One man’s quest to make the backcountry accessible

 photoCredit: Ryan Creary

Standing at the top of a glacier in British Columbia’s Purcell Mountains, clipped into his alpine touring bindings, Tyson Rettie is about to do the one thing that reminds him of what life was like before he went blind.

In 2018, he was living his dream, guiding heli-ski trips and working towards his full-guide certification. In two weeks that winter he went from perfect vision to nearly blind in one eye. By the summer of 2019 a rare genetic condition—Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy—stole his sight in both eyes. He couldn’t see anything except blurry shapes and colours in his periphery.

“I was pretty angry,” he admits. His career was over; he needed help just to go grocery shopping in his hometown of Invermere, BC. But he wasn’t willing to give up on skiing. Most blind skiers join an adaptive sports program at a ski resort. Tyson turned to what he knew—the backcountry.

With a friend breaking trail and calling out instructions, Tyson learned how to skin up the mountain and ski through trees and knee-deep powder.

“I was so used to being out front, making the decisions about where to go, the hardest part was trusting whoever was leading me,” Tyson says.

He got over it and last spring he skinned into the alpine for the first time. On a blank canvas, with no trees or rocks to hit, Tyson could ski on his own without anyone’s help.

“It was liberating,” he says. “It gave me this sense of freedom and independence that I had lost in the rest of my life.” That run was so empowering Tyson realized he couldn’t keep it to himself. In May of 2020 he founded the Braille Mountain Initiative, a charity focused on introducing other blind and visually impaired skiers to backcountry skiing. He approached Sorcerer Lodge, a ski-touring operation in the Purcell’s north of Golden, BC, about bringing a small group of blind skiers and their sighted guides for an introductory backcountry ski week.

“We’ve been talking about how to make backcountry lodges more accessible for years,” says Mike Tattersfield, the owner of Sorcerer Lodge. “When Tyson approached us, we jumped at the opportunity to be involved.”

Where some might see blind skiers in avalanche terrain as too risky, Tattersfield says, with two ski guides accompanying the group it won’t be that different from any other week at the lodge.

“Conducting trips safely always involves assessing both the hazard and the capabilities of the group,” he says. “Modifying the program to the group is something we do routinely to make the skiing experience more enjoyable and safer for our guests.”

It’s a dream come true for Mark Bentz, the first blind skier to sign up for the program. “I’ve wanted to try backcountry skiing for 40 years,” says the Kamloops, BC, resident. “Skiing powder and the openness of the backcountry to me are feelings attached to freedom. That’s what blindness took away from me.”

“This is an opportunity for blind people to break a barrier,” agrees Jamie McCulloch, the executive director of Rocky Mountain Adaptive, a charity that helps disabled people do mountain sports. “They’re not only going to be empowered by a lived experience. By climbing up a mountain and skiing back down, they’re also going to show themselves and others that they can overcome just about anything.”

 

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020/21 issue, Everybody Outside

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