You don’t need eyes to see beauty of the slopes |

You don’t need eyes to see beauty of the slopes

Sarah Gonser

Imagine the sun setting on Lake Tahoe. Picture how, especially when it’s a little cloudy, golden rays of sunlight project streaks of yellow, orange, pink and violet across the glassy water. Visualize the slowly darkening sky and the first stars appearing in the darkness, light years away, twinkling brightly.

To Jason Custer, 20, a vision like this means close to nothing. He has been blind since birth. The next best thing is comparison, but ultimately, Custer lives in a world which he mostly creates in his mind.

As a young child, a good friend took the time to explain colors to him in terms of temperatures.

“He told me white is either hot or cold – white hot embers, for example, or cold like snow,” said Custer, who attends Lake Tahoe Community College where he is majoring in education. “Orange is warm and a sunset, well, people have told me it’s beautiful.”

But being blind has never held the South Lake Tahoe native back. In high school he joined the wrestling team and on Tuesday, despite the blustery conditions, Custer and his guide, Doug Phillips, braved the powdery slopes at Kirkwood Ski Resort. As a member of Discovery Blind Sports, a nonprofit organization for blind and visually impaired people, Custer has been skiing for 14 years.

After slipping on bright orange bibs marked “Blind skier” and “Blind guide,” Phillips leads Custer down the slopes, directing him with detailed descriptions of the terrain, when to turn and which direction to take.

“I rely on my ears as much as you rely on your eyes,” Custer explained. “I hear my guide’s skis on the snow, even more than his voice, that’s how I know where to go. I can hear trees, towers and lift chairs going by.”

Eric Mazariegos, another Discovery Blind member, began losing his sight at age 8. Mazariegos, 29, has retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye disease that is incurable and gradually destroys the retina and optic nerve. He said his gradual vision loss happened in chunks.

“When I was 8, I had 20/20 vision. Now, I’m what they call low-partial vision. I can see a face right in front of me but no details,” Mazariegos said. “I would not be able to see the color of your eyes, for example. And I can’t see anything distant.”

Mazariegos started skiing with his guide, Linda Leva, four years ago and describes the experience as incomparably exciting.

“I always wanted to ski but I knew it would be really hard,” said Mazariegos, who lives in Concord, Calif., and is getting his master’s degree in special education. “But once I mastered the basics, it was just completely exhilarating going down the mountain so fast, with the wind in your face.”

Mazariegos is able to see Leva’s orange bib when she skies close to him but relies mainly on her voice to guide himself down the runs.

“I can tell by the inflections of her voice if it’s a hard turn or a slow and easy one,” he said.

Both Custer and Mazariegos get free equipment rentals and lift tickets donated by Kirkwood. The 20-year-old Discovery Blind program, whose guides also teach snowboarding, tandem biking, kayaking, windsurfing and water skiing in the summer, will host an annual Silent Auction, Feb. 27, at Kirkwood to raise funds for the program and promote public awareness of visually impaired people and their accomplishments.

For more information about the program, contact Natalie Ostergaard at (209) 295-3641.

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