Shussing down a mountain, the wind in their faces, snow crunching under their skis as they executed turns – that was what students with visual impairments experienced at the adaptive ski festival at Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine.
Perkins Outreach Programs brought a group of New England teens and young adults to the weeklong event in February. Run in partnership with Maine Adaptive Sports and Recreation, and New England Blind and Visually Impaired (NEVI), the ski festival hosts skiers of all abilities from around the country.
NEVI trains volunteers to guide participants down the mountain, and the guides have a number of strategies for working with skiers who can’t see the slopes. Some flank the student front and back, calling out directions as they go. Some use a radio, communicating through a wireless connection. A few use a tether, giving novices the chance to gain confidence before skiing without a rope.
But no matter how they get to the bottom of the trail, every student revels in the opportunity to test their skills and courage on the snow-covered mountain.
“When you get a good rhythm going and glide down, it feels awesome,” said Jack, 14, from Sherman, Connecticut.
“The guides help me by wearing huge (brightly colored) vests, and keeping all of the little kids away from you on the slopes so you don’t run into anyone,” said Jack, heading up the lift with his guide. “I’ve seen some completely blind people without a tether, and guides using a bullhorn to tell them how long to go in a certain direction before turning, which is really cool.”
Perkins student Sara, 18, has been skiing since the age of 6. “When I’m skiing, I feel like I’m flying. I feel like it makes me more of a stronger person. Like it prepares me to take on any challenge.”
“I’m totally blind, and usually the guides that I ski with are very trained with visually impaired students,” said Sara. “They’ll ask you what your vision is like (and) the best way for you to be guided. That works for me. They’ll usually say ‘left, hold, hold, hold’ as I’m going across the hill. ‘Go straight downhill.’ ‘Sharp turn’ if they want me to do a more abrupt turn.”
“I think what makes it so awesome and different from ice skating is that there’s a fear there,” said Jade, 18, as her guide gave her a hand. A former Perkins student, Jade currently lives in Brockton, Massachusetts. “It’s edgy but fun at the same time.”
“I have three instructors, sometimes two, and basically I have one that is in front of me that I’m following, because I do have some vision. Then I have one in back of me calling out turns, and what I need to do to improve my turn,” said Jade, collecting a high-five at the end of a race.
“It’s just awesome, I don’t know how to explain it,” said Paige, 17, a Perkins student who had never skied before this week. “The first time I went down I was so scared, I felt proud of myself.”
“You feel good after your first run,” Paige said.
Perkins student Kenny, 21, learned to ski while tethered to his instructor.
The festival culminated in a series of races. Raising the pole told the race officials, “We’re ready!”
“I’m a bit of a thrill-seeker so I love it,” said Zack, 18, from North Oxford, Massachusetts. He had a guide both in front of and behind him. “If you want to go fast and be a little reckless you can and it will be the time of your life. Or if you want to have a nice mellow drive down the slopes, it can be just as comforting and relaxing for you as well.”
“When you’re flying down the hill and you come up to a sudden drop or sudden steep pitch, it can be a little scary,” said Zack, taking a run down the mountain. “Skiing is an adventure. And who doesn’t love a good adventure?”
The week of adventure at Sugarloaf Mountain ended on a high note for the students, teachers and guides of Perkins Outreach and NEVI.
See the list of upcoming Outreach Short Courses, which are open to public school students who are blind or visually impaired.