I have been skiing since I was 3, so for 26 or so years. I have skied trees, couloirs, bowls, moguls, and pretty much anything you can find in-bounds. This blog post came about after I started outlining how I may teach aspiring ski guides to guide blind people. I realized there isn't much free information available not related to a purpose built adaptive program on how to guide a blind skier. This manual consists of some techniques my guide (my dad) and I have come up with, and in a later blog post, I will do deep dives into some of the unique challenges of skiing certain types of terrain blind.
I would like to start this post with an unfortunately long list of caveats. There are many different methods of ski guiding a blind person, and different people use varying techniques, depending on vision level, experience, comfort, and level of guiding experience. My techniques are intended to highlight what I find works best, as an extremely aggressive, totally blind skier, and are not intended as mandates for how people should guide a skier. Many visually impaired and blind skiers, including myself, prefer to ski in front of their guide, while others opt to ski behind the guide. I am totally blind, so there is absolutely no benefit to me seeing where my guide is. Additionally, I find echolocation to be diminished in usefulness while skiing, unless there are large cliff bands or thick trees, because helmets block a lot of sound. A partially blind skier might ski behind their guide, which some totally blind skiers do depending on their skiing style. I, however, ski in front of my guide because I tend to use a much more freeform style, where I direct my next movements in many cases, rather than following a guide everywhere. This is actually one major reason I chose not to do competitive ski racing, besides the fact that it was not enjoyable for me. The Paralympic ski racing rules for blind skiers require the guide to be in front, which absolutely makes no sense to me. Nobody could provide a single reason to justify this as a requirement. Needless to say, I now enjoy moguls and technical skiing so much more, and have absolutely no interest in racing. My dad, sister, and a couple of other people who have guided me all have different communication styles, risk tolerance levels, and methods for handling emergencies. Variations between guides are facts of life, and skiers need to be aware that no two guides will guide in the same way. However, there are common techniques and qualifications a ski guide must be comfortable with to do the job. This blog post is quite lengthy, so please bear with me as I outline all the pieces involved in ski guiding.
Table of contents:
Guide technique manual
Guiding a blind person down a ski slope is incredibly fast paced. The entire situation can change from one moment to the next. Common commands, trust building, techniques to avoid stationary and moving obstacles, movement strategies, and communication devices are all critical for a guide team’s success.
Short and suite
A skier only has a few seconds to react to developing danger. In the time it would take for a guide to give a multi-word command, such as "you turned too far, turn back to the right," and for the blind skier to interpret and understand this, the blind skier may well have already run over another skier or hit a tree. Additionally, miscommunication is more likely to occur with longer commands. I recommend utilizing a small set of commands, involving 20 words or less, that address nearly all possible skiing scenarios. It is best to avoid fancy language or anything unexpected. Guide commands should be boring, but maximally understandable, without much thought. My ski commands consist of very few primary commands, with a set of secondary and sometimes tertiary modifiers. These modifiers affect a primary command to give me extra information. Some modifiers come before commands, and some are used after commands. In general, the most important information comes first. In addition, some primary commands like down and stop can also be used as modifiers like "down right." A list of common commands is as follows:
- Strait down the fall line
- Turn a full right.
- Turn a full left.
- Stop (modified with left/right sometimes.)
- Slow down
- Slow a bit down. Oh, and down is not a modifier here, we just used this terminology and it stuck, because "slow down" does not make sense as a command.
- GO, you're on your own, take over, other random variations
- Make turns whenever you want. I often don't have my guide giving commands for every turn on moguls or open slopes, unless there are people around. I just turn on my own once we get into a rhythm.
- Steep, flat, face, etc.
- The slope is getting steeper, flatter, or we are approaching some sort of feature that is going to make the moguls or snow change unexpectedly. This is more communication than command. I choose to do what I want with this info. For example, I may slow down so I don't blast off of a face into a gnarly mogul field.
Secondary commands modify primary commands. Since they modify primary commands, they are optional. Primary commands may always be used on their own, but primary commands must be either proceeded or followed by a primary command. When I mention a “full command” I am referring to the standard right/left/other primary command and am specifying what is being modified. Secondary commands can be layered. A list of secondary commands is as follows:
- Make the skis take a longer arc while turning, creating a larger circle. For example, if specified for left/right, it means making the circle carved out by the left or right turn longer than usual.
- Modifies another command to indicate a tiny adjustment. For instance, "step right" implies a small correction. In a lift line, it means sliding over without turning.
- Bit, or my dad uses "little" more often
- A modification larger than a step but less than a full adjustment.
- A highly aggressive command, instructing a quick and more pronounced turn than a full command.
- Stay --
- Indicates the presence of some danger. The opposite of the primary command should not be used, and the command should be preferred over going straight or down to check speed. "Stay right" means not turning left or down, even turning a bit more to the right if speed needs to be checked. It can be repeated to emphasize the magnitude of danger or ensure effective communication.
- Hold the next command, I.E. kind of like stay but is usually used when I'm not already going that direction. Whereas stay right is used if I'm already going right or need to correct right, hold right, or right hold, is used if I need to turn right and then not turn back left or down. Also indicates that the primary command should be taken soon because hold means something exists like a traverse and I shouldn't go the opposite direction.
- While down is a primary command, "down" can also be used as a secondary command. It can be combined with left/right to indicate moving down the fall line with the directional command. Note that "down" isn't possible with all commands. For example, "stay down" doesn't instruct skiers to get to the ground but rather to keep skis pointed down the fall line. "Stop down" might be an unusual command, possibly implying stopping using an aggressive snowplow.
- Super hard
- An extremely aggressive command, even more intense than "hard." Typically reserved for emergencies or when the slope is changing abruptly.
When I talk about step, bit, unmodified, and hard commands, they are relative based on how steep the slope is. Full is in context to the steepness of the slope, and there's not a precise angle I can provide. A right on a catwalk is a "bit right" anywhere else. On catwalks, hard right means turn about 90 degrees and go over the edge or down a run, while hard on a regular run means quickly and aggressively turn until speed is being throttled and you are not going down as much. For beginners, I'm not sure if this system would work as well, because learning how to read the skis to feel when enough is enough is a bit of a learning curve. Additionally, our system evolved as I learned to ski, and many novice skiers, and blind people who did not grow up living active lifestyles may lack the spacial awareness to read the fall line. The major difference I've noticed between my system and the system I see most teams using is that my system uses the fall line as a reference for whatever is happening currently. I.E. if the guide says "left", that means turn left, and turn until the fall line is to your right by a satisfactory amount for the steepness. My dad was attempting to guide me in a golf cart (at a quite slow speed) and gave me a hard left. I had no idea what hard meant with a golf cart and was used to having a reference fall line. Consequently, I failed to turn hard enough and hit a rock wall. No damage was done, but I imagine a beginner skier would need different techniques from mine. Even I need to learn how to interpret the intent when modifiers are used by new guides in varying situations. Additionally, some guides repeat “left” until the turn is complete, or have a command to tell someone that the turn is over. This seems to work well in many cases, and guides can use a more aggressive tone and increase their volume if they need to signal that the skier is in danger.
emergency command strategies
Emergencies happen on ski slopes. It is an inherently dangerous sport. However, we can manage this danger by taking precautions. Such risk management strategies include things such as avoiding overly crowded runs when possible, wearing a blind skier bib and guide bib for identification, keeping speed in check through congested areas, always having gear tuned to the conditions and skiers body type/weight, and always wearing a helmet (PLEASE DO NOT SKI WITHOUT ONE; I know people who would be dead if it weren't for their helmet.) There are many risks involved in skiing, and a blind skier needs to be aware of the fact that they must always be alert and ready to react to developing situations. There are simply times where I know I am in a crowded area, so I respond by skiing a bit more cautiously. This gives me the reaction time necessary for making a severe course correction. There is absolutely nothing wrong with decreasing speed in crowded areas. Some guide teams have an emergency command for falling, to avoid some danger such as a person or tree, if they missed a command. I certainly recommend using an emergency command when learning how to ski or working with a new guide. However, many expert blind skiers and guides I know report their emergency command system is almost non-existent after they build trust and effective communication. My dad and I do not have such an emergency command. Humans tend to slightly change the tone and assertiveness of their voices when things are becoming urgent. I'm not talking about having a screaming fest, I just mean that if a guide says hard left, Hard left! SUPER HARD LEFT!!! they will say the final commands with more gusto than the first one. As my dad and I have been skiing together since I was 3, we are able to read each other's intent really well. Sometimes, an urgent “hard left stop,” or similar command, gets used for emergencies, and if I sense enough danger, I may throw myself at the ground. This next point is incredibly serious, and unfortunately many people have a lot of trouble executing on it, because automatic responses are hard to hone. I do not recommend using swearwords as an emergency command. It may be natural for people to swear in a really stressful situation, but an f-bomb does not give any relevant information that can be used to avoid danger. It indicates the presence of some danger, but it does not help people get information to avoid that danger. I like to drive this point home by having people listen to a bunch of 911 calls. If someone is screaming and cussing, the operator can't dispatch resources easily. Ski guiding is very similar. This is tough because I can't just tell the guide not to react in a certain way next time someone cuts me off. For many guides, it's a skill that takes time to develop, and I haven’t found anything, aside from experience and practice, which helps to hone this skill. However, it is important to note that development of the trust needed by a good guide team will be hindered if the guide has a tendency to trip on words and resort to cussing. The reality is that some personality types are not cut out to be an effective downhill blind ski guide.
It's not always necessary, or even advisable, to give commands for every turn. I typically don't ski moguls with commands given on every mogul because moguls occur so often that commands can't realistically be given for each one. On open bowls, or wide runs with few people, I typically get into a rhythm and turn when I want. Commands in these situations are limited to things like left hold, stay left, stop, down, or informative jargon like steeper, flattening, longer moguls, etc. If my guide issues a real command like hold left, that command stays on until I'm told otherwise. To initiate self-guiding, we'll usually use a command, such as “go, you're on your own, etc.” I suggest that new teams use a two-syllable command, such as "take over." Self-guiding is never initiated in time sensitive cases, so two syllables is fine.
I briefly discussed skiing moguls earlier. While skiing moguls is possible blind, and I ski lots of them, guiding moguls is radically different from guiding groomers. An entire article could likely be written about this subject. Turning in moguls is entirely based on feeling the mogul and reading how aggressive the turn should be based on how the skis react. I’ve literally fallen thousands of times learning how to read moguls, and still fall more than good sighted skiers in moguls, although getting here took over a decade of doing mogul runs 10-20 days a year. It's not trivial to guide moguls. I might even say that it's impossible to guide every turn precisely. A blind skier just needs to do the hard work of learning how to feel moguls and reacting quickly to make the correct turns. In moguls, guides focus much more on communicating information rather than commands. This information consists of things, such as “It's getting steeper,” or “if you go a few rows right, the moguls are prettier.” Also, blind people can only read the mogul under their feet. A guide can help by commenting on the upcoming terrain, as mentioning things like how the moguls are better on the left side, a sudden flattening or steeper face, or longer moguls can allow me to change speed appropriately and read things better. Nailing this down will require working with a guide for a while because everyone has different techniques. Commands, when given in moguls, should be held until otherwise mentioned, just as before. There will be more interactions like the following:
- left hold
- a few rows.
- bit Down
take over. This might summarize threading the narrow part of a tree band between two glades, where the glades open up on both ends, but I also need to go left between trees and turn down a bit then left to go around some trees/rocks. Additionally, we might use commands, such as “slow left, around rocks," to indicate a hazard. Naturally, when doing glades like this, things move slower than they might in the open, and “slow down” or other commands should be used when necessary to tell the skier to keep speed in check while navigating hazards.
Blind people are water. The fall line is probably the biggest issue for newer blind skiers, or when self-guiding. A blind person typically follows the fall line like water, and it's necessary to communicate that the run is not strait down. Runs often do not simply go down the fall line. They can traverse the mountain or cut across in weird ways. Besides necessitating that the skier holds every other turn more, it changes the snow quality at times. Coverage can be great on one side of the run and horrible on the other. Some people, including myself, often have the guide mention there's a weird fall line, and suggest a count for the long and short of the fall line. If it's angling down and to the right, the command might be “take over, fall line 3 1,” or “fall line, 4 2.” I'll count to 4 and then turn left, count to 2 and then turn back right, and count to 4 again. Of course, not every turn is precise, so there will be more corrections with holds when skiing fall lines. In moguls, runs that do not follow fall lines cause moguls to form strange shelf formations. Trying to guide these is notoriously challenging. The guide will likely need to give a few commands to make sure the skier is going down the fall line efficiently and not heading toward trees. A set of commands, such as “Down left,” “right hold,” “down left,” and finally “right hold” will likely be needed.A couple of these in a row helps set the lengths of turns in a relative sense. More experienced mogul skiers might be able to figure these out eventually, though these moguls are most of the time challenging for blind skiers. There is basically a small target shelf the skier needs to hit. Going too far upslope of this shelf brings the skier up a steep ledge, causing them to stop or slide backward, and risks hitting exposed rocks and trees. Going too far downslope, on the other hand, results in the skier launching off of a ledge. The shelf ledges that form can be quite aggressive for runs that traverse a lot, I’ve seen drops that are like a meter tall even, so keeping speed in check is challenging. The uphill side of the shelves where the snow is naturally thinner often contain nasty rocks, trees, bamboo poles, etc. which makes hitting the target location even more challenging. Blind skiers should not try learning moguls on these types of runs and should instead focus on learning how to feel more consistent moguls to understand what is happening and how to self-correct. It is also important that guides help skiers recalibrate as the fall line changes because it takes a few turns before the skier understands how steep the fall line is.
When ski guiding, it is important that unnecessary commands and non-command words are avoided. Statements such as, “Nice job,” “right on,” “great job,” “or someone has an orange jacket to your left” are not just casual talk, they are a clear and present danger to the life of the blind skier and must be avoided. Particularly dangerous are commands like “Right on,” “go right over that drift,” and “all right turn left around that TREE!” English speakers have a tendency to apply the same word, such as “Right,” in a variety of contexts. “Alright, slow down" is an example of a command that lacks clarity. Instead of using the word right as a command, perhaps I should make up some non-English words, such as “Pla,” but guiding is hard enough without involving made-up languages. To drive this point home, I once was casually going through a bowl, and my guide said, “Go right over that drift,” meaning just go over that drift. I did as I was told, turning right after I went over the drift and directly into a tree. Fortunately, it was a soft, high-altitude tree, so the impact felt more like hitting a pillow. While it is important to call out things, such as sudden drops or drifts, the commands are the most important. A command, such as “Bit right,” can help me avoid the danger, and then “stay right, rocks,” can be used to inform that I shouldn't go left. Avoiding unnecessary chatter applies to the blind skier as well. Your guide is trying to keep you safe, so any conversation lacking urgency needs to wait until you have come to a stop and are not being actively guided. Your guide can't think through the responses to unnecessary questions while safely guiding you, just as people easily misinterpret unnecessary speech as commands and react accordingly. Furthermore, if the guide engages in conversation with friends while giving commands, trust is going to decrease. If my guides are talking to friends, I simply stop. If the guide cannot give me their undivided attention, I do not allow them to guide me. It's important that guide teams iterate, and reiterate to friends, that there is to be no conversation while actively guiding.
Techniques to avoid stationary and moving objects
My dad mentions he'll often guide me directly at moving people. This sounds counterintuitive, but the person is moving. If I am aimed at the person, by the time that person and I would collide, that person has moved so they and I no longer collide. He will often do this with things like chair poles or trees, because as I get closer and he understands my trajectory better, he can give the final command to get me away from the chair pole. This seems strange, but realize that a person is going to deviate naturally from whatever command was given. By directly aiming the skier at a dangerous object, you are consciously aware of the object-skier relationship and how it is changing, and will be prepared to correct when the skier gets within say 6-8 meters.
It is very noisy while skiing. In soft snow, it's not particularly loud, but add in icy conditions, snow making machines, wind, chair noise, screaming people, etc. and things can get very noisy. Thus, trying to hear a guide screaming commands becomes challenging. In addition, friends often scream to their friends in ways that mimic commands, such as “Left!” to tell them to go to a run they are pointing at on their left. Furthermore, screaming is painful for the guide, especially after a long day. This is why a lot of successful guide teams use radios or other communication devices. It is not only easier to guide, but it is safer because random strangers will not be misheard as the guide. Also, when mogul skiing, it is nice to be able to go a couple hundred feet before the guide skis. Sometimes I'll go a couple hundred feet and stop, then I let my guide go a couple hundred feet ahead of me. This allows me to ski the moguls self-guided, and the guide doesn't give me as much feedback. The feedback they do give can therefore be more relaxed because they don't have to try to ski the moguls at the same time while guiding, which is no small task, or scream commands when we end up separating. Without radios, I might be able to get 20 yards away from a guide in perfect conditions. However, if artificial snow is being made nearby (mostly happens during early-season on groomers,), it is almost impossible to hear what the guide is saying without radios. As of 2023, I use the Sena Snowtalk 2 system. I previously used a 2-way radio system developed by Eartalk which was specifically designed for people on construction sites (think crane operators) to be able to communicate amongst themselves. I believe the design of new models has changed and will no longer fit under a helmet, but I could be wrong. Compared with the eartalk system, which used analog radio, the sena system is digital and has about 150 MS latency from the time you speak until the other user hears you. At close ranges this is annoying, but it hasn't been as big of an issue as I anticipated. However, I prefer the analog system for knowing when the signal is getting weak (by hearing more static). I recommend looking for a two way communications system that has the following properties:
- Full duplex: You want the radio to allow two-way communication between the guide and blind skier so they can clarify things if needed.
- Range: You don't need thousands of feet of range, but having a couple hundred yards at least is useful, because ski areas have lots of people and thus randomly interfering radio traffic, as well as mountains and cliff bands.
- something that cuts down on wind noise.
- something with at least 6-8 hours of battery life. We often ski for a long time.
- Something that is always on. Guide shouldn't have to press a button to be in command mode in such a fast-paced environment.
- No vox (Voice recognition). They tend to miss parts of commands at random, which is dangerous. They also suck battery like nobody’s business. Prove me wrong about both of these points and I'll be down to change my mind.
- Something to inform about low battery life. Our prior system has a unique glitch where, when the radios die, they issue a random burst of static before they die. This allows me to come to a stop so we can communicate.
- Something that you can operate with gloves on is a nice bonus! Trust me, cold hands SUCK!
It may be necessary to tape a hand warmer to your radio when it gets extremely cold to keep the batteries within operable ranges. When guiding with radios, the following procedures should be followed:
- Guide should issue commands, even something as simple as “Ping,” every 10 or so seconds to ensure radio communication is still active.
- If radio quality is deteriorating, blind skiers should raise one pole straight up into the air to alert the guide of the possibility for strange issues or a sudden disconnection. At that point, I typically want the guide to stop if there is a long-range between us.
- If the radios die, blind skiers should raise both poles into the air and immediately come to a stop so the guide and skier can revert to no-radio commands.
NOTE: Some radio systems get themselves into nasty feedback loops, when they are near the top or bottom of chair lifts, because the chair bull gear makes a lot of noise. This can be avoided by either having one member turn off their mic, or going radio silent at the top of chairs where this ends up being an issue. Additionally, some chairs can, for reasons I don't understand, create enough electromagnetic interference at the terminuses to cause static or crackling in analog systems and dropouts in digital systems. In my experience, this only occurs within about 4 meters of the chair and will resolve as you get passed the load/unload station. The iron horse at Winter Park at the top always injected a weird static burst at random within a couple meters of the top, and the Super gage used to occasionally put so much static on the line that I couldn't even hear the guide, even as far away as the top of High Loansome.
Command structure, trust, communication style, and team building are all important to ski guiding a blind person. With the correct team and communication, blind people can practically ski anything a sighted person can. Terrain with Extremely tight trees might be the only example of an environment that poses challenges of which I don't find the reward of skiing worth the risk. Skiing is very enjoyable for a lot of blind people, and extremely well-disciplined teams do some pretty amazing things. I am thinking about preparing some video content to supplement this manual, but need to work out the logistics. Please email me with any recommendations for how I can improve this ski guide manual.