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Visually-Impaired Teens Find Joy And Empowerment On The Slopes

Dec 11, 2019

Esteban Ferrer and Alisha Geary ski down Elk Camp Meadows on Snowmass Mountain as part of a Challenge Aspen program for visually impaired people.
Credit Alex Hager / Aspen Public Radio

Learning to ski can be awkward. After squeezing into a tight pair of boots and waddling to the lift, a first trip down the bunny hill can be full of challenges. But once you start getting the hang of things, there’s that unbeatable rush.

“Your heart starts racing,” said 18-year-old Alisha Geary. “Your mood changes, your attitude shifts. It's just amazing. You kind of have to experience it yourself, you know?”

Geary has spent the past three days learning to ski at Elk Camp Meadows in Snowmass with about a dozen of her classmates from the Tennessee School for the Blind. Challenge Aspen, a valley nonprofit that helps make outdoor adventure more accessible, is teaching them to ski. 

Geary has been visually impaired since birth and makes her way down the mountain with the help of Challenge Aspen’s guides and her other senses.

“You kind of have to rely on what you're feeling and what you're hearing more than what you're seeing,” Geary said.

Challenge Aspen’s guides and instructors have been instrumental in her first few days on the slopes.

“I started off nervous,” Geary said. “I mean, extremely nervous, a lot of anxiety, but they helped me get through that.”

Geary and the rest of the group from Tennessee are easy to spot in their neon yellow vests. Each of them is cruising down the run alongside one of those guides, usually holding on to a long orange pole that keeps the two in sync. Today, Geary is paired up with Esteban Ferrer. He stays by her side all day, giving verbal instructions about when it’s time to hop off the lift and where to make turns.

 

 

Ferrer (left) and Geary pose at the top of Elk Camp Meadows.
Credit Alex Hager / Aspen Public Radio

Ferrer has been volunteering with Challenge Aspen for four years, and he says he’s inspired every time he gets out on the mountain with a new student.

“It's really like all of us when we learn how to ski,” Ferrer said. “It's a scary thing to do. Imagine doing it when you're sight-impaired. That's a whole different ball game. So it's amazing to see them transition through that period of being afraid and uncertain, and they do it just as easily as we sighted people do.”

For some of the students, getting over that fear and uncertainty comes from deep within. 17-year-old Ella Brown is another one of the skiers from Tennessee.

“For me. it's a proving thing,” Brown said. “I was in an accident when I was six years old, and doctors told my parents that I would never walk, let alone ski. So it's more like, I can do it. if someone sighted can do it, so can I.”

And that desire to prove what she can do has paid off. She started off like the other students, holding on to a pole to stay in tandem with her guide. But on Brown’s second day here, she ditched the pole, and now she skis all under her own power. Camille Aumoit is one of the instructors who helped her do that.

 

“It is just incredible to see them,” Aumoit said. “You know, that sense of independence. Anybody wants to have that. And so for her to be able to just build herself to that moment, it's incredible.”

 

 

Geary (left) and Ferrer cruise to the bottom of Elk Camp Meadows.
Credit Alex Hager / Aspen Public Radio

The folks at Challenge Aspen have seen firsthand what’s possible for someone with visual impairments. And Geary has a message for anyone out there who might doubt what she can do.

“I don't understand why people think we're so incapable,” Geary said. “Because here we are out skiing, doing something we never thought we could do. We're out here pushing ourselves and stepping out of our comfort zones and getting more comfortable.”

And when Geary asks her guide to take her on the trickier way down the run and then cruises to a stop back in front of the lift, it’s clear that she’s not outside of her comfort zone anymore.