Saturday, January 27, 2007

Ski for Light

Several hundred skiers have been here all week. They found unacceptable conditions at their intended venue, so they shifted here to Jackson at the last minute. After the last minute, in fact, because they made the decision when they drove by and saw the trail conditions en route to their original destination.

The Ski for Light program serves skiers with visual and mobility impairments. The group includes skiers on sit-skis, double poling ferociously, and skiers who can't see, skiing with guides.

Right away one has to be impressed with the mere idea of managing these challenges to ski cross-country. But yesterday I really started to think about the relationship between a blind skier and a guide.

The temperature was zero (Fahrenheit). There was a breeze, though not the hard winds we'd been told to expect. Trail conditions varied between grabby, cold, granular snow and occasional patches of sheer ice. With overnight temperatures below zero and a high that never surpassed four degrees, nothing was soft.

Because of the thin snow cover, lots of little hazards stuck up through it. As I skied I was constantly making the little automatic adjustments you learn to make in response to each little micro-change in conditions. At that point I realized that the guides for the blind were skiing this stuff and describing it quickly and clearly enough to allow a person who cannot see to negotiate the same terrain right near them. The guide can never ski too far in front for the other skier to hear the description.

Granted a partnership like that probably won't ski those conditions as fast as I was. But I couldn't have described it in real time at half the speed I was doing.

Later in the day we did some glide waxing for sit-skiers. I noticed that some of the skis had two sets of bindings on each ski, while others had only one. I asked one of the skiers about this. He told me that the experienced sit-skiers can have what is effectively a free heel, so they can lunge forward harder onto their poles at speed without ploughing the tips into the track. It makes the skis trickier to control on descents, which are already tricky enough, but it's the choice they make for more speed and power when they are propelling themselves.

Wherever you sit or stand, keep pushing to see if the limits are where you thought they were.

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