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Being one with the mountain

Blind skier follows his other senses to master the slopes

Brian Russell, legally blind from retinitis pigmatosis, glided downhill ahead of guide Kathy Kay at Loon Mountain. Brian Russell, legally blind from retinitis pigmatosis, glided downhill ahead of guide Kathy Kay at Loon Mountain. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / February 8, 2009
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Clouds the color of dirty chrome clutter the summit. Snow-glazed trails curl down from their cloak like ribbons.

Up in the hazy blend of white and gray, a cluster of skiers emerges.

At first just blemishes against the snow, they skim along - one in front, three spread out behind, coasting left, then right; left, then right.

The sky chooses that moment to tear open. The group fades in flying white.

Moments later, they whir back into view. Closer now, chasing the mountain's curves.

As they whisk to the bottom, the orange vest emblazoning the skier in front suddenly appears, like a highlighter against the snow; calls from one behind fight the lash of wind: "Turn right. Hold. Left. Hold. Left. Hold. Left."

When they finally slice to a stop, skis sending up wakes of snow, the vested skier needs a couple of extra hands to snap free of his Rossignols, an arm to guide him over the ice to the lodge .

There, in the sudden rush of warmth and voices, a scuffed white cane takes over.

Brian Russell can tame a black diamond trail - without even looking.

Legally blind from retinitis pigmatosis, he doesn't see his way to the bottom. He feels and hears it.

"Most people have never seen a blind person ski down a hill," said the Medford 42-year-old, who relies on his other four senses to navigate down Loon Mountain in Lincoln, N.H., through the New England Disabled Sports program.

"It's something you can do with a disability," he added, face red and damp with perspiration, hazel eyes unfocused, as if fixed on something in the distance. "It's realistic."

He sees the world in shadows, shapes, and light. No fine details - sun falling in through windows, hazy outlines of people and objects, maybe hair color and the bright smudge of a jacket when the light is right.

There's no doubt it can be limiting - but not on the slopes.

Up on the white flourish of Loon's trails, the advanced skier navigates by attuning his feet, snug inside size 13 boots, to the pull of curves, the rush of sudden bumps, the drag of snow, and the wetness of flakes against skin; by focusing his ears on the whoosh of passing skiers and the Styrofoam squeak of hard-packed powder.

"I'm listening to what my feet are telling me," he explained. "You have to feel the slope in order to know what to do with the slope."

Not surprisingly, his fellow skiers often respond with amazement. As he cruises along, he's hard to overlook - blazing vest tight over a 6-foot-5-inch frame.

"He's legendary on the hill," Beth Potier, a volunteer coach with New England Disabled Sports from Durham, N.H., said as she stood in front of the base lodge. "People are just stunned that he's on the mountain."

Ten years ago, though, Russell wasn't thinking about racing across powder - he was mired in a stubborn muck.

Diagnosed with retinitis pigmatosis (also known as "tunnel vision") at age 19, his sight is dulling like a worn-out picture tube - darkness at the edges slowly creeping in. As the years pass, his vision becomes narrower and narrower; a cataract in his left eye further blurs the landscape. "I'm slowly slipping into the world of blindness," he said.

He can admit it now - but his deteriorating sight was something he once denied. He could fight it, he thought. He refused help, reluctantly gave up driving, rotated through several jobs, and spurned the idea of navigating the streets of his hometown with a cane (which he now calls his "best friend").

"I beat my head against a stone," he explained.

But then he found skiing. With it, "I've learned how to accept being blind," he said. "It allows me to be free, allows me to be me."

With each run, he's learned to trust his senses; tolerance and patience have slowly replaced bitterness and denial, he says. And although frustration can still take over - rising out of his own codependence or confrontations with people who just don't understand - he's better able to communicate his needs and strengths and accept his limitations.

Ultimately, he's come to recognize: Going blind doesn't mean you have to close down. And now, he says, he has something to offer. "I have a productive life," he said, "whether I'm sighted or not."

It's an affirmation he strives to engender in others. He regularly coaches visually impaired skiers down Loon with the aid of adaptive equipment such as tethers or hula hoops looped around waists.

Similarly, he described "nurturing" the roughly 35 volunteer instructors who chaperone him down intermediate and expert trails. Because he has roughly a decade's experience tracing trails, he helps his guides learn to intuitively position themselves based on noise level and visibility; they also explore different scenarios in varying weather and conditions.

"He's actually teaching the coaches what to do," volunteer Kathy Kay of Bow, N.H., said as she glided off the snow after a recent run. "He's such a good skier that he's training us how to guide him."

In turn, coaches serve as his cane, his sight. Three typically surround him on every run - they yell out commands and, when things are noisier, clap. Inflection is another indicator on the mood of the mountain and the weather - Russell described intense voices, relaxed voices, and "thank God you can't see it" voices.

"They're part of my equipment," he said. "Without their help, I'd never be able to ski."

And what a void there would be in his life if he couldn't.

He's up at Loon every weekend, holiday, and most vacation days. Generally, he makes the two-hour journey by bus.

"I'd rather hang on a mountain with a set of skis than do anything else," he said as he rested on his poles at Loon's trailhead on a toe-numbing and snow-whipped day. "It's a wicked awesome sensation, flying down the side of a mountain."

All around him, skiers and snowboarders coasted in from the trails; some wiping out, others sending up arcs of powder as they applied the brakes.

The day was darkening, mountain a cascade of white under an ashen sky.

Russell, buffered by a trio of coaches, kicked off toward the chairlift.

The slopes beckoned. Just one more run.

Taryn Plumb can be reached at tarynplumb1@gmail.com.

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