Hiking Blind-It takes a team!

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On each blog I like to mention, they say it takes a village to raise a child. I give great gratitude to my community as it takes a community for me to enjoy and participate in all the activities I do.

First chair, first hiking day 2015!

The picture of the four of us, my core hiking team, is from the first chairlift up the mountain for the 2015 hiking season. We have Jim, myself, Susan and Anne. There are many challenges in being active, here you see Anne with her knee brace for stabilization. It works and keeps her coming out with us.

There are as many ways to be guided if you are blind on a hiking trail as there are trails to explore. My first word of caution is, ’don’t be a hero’. This goes especially in slippery areas and when you are tired. Hike today so you can be active again tomorrow. I have a totally blind friend who prefers a slack, dog leash length attachment between him and his guide. He walks and talks behind or alongside depending on the terrain underfoot. I prefer a solid connection. I find it gives me more feedback. I use my white cane horizontally. When walking single file, my guide and I each hold onto the cane with the downhill arm. They find it easy to angle their wrist and put pressure on the cane when I need to get a bit left or right. The other advantage is that my cane is in my hand for times when we stop and the guide releases the cane. I can poke around if I like, or move around if I’m told it’s a flattish, safe area. This makes me feel a little more independent than always having to wait for a hand or an arm before moving. I use approximately a 53 inch cane with the larger constant contact ball.

Cane and walking pole used on Embleton Mountain

I like to use an adjustable hiking pole in my other hand. This gives me balance and feedback on what the angle of the hill is like. If not using the cane as a solid connection, I prefer to hold onto the top of my guide’s backpack and use the hiking pole in the uphill hand. I find, if the pole is in my downhill hand and I misjudge the ever-changing width of the path and go to plant the pole, I may tumble. If this pole plant error happens using it on the uphill, I only lose my balance and at worst fall uphill. On the very steep stuff I prefer no white cane or pole. I like one hand on my guide’s hip area and the other on the pack. Then we walk in cadence; like mirror images of one another. It’s relaxing and I often shut my eyes to fully concentrate on my feet and my guide’s body movements. We also use a ‘tail gunner’ who lets me know when we can relax after a rough or steep area, with “that’s it”, or “clear”. If you choose to use the pole going down hills there are a couple of things. First lengthen the pole. Also, on steeper downhills, ‘cup’ the top of the pole, rather than holding onto the grip.

We also use talking, as always. “Big rock to your left,” “keep you feet tight together, big rocks on either side”, and “walk wide”- meaning rough ground. By walking wide we essentially straddle the obstacles.

Descending a steep slope
Hand on pack, walking in step

Some people who have pretty good residual vision can follow visually and when there is something to be concerned about the guide can call it out or put their hand behind so the VI person can hold on. “Duck” is a good one for any overhang you encounter. Some guides just keep their hand on my head until I am clear of the barrier. I have been known to be crouching down long after the overhead obstacle is even there. LOL. It really depends what type of trail you have chosen.

We have found over time that stepping up onto a root or rock while tapping it gives me an immediate send of how high or low to step. For instance, “Root left”, spoken as the guide steps and accompanied with a tap on the object, allows us to walk more fluidly. Initially we were stopping at steps up and down or bigger roots, but this broke the cadence of our pace and I interfered with the pace of the group.

One recommendation I have learned the hard way is to make sure you, as the blind person, change your grip. For instance, change it up with holding onto the top of the pack and move to the middle of the pack on less steep grades. This saves your shoulders and neck from probably becoming very stiff. I also try to remember to roll my shoulders down my spine. I find that no matter how relaxed I am, my shoulders do creep up closer and closer to my ears. So getting that extension along the way feels great and leads to a more comfortable hike overall. We usually hike in the area of 3-4 hours at a time. A couple up, a break and then down.

Straddling complete barriers such as a fallen log or water can be done a number of ways. The most reliable way we have found is to have the guide straddle the area sideways. Then I put my foot directly behind the guide’s foot on this side and mimic the stance. Just like that, we are both clear of the obstacle. This technique works well when snowshoeing. Another option is to stand on the near side of the creek and have your guide take your hand from the other side. If balance is an issue, hold onto another hiker’s hand before you take a big step forward. You can also use your hiking pole in the creek. Lengthening it might work best at this point. Then keep one hand on it and the other hand in your guide’s hand.

My favorite way of descending, if you and your guide are comfortable with touching, is to put one hand on my guide’s hip and the other on the pack, then walk in sync with the guide. I find I can feel the angle of the slope through the change and flexion in the hip. Often with a guide with whom I am very comfortable , we can use these techniques to descend together with very little talking. I appreciate this as it gives us both time to enjoy the sounds and scents of the great outdoors.

Hiking and challenging yourself when you are blind is truly team work. It’s an adventure every time you go out together. Little adjustments are made all the time. Sometimes I hike all day with one guide, while other days I hike with more than one guide, who can take turns. It all depends on how we are on the day and what the terrain and weather conditions are.

Hiking route (10 km) and elevation profile (385m)
Hiking route (10 km) and elevation profile (385m)