Blinded By the (Flat) Light: Senior Skiers Can See Clearly In Snow

Frozen by fear. Hardly able to move. Disoriented on terrain I'd skied for years. Other skiers seemed to be managing fine. But the light was flat, and my eyes could no longer pick up the contours of white on white.
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Frozen by fear. Hardly able to move. Disoriented on terrain I'd skied for years. Other skiers seemed to be managing fine. But the light was flat, and my eyes could no longer pick up the contours of white on white.

"Flat light," a version of whiteout, greatly reduces the contrast that helps anyone on snow see where the dips and moguls are.

In extreme conditions, every skier of every age is affected, and the best way to get to where you're going is to ski near trees, where their dark forms create visual contrast against featureless snow. Assuming, of course, you're not above treeline.

But these were not extreme conditions. Skiers and boarders were easily moving around, while I was virtually in a featureless and confusing snowscape.

Older skiers have older eyes. According to Dr. Jeff Pettey, Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of Utah's John A. Moran Eye Center, all skiers eventually experience decrease in snow contrast sensitivity. The most common culprit is cataracts, the cloudiness that forms on our lenses (eyes, not goggles), causing the eyes to lose their clarity and decreasing the quality of light focused on the retina. Cataracts can start forming when we're in our 40s and 50s, though they're more commonplace in our 60s and 70s.

Less common are processing issues related to diseases such as glaucoma and macular degeneration. They decrease the quality of the signal transmitted to the brain.

For me the eye opener was the other skiers who hardly slowed down while I was straining just to find the trail. I had been treated for age-related macular degeneration. But cataracts? A few weeks earlier, the ophthalmologist told me they were early stage. Those baby cataracts compromised my sense of what was going on in the snow!

After a minute or so of discomfort, I pulled the goggles from my helmet and headed down.

Getting Goggles Right

Choice of goggles and goggle lenses can make a big difference in helping senior skiers with compromised vision navigate in flat light conditions.

Most goggle manufacturers agree that the more light entering the lens the greater the definition and contrast. The trick is to select a lens whose color helps enhance depth perception. According to Cliff Robinson who heads goggle-maker, Revo, a mirrored surface provides additional protection from the sun. Developed using NASA technology, the brand's brown, amber and rose colors bring out the high contrast that helps skiers read terrain when light goes flat.

Less known as a goggle brand than for its eye protection products that help climbers up Everest, is Julbo. The company's lenses, made from the same material used in military helicopter windshields, are photochromatic, causing them to change color under varying light conditions.

While some industry experts recommend polarized lenses, the glare-reducing technology used in many sunglasses, others advise that in extremely flat light a little glare helps distinguish between ice and snow, making the trail more readable.

No More Fog
Regardless of light quality, fogged lenses get in the way of good vision. Having lived through many seasons of foggy goggles, I've explored all approaches to reducing the curse. Wipes, saliva, goggles with built in fans, products and technologies that claim to keep lenses clear under all conditions. Some work better than others, but none do a really good job.

A new goggle, available soon, may solve the problem once and for all. The manufacturer, A-bom, is introducing a goggle lens with a layer of heatable film. Once fogging starts, push a button and the battery-activated lens immediately disperses the fog. The inventor figured it out watching his heated windshield clear.

Gee Whiz!
Some inventors have gone beyond goggle and lens with ideas that would remove the "flat" from flat light. Among them, twin laser beams projecting a contoured grid of the surface in front of the skier. The idea is to navigate, videogame-like, through the contours. Lower tech, but equally out there, is a built in spray gun system that skiers would activate to send a fine blue color onto the snow, forming the contrast needed for better visibility. Similar sprays are used to make race courses easier to see in flat light.

While lasers and sprays remain in the planning stages, Michael Barry, president of the National Ski Areas Association has this advice for those of us with aging eyes: Get to the mountain early and ski until early afternoon. This strategy works best for the first half of winter when light tends to flatten as the day progresses.

As the Earth's axis shifts and daylight lengthens, pop on those rose-colored goggles and enjoy every last run.

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