“And right turn, and left turn, and right turn, and left turn.” This is the soundtrack that fills Ken Clausell’s head when he skis. Ken isn’t repeating those words to himself; his guide is saying them over and over, loudly enough to be heard over the skidding of skis, the whirring of chairlifts, and the shouts of other skiers. Ken needs his guide’s directions to ski because he has keratoconus, an eye disease that affects the structure of the cornea. “I have had several corneal transplants,” Ken says, “and I lost my right eye due to an accident. My current vision is about 20/400 … what people can see from 400 feet away I would need to be 20 feet away to see the same thing.”

Ken skiing with guide Demi Latham on a windy bluebird day

Though he had skied a few times in his 20s, Ken, who turns 50 this month, started skiing with Achieve Tahoe last winter. On his first few lessons, he skied side-by-side with his guide, both holding onto a long blue bamboo pole that connected them. “The most important thing when establishing a guide-skier relationship is trust,” says Demi Latham, one of Ken’s first guides at Achieve Tahoe. “As a skier, you must be confident that your guide is taking you to appropriate areas on the hill while keeping in mind where you are in proximity to them. As a guide you have to know that your skier is going to follow your guiding commands exactly how you are presenting them in order to keep both of you safe and in control.” By using the bamboo pole, Ken and his guides are able to build confidence in each other’s judgment and decision making, as well as practicing the commands they will use before trying them without the pole.

As Ken has progressed with Achieve Tahoe, he needs the support and guidance from the bamboo pole less and less. “Now we just mainly use it to work on something new,” Ken says. “My turns are getting better and I made it down a whole run solo using verbal commands.” Part of that is due to practice, but it’s also due to Ken’s grit and determination. “Since day one, Ken has continuously had the mindset of being willing to put himself out there to become a better skier,” Demi says. “We’ve skied together on hot, sunny days and on the coldest, windiest days of the season and he is always giving 100% no matter what.”

Guide Scott Behrens handing Ken his poles to practice skiing without the bamboo pole

Ken plans to continue skiing, improving his abilities so he can progress up the mountain to more difficult runs. “When you get to the top, just before you start to go down, [there’s] this thrill of excitement,” Ken says. “As I am going I feel the wind and hear the snow under my skis. It’s great, and I can’t wait to get on the lift and do it again.”

All photos in this story were taken by James Kim. Story and video by Josephine Cormier.