For a tough guy, Casimir Werda, 33, has beautiful eyes. Brown, clear, bright. If you want to see them, just ask. He'll fish them out of his pocket for you.
Otherwise, he’ll leave them there, for safety. He doesn't want them in his head because he’s worried they might pop out if he catches the heel edge of his snowboard and slams his head down as he hurdles, sightless, down the mountain.
I’m with him at Breckenridge’s Peak 9 this weekend, where the United States Association of Blind Athletes holds an event for 19 blind skiers from around the country.
According to the USABA, most blind snowsport athletes are skiers. It’s the more reasonable choice. WIth skiing, you can stand up, motionless; it's not so different from walking. Snowboarding, on the other hand, is harder. You always have to be on an edge, either sliding or on the ground. Doing it seems insane. (I'd never seen a blind snowboarder before, and I ski a lot.)
Donald Balcom, 43, is a blind skier training for the Paralympics, and says skiing without sight is hard and training is time-consuming. "I spend a lot of time out here not seeing my kids — not that I ever 'see' them anyway," he jokes. (Another joke Balcom likes to tell: "You know why I don't skydive? It scares the hell out of my seeing eye dog.")
Michael Doyle, 60, also a blind skier, agrees that it's pretty tough. (He's also a blind hunter — which makes me ask: "Once you've shot the animal, how do you find it?")
Still, snowboarding blind makes skiing blind look easy. You have to make sure your helmet’s on real tight, trust your guide — which is a human guide, not a seeing eye dog — and fling yourself down the hill and hope for the best.
Werda's trips down the slope are brutal — fall after fall after fall. He snowboarded as a kid, but this is only really his second day back on a board since the day when, ten years ago this week, as the gunner on top of a humvee in Iraq, an IED tore up his face and destroyed his eyes. He's seen not a fleck of light since. Not a glimmer.
Watching Werda board is a bit like watching a colt try and learn to walk … on ice, blindfolded, with only three legs. Here's how it goes: Werda starts out boarding by facing his instructor, a dedicated guy named Rob Mathis, holding hands. They call it "dancing."
With Mathis's help, he makes three nice S turns. Then Werda eats it. Then they try again. Then Werda eats it. Over a single run, under the Quicksilver Lift, Werda eats it 15 times. He nearly slams into a lift pole and into the trees, and he actually collides with a skier standing there. (How could he know he was there? Politely, Werda apologizes and asks if the sighted dude is okay.)
There's an especially large amount of carnage because, fucking trooper that he is, Werda refuses to keep "dancing" with Mathis; he wants to let go and board on his own.
Just try this sometime. Close your eyes boarding, with just a friend calling out, as Mathis does to Werda, "Skier left!" and "the mountain's about to slope down now." See how long you can do it without opening your eyes or eating shit. I know, personally, that when I ski switch, I can only make it about three seconds before I freak out and look backward.
Werda eats it more often than Rebel Wilson.
After each fall, Werda adjusts his pants and goggles. (Goggles he wears for unknown reasons. What eyes is he protecting? The ones in his pocket?) Catching toe edges. Heel edges. Whipping his head back. Jamming his wrist up. He seems surrounded a gravity sinkhole, skiing a slope rigged with invisible tripwires. "Graceful, huh?" he says dryly, after one fall. "I'm a professional faller."
And, far from hating it, Werda loves it. He obeys his guide's advice to go faster, which seems insane. But the momentum helps, like when you ride a bicycle, and it works. By the time he gets to the bottom of the run, he's linking three, four, five turns together before, of course, eating it. "It feels good," Werda says, beaming. "It's been a long time since I've been on my own."
And with that, it's done. The morning of snowboarding now over, Werda pulls the two white balls out of his pocket, pulls his lids apart, revealing deep, pink holes, and pops them in. They're a little googly. "Do they look like Cookie Monster? Or Igor?" he asks. "Igor," I say. He shakes his head and they align themselves straight, and if you don't look close, they look real, beautiful and brown.
I learned something riding with Werda. I learned that blind people can also be crazy — but the good kind of crazy, the kind that makes them try something that looks hella hard, just to see if they can. It inspired me to try harder to do more things that scare me, to head blindly into things even if I'm not sure how well they're going to turn out, and to accept the pain that can come along with that, whether it's getting laughed at, or dismissed, or falling on my face — in a metaphorical or literal way.
And I learned that, if you're going to snowboard blind, remember to take your eyes out first.