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In the backcountry, there are times when the light is so flat you have to feel your way down. We call this skiing by braille, but what if that was your actual baseline? For Tyson Rettie, it is.
The 30-year-old heli-ski guide from Invermere, B.C., lost the better part of his vision to a mitochondrial disease in 2019. A lot of people might quit skiing in this scenario, but Rettie not only kept at it, he kept skiing in the backcountry. He figured the best way to continue to do what he loves was to jump in the skin track, climb to the most wide-open and consistent glacier run he could find, and just let it rip. It worked, and he’s been doing it ever since. Now he wants to share that experience with other blind skiers.
While there are adaptive programs to help the visually impaired get into a variety of sports, Rettie found there was nothing for backcountry skiing. That’s when he decided to start the Braille Mountain Initiative. His new not-for-profit seeks to introduce the blind and visually impaired to self-powered mountain sports. Founded in a pandemic year, it’s been a rocky but determined journey, but Rettie’s organization now has the funds to launch its inaugural trip in April 2022 at Sorcerer Lodge in B.C., with six blind skiers already signed up.
The first time I went out ski touring after losing my sight, it was very bizarre to go from being a guide to being guided. But I’ve learned ways to have an interactive role in the decision-making. I can still dig a snow profile, I can still feel the snow underneath my feet.
I rely on feel. I glide the outside edge of my uphill ski along the skin track to follow the track. On the way down, as long as there’s nothing in front of me—and I can commit to that—it’s just like skiing like a sighted person. It took a long time to get to that comfort level and trust there was nothing I could hit, and just go for it. But I’m at that point now.
You can’t fully imagine the struggles of somebody with a disability until you’ve got that disability yourself. I very quickly started thinking about the things I was going to miss out on. Then I started thinking about other people who have been blind their whole lives, and about them not having ever had this opportunity.
It’s believed to be impossible for a blind athlete to ski in the backcountry. So that’s a significant barrier to overcome. Another is lack of education. That’s something we’re going to incorporate into our trips to ensure our athletes have the training needed to continue on in the sport. Ski touring is the easiest way to teach all this while also providing easy access to the terrain, and keeping it within the realm of affordability.
We’re going to provide blind skiers the opportunity to ski without being micromanaged. At the resort, their turns are often dictated by a guide. It’s not an overly independent experience. We’re going to put them on these big, open glaciers and say ‘You’ve got nothing to hit for 500 meters,’ and let them ski with the freedom a sighted person has.
For me, it’s an opportunity to stay in the industry, to forget about my visual impairment, and to be in a scenario where things feel normal and I’m not struggling. I’ve yet to ski at a resort since losing my vision; it just doesn’t seem like an appealing experience. So now ski touring is the only skiing I do.
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