What a life he has led. If you ever want an instructor in Telluride, ask for Bill, and make your reservation two months before you arrive.

When I first started I felt very insecure and tentative. Other skiers move very fast, and it’s hard for me to keep track of them while also staying aware of the trees and bumps and other hazards. This is the story of life, right?

It’s funny. When I’m going down a slope at 40 miles an hour, everything, even the trees look like they are moving fast. The snowy slopes provide a even field. I do not really perceive the relative motion between myself and the snow, because it is so evenly distributed. Objects that are stuck into the snow, however, appear to be moving relative to my perspective. Fixed objects, like trees, warning signs, lift poles, rocks, and so on, all appear to be moving at the same relative speed. Other skiers, in contrast, move independantly.

This creates an extremely complex environment for me to navigate. That’s kind of the metaphor for life right? How can we navigate an extremely complex environment with limited vision? If you have been reading along in my blog, you will remember that after my cerebral infarction, I have a persistent blind spot on the upper left of my visual field. So basically, if I fix my gaze at a point on the wall, and hold my left arm straight out from the shoulder, with my fingers pointed to the ceiling, I can see my watch, but not my fingers. If I move my hand to the left, at about 30 degrees, in the far periphery, my hand reappears. So from just left of the midline to thirty degrees left, above the horizon, I just see a gray cloud. No details are visible.

This requires me to make some major adjustments in my skiing. It starts with the imperative that I keep my gaze up, so that the slope I am skiing on remains in the bottom half of my visual field. This allows me to maintain awareness of big hazards. But it also means I cannot look down at my skis. I can no longer focus my attention on the little bumps and snow balls, and icy patches that I am skiing over. I have to keep my head up and maintain situational awareness.

This forces me to stay well balanced over my skis and allow my knees to flex like shock absorbers. I also have to constantly stay on one edge, turning either right or left, edge to edge, so my skis slice through the terrain. I have learned to put a little skid at the bottom of each turn before starting my weight shift to the other ski to bleed off excess speed. I picked this up really fast, with Bill’s guidance, and so my form is actually better now than it has ever been. Another gift of the gift.

I have also learned that I must really study the mountain. Bill knows every inch of the terrain here, and this knowledge has helped so much. I need to learn every place where a cat track enters the slope. I need to have a mental map of very spot where two slopes merge and every place where skiers exit the trees onto a slope. I’ll give an example.

One of my favorite runs in Telluride is called Cimarron. The access to this run is off the little used Lift Seven, a slow old school two seater chair that connects the free parking in the “Car Henge” lot to the ridge above Mountain Village. This is a lift mostly used by locals who park in the free parking. To get to Cimarron from the Gondola, which most tourists use, you would have to hike up a gentle slope for about 100 meters. Most people do not bother, and so they head down just a bit to Milk Run instead.

Cimarron is steep little skied. They groom it about every other day. On Tuesday, I reached my daily maximum speed of 49.4 MPH on Cimarron. The top is wide, steep and empty. But at the bottom, Cimarron merges with the Telluride Trail, which is basically a wide cat track that provides the easy way down from the top. It also merges with Milk Run, and some other chutes, which are also steep and busy. There is a point about halfway down the mountain where a narrow, very expert, trail merges from the left, and there is a jump on the downhill side of a cat track. Expert skiers entering from the left hit this jump and fly into the bottom part of Cimarron.

Above this point is a rope barrier on the left, which I like to ski next to, making tight slalom turns, but when I get to this intersection, I have to cross over to the right to avoid dangerous traffic. Too dangerous it turns out. So now I have learned to ski down on the right and stop above this jump. I can then crane my neck around to the left to make sure nobody is coming and then safely cross the cat track and enter the bottom part of the slope. After this crossing, there is a cliff wall on the right and a steep drop on the left. I can pick a side and ski safely all the way to “Kids Run” which will take me back to Chair 7.

Bill skied this route with me about six times. I learned every little nuance of this terrain, and so now I know where the danger points are. I can ski fast and free in the wide open and steep faces where nobody can enter from my left, and then I can carefully pick my way through the points of intersection.

This is why they call it adaptive. I do have a disability in the sense that I cannot see some pretty important information that most people expect me to perceive. But I can adapt by changing my form and by learning the terrain. The result, as it was with driving, is that I’m actually a much better and safer skier now that I was before.

This of course applies to life itself, as an analogy anyway. It’s about keeping the vision broad and maintaining situational awareness, and navigating the minor details with firmness and balance in my stance. Awareness and broad vision coupled with firmness and balance.

I am really grateful for this experience. I am so grateful that I can push through this limitation and turn it into a challenge. But most of all, I’m grateful that I can still enjoy the spectacular winter environment at 11,000 feet in the San Juan Mountains above Telluride Colorado.

After skiing, go the Petite Maison on Pacific, sit at the bar, and order the locals Steak Frites for $25.00. It’s not on the menu and you have to sit at the bar to get it. So much good in life comes from paying attention to the details.