MENDON, Vt. — Marine Corps veteran Tim Fallon, 28, heads up Pico Mountain on a mission. He was blinded by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2010 and feared that he would never ski again. But now he has a few good men — two volunteer ski guides — and his wife, Sarah, to serve as his personal radar on the slopes.
Nearly 30 skiers and 90 guides from the US Association of Blind Athletes and Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports have volunteered for the ninth Winter Ski Festival. Some, like Fallon, will be skiing for the first time without sight.
Fallon, once a high school ski club member in New Jersey, hasn’t skied in eight years.
“I miss the speed and recklessness,” he says. “We’d play ski tag and do other irresponsible things on the mountain as quickly as possible. It was a really exhilarating feeling. I would just love to be able to do that to some degree again.”
But to head down a hill untethered requires a big leap of faith, and a devoted support team.
“Trust is the hardest part for these athletes,” says Erin Fernandez, executive director of Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports. “You’re going to go flying down a mountain when you may have some sight or no sight and a stranger is going to tell you when to turn right or left and when to stop. You are relying on somebody to have a fun and safe time.”
For the strapping, redheaded Fallon, there was just a smidge of trepidation in temporarily abandoning his cane and seeing-eye dog.
“Yeah, I’m a little hesitant about some things, but they wouldn’t have started this program if it wasn’t possible,” says the Purple Heart recipient. “I expect to have a blast.”
It is an ironic choice of words.
Suddenly, life changes
The last thing Marine First Lieutenant Tim Fallon saw before he was blinded was the Afghan night, a row of trees atop irrigation ditches. Fallon was commanding a rifle platoon of 60 Marines and 20 Afghan soldiers in Helmand Province, sweeping for mines. The Afghan platoon commander, Imad, stepped on a buried pressure plate, just a few feet away from Fallon.
“We were working in tandem and we just got unlucky,” says Fallon.
The explosion sent Fallon flying, and shrapnel ripped into his eyes.
“It was like someone turned on a light,” he says. “Suddenly I felt all this pressure and then I heard the boom. It blew my helmet, my goggles, and everything off. It was surreal.”
He somehow radioed for help. A helicopter arrived, and he and Imad were placed on stretchers.
“He was a triple amputee on the deck and he bled out in the helicopter,” says Fallon. “I was real lucky in that regard — not much explosive force hit my body — but my eyes were perforated.”
At a field hospital, Fallon was put into a medically induced coma.
“They just didn’t want me moving around,” he says. “I couldn’t talk because they put a trach in.”
When he awoke, the first thing he did was grab a whiteboard and scribble, “My Marines?”
He would have two surgeries on his right eye and one on his left at Walter Reed Medical Center. He is legally blind; he can see only some shapes and has some light perception.
“I was devastated and didn’t know what to do,” says Fallon. “I was literally the first blind person I ever met. It was kind of a weird thing. I had no idea how blind people made it through life.”
He knows that some veterans feel hopeless.
“That’s real sad,” he says. “I try to tell myself, ‘You are not the only one who was in a situation in a war where they got blown up and hurt. Millions of people have done it in the course of history, and unfortunately millions more will do it again, so you’ve got to get over it and get through it.’ ”
Fallon spent three months at a VA hospital in Illinois learning how to live as a blind person.
“It’s a little bit of: What choice do you have?” he says. “You can sit in your house and watch TV or listen to audio books or you can go out and get a job and keep doing the things you used to do in a modified fashion.
“To me, that really isn’t a choice. You just go out there and do it.”
Fallon got a job as an economist for the Department of Defense. He learned how to maneuver around the Pentagon without sight.
Some men come home from war damaged and find their fiancées have decided to move on.
“That was never an option,” says Sarah, who married Tim in September 2011. They have a son named Jake who is now 18 months old.
Fallon got a seeing eye dog named Orson and a master’s degree from Georgetown. He also started pushing his limits. Last year, he went hunting in Nebraska and figured out a way to attach a video scope to his rifle. He had a guide to help, but he was always good at marksmanship.
“It was cool,” he says. “Believe it or not, I bagged a mule deer.”
Spills and thrills
Out on the slopes for the first time in nearly a decade, Fallon wanted to take his cane with him.
“It folds up real nice,” he says, “so I’ll just put it in my pocket.”
But one of the guides says softly to him, “Tim, the one thing you won’t need is a cane.”
Sarah touches his arm gently and says, “You have poles.”
“That’s a good point,” says Fallon. “Good thing you’re around to think of things.”
Fallon, wearing a bright orange vest that says “visually impaired,” shows no fear once he hits the slopes with his entourage.
Heading for the lift, he quickly proves that there’s no such thing as an ex-Marine.
“Where’s double-black diamond?” he chirps, gaining confidence with every stride. “Let’s just go plummeting down and see what happens.”
The two guides take him and Sarah to Bonanza, the beginner’s hill. At the top, there is a mishap, as Fallon’s right ski catches the top of the lift. He and guide Pierre Swick are dumped into the snow. Operators immediately halt the lift.
“I screwed everyone’s day up,” says Fallon.
But that is not the case; the rest of the day is magical.
After a few runs, Fallon was told that he had “graduated” to the intermediate trail.
“It was like riding a bike,” he says. “You don’t get a lot of speed when you’re blind. So it’s cool to be moving pretty quick under your own power and the gravity assist.
“It felt like an old friend, man. That was really awesome.”
On one run, he clips a skier who was stopped in the middle of the trail.
“They deserved that,” he says with a laugh. He also took a few spills, but quickly hopped up.
What exactly can he see?
“Not much,” he says. “I could see contrast decently. So basically all I saw were black areas that were trees, gray areas that was the sky, and white areas that were the snow.”
Swick calls Fallon “inspirational.”
“He wanted to be treated like anyone else,” says the guide. “The main problem we had was trying to keep him slowed down.”
The other guide, Tim Robson, agrees: “He was too fast at times. He had some momentum going downhill and we had some exciting moments. He did great, he really did.”
Later in the day, Sarah becomes his primary guide. If it weren’t for the bright orange bibs, they look like any other couple on the mountain.
By the afternoon runs, Fallon is looking like a pro.
“I’m now wondering why I didn’t do this four or five years ago,” he says. “My wife and I always liked to ski, and so I’d like to ski together as a family.”Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.