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Trainees learn to help blind skiers

Susan Wood

KIRKWOOD – Some may argue Fred Hochstaedter needs his head examined after skiing blindfolded at Kirkwood Mountain Resort.

But the Pacific Grove, Calif., man has good reason to attend a clinic in which he may be certified as a guide for the visually impaired. Hochstaedter was helping his friend, Sandy, deal with a traumatic brain injury. The two skied together before an accident about five years ago. Now she wants to feel comfortable negotiating the slopes.

“She was very athletic, but now she suffers from vertigo. I can’t leave her alone on the hill,” he said above the Timber Creek Lodge on Saturday.

The three-day clinic put on by Discovery Blind Sports based at Kirkwood wrapped up Sunday – but not before teaching trainees what it’s like to be visually impaired on the slopes. Classroom lectures covered sensitivity training. In-the-field instruction put trainees through various exercises.

One of the most powerful was when they took a few runs in the beginner area blindfolded. Some trainees stuffed bandanas in their goggles. One closed his eyes.

Guide-training coordinator Carmela Cantisani, who is blind, warned the trainees of the fallback of the exercise.

“This is the most intensive part of the clinic. It’s tricky when you ski blind. You become disoriented. The main goal here is to guide,” Cantisani said.

She added that many people become nauseated and some get sick.

As the trainees took off to catch the chairlift, one found it difficult to find her poles.

Cantisani said it’s more difficult to get on the lift than to get off.

She had guidance from Melanie Shender, a San Francisco resident certified last year as a trainer as a Christmas present to her blind mother.

“We have a skier in front,” Shender instructed Cantisani. “Forward, forward, stop, right into the chute,” she coaxed her buddy into the lift line.

While riding the chair, Cantisani explained how the blind listen to distinct sounds on the slopes then remember them. She’s skied for 23 years.

One noise that wouldn’t be missed is the swish of skiers and boarders coming a little too close for comfort, Shender noted.

“I’ve had to tell people to be careful,” she said.

Cantisani suggested that would-be guides not be afraid to talk – a built-in barrier at times for some people.

“People are bashful about talking,” she said, adding that a deep voice works the best.

The duo prepped to get off the lift with Shender slipping her hand under Cantisani’s and warning her they were three towers away from departure.

“Tips up. One, two, three!” Shender said, as they skied away from the lift.

The guiding continued with Shender’s authoritative commands to reflect turns: “Up and right, up and left.”

Their efforts didn’t go unnoticed by people on the lift. One guy on a chair yelled: “That was awesome!”

Shender said the recognition is frequent when the guides take to the slopes. The first time Cantisani skied, her guide was an amputee who had lost his leg during the Vietnam War.

“It was a great experience for me in how to bring a skier down (the hill),” she said. “People have no idea how hard it is.”

“I didn’t know it was going to be so challenging. I’m falling down a lot,” trainee Rob Rust of Stockton said.

He received words of encouragement from his guide trainer Gilbert Converset.

Even though it was tough, Ken Wood of El Dorado Hills – whose mother taught Braille when he was younger – said he was glad he participated in the exercise with ski instructor Cheryl Cianciola to get a sense of what it’s like.

“I’ve had to rely on Cheryl and her commands. I have faith in her because otherwise it would be scary,” he said.

Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or swood@tahoedailytribune.com