A version of this article first appeared in 2015 in Huffington Post.

I was 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 contours in the white on white.

Flat light sucks.                                                       Credit: Jan Brunvand

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.

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

Credit: Jan Brunvand

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 on snow contrast sensitivity. The most common culprit is cataracts, the cloudiness that forms on the eye’s lenses, causing loss of 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 what I could see in the snow!

After a minute or so of discomfort, I donned my goggles and headed down.

Getting Goggles Right

Choice of goggles and goggle lenses can make a big difference helping senior skiers with compromised vision navigate 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. Amber, yelloe, rose, green and gold lenses tend to transmit more light. Photochromatic lenses, which change color under varying light conditions, can be effective.

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 many 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.

SnowVision Rx goggles integrate prescription with inner lens

The unique SnowVision prescription goggle, virtually eliminates foggy goggles by positioning the presciption lens at a distance from the face where it remains cool, while providing a full range of vision using bi-focal or progressive lens technology.

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 read in flat light.

Artist’s concept of Earth and Sun. Credit: NASA

While lasers and sprays remain in the planning stages, Michael Barry, past-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.

 

9 Comments

  1. Rich Spritz says:

    Jon, Why not just have your cataracts removed? It is fairly minor surgery, it is a permanent fix, and it will be like somebody turned on the lights. You will need to have it done at some point, and it is mostly a matter of finding an excellent ophthalmologic surgeon and getting them to thread the Medicare needle.

  2. Jan Brunvand says:

    I’m thrilled to see my two flat light/foggy conditions photos featured in this interesting article. They were published in SeniorsSkiing.com in Oct. 2018 along with my article about skiing in flat light. Look it up by pulling down the “About” tab on the home page, then choosing “Correspondents” and then on down to my name. I continue to ski flat light conditions (if at all) in or near the trees, singing to myself the parody I composed for this article, “The Flat Light Polka.” The gist of the lyrics is in the chorus: “If I can’t see it, I can’t ski it/It’s too flat for me.”

  3. Brad Huggins says:

    And make sure you have a thorough ophthalmologic exam. I noticed exactly what you are describing last March. Local docs (who have a cataract mill) had me teed up for surgery.
    Got a second opinion. Yes, I have cataracts which don’t meed surgery yet because my limited low light vision is due to an epiretinal membrane (ERM) not identified by the original docs (two in the same practice). If you feel you are getting a “hard sell” to get your cataracts done, I’d recommend getting another opinion.
    From a retired surgeon.

  4. EILEEN FISHKIN says:

    Cataracts removed, and vision near 20/20, but flat light still a major inconvenience. Yes, it’s way, way better since the now very simple procedure, but still not what one would like. As a super senior, way past 80, I simply call it a day when flat light takes over.

  5. I know my eye doctor(s) have been monitoring me for quite some time concerning my cataracts, and this year I was finally told it was time to have them removed. This is after about 10 years of monitoring, and, obviously, I can wait. I haven’t skied yet after having them both removed, but I can’t wait! Unfortunately, the others I ski with have flat light problems that won’t be solved by cataract surgery, so I will be going in when they do. That is fine!

  6. At 68 I thought my low light problem was just because I am afraid of falling and getting hurt (again). Our local hill, Bogus Basin near Boise ID, is often socked in even when it’s not snowing. I’m delighted to hear than cataract surgery might help. I have an early- stage of the problem but so far it’s very mild. The good news is that because of the cataracts I get Medicare to cover my eye exams.

  7. bruce brody says:

    I think there are many goggles and sunglasses that specifically help with low light. You have to look at the amount of light they let in to see if they will be effective.

  8. Have had 6-7 days skiing mainly in flat light since cataract surgery with improved results. I have used yellow lenses for many years. Now that I have less of a problem with glare I also bought and used clear lenses on a somewhat flat day and they were great. The best advice is as previously stated, stay near the trees for best vision.

  9. Yvette Cardozo says:

    I’m gonna just wait for sunny days. And now, green and blue runs. I had cataracts removed a few years ago. At one point, I tried out goggles with an assortment of colors that alleged to help in flat light. None, esp. the pink one, did. At least not for me. So I have old, old Smith goggles with a lemon yellow lens. They seem to work best for me. Hopefully they last as long as I do.

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