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January 2023

5-Day Trek in The Rockies...Blind: Braille Mountain Initiative's First Backcountry Hike

Guest Authors: Lisa Odlan & Mark Bentz

Braille Mountain Initiative’s first ever hiking trip in the Canadian Rockies was an absolute blast! This past August, we took 5 blind hikers along with 5 sighted guides, on a 50 kilometer through-trek from Sunshine Ski Village (just outside Banff) to Mount Shark (Kananaskis Country) following a portion of the Continental Divide Trail. The route took us by Sunshine Meadow, Citadel Peak, Og Lake, Lake Magog, and the illustrious Mount Assiniboine. The iconic mountain was described to participants as a pyramidal peak standing at 3,618 meters - the highest peak in the Southern Continental Range of the Canadian Rockies. Some of the participants described hiking in the shadows of Mount Assiniboine to have spiritual effects.

The group came together from communities across Canada, with visual impairments ranging from totally blind up to 10% residual vision. Under the leadership of our fabulous ACMG-certified Hiking guide, the group quickly found synergy and realized we would all be in this journey together, through the high points and the low, creating a tight bond amongst the group. Everyone was keen support and encourage one another when things got tough, and celebrate each other’s triumphs.

A 5-day trek in the Rockies as a blind person does not go without its challenges. A moment to remember was when the B1’s (the term for someone who has total blindness) & near-B1’s were independently navigating their way up a steep hill to the outhouse in a conga line. Through necessity comes innovation. Sometimes it might be easier to ask for assistance, but most often growth and learning comes from fumbling through unassisted.

Bringing blind people into the backcountry also has its magical moments. On the first day we endured a grueling kilometer-long descent down into Porcupine Campground, testing both our knees’ and our mental resilience. We often dread the uphill climbs, but in this moment, we learned to not underestimate the challenge of a steep descent. That night we had to get creative with where to pitch our tents as there were many other campers out enjoying the backcountry.

The following night gifted us with an incredible thunder and lightning extravaganza, captivating our senses. The thunder started rolling in as we were just finishing up our dinner. The group rushed to get the tents up before our pack sand ourselves got soaked… and we succeeded with only minutes to spare. There is no better entertainer than mother nature. The boom of the thunder echoed through the valleys. The lightning flashes lit up the entire sky. All the while, the rain is relentlessly pouring down onto our tents, giving us a whole new appreciation for shelter.

Setting-up and taking down camp each day without vision, by the way, poses its own unique challenges. Figuring out the backcountry hacks such as where to strategically position your tent in relation to the outhouse, or how to keep your backpack organized, came with time. With 4 nights to practice, the participants were able to gain experience and hone their skills.

Braille Mountain Initiative trips strive to have a focus on teaching backcountry utility & survival skills, providing leadership opportunities, and leaving participants with the confidence to embark on backcountry adventures with their own social circles. On this trip specifically, participants learned about backcountry bathroom etiquette, how to use a gravity water filter, learned to (or at least attempted to) cook dehydrated meals on a WhisperLite stove, handle boiling water, how to properly dispose of greywater, strategies for being bear-aware and leaving-no-trace, and engaged in morning stretching for injury prevention. Unfortunately, some hikers also learned about the joys of blister bandages.

On day 4, we were humbled to be hiking in the presence of Mount Assiniboine, revitalizing our tired legs. That night, after having run out of water on trail, we camped at Big Springs Campground. We were awestruck to have found the springs, the point where groundwater gushes out of the earth, fueling the river which quenched our thirst and cleansed our weary bodies. What a wonder to witness water bubbling out at the earth’s crust from the aquifer deep below. Many participants described having the best sleep of the trip that night at Big Springs, thanks to the white noise from the river rushing just 20 meters away.

The final, exceptional Rocky Mountain experience was to share space with a Mamma Grizzly bear and her three cubs. Our group was able to come within about a hundred meters of them because of the rain and wind dampening the sound of our presence. In this moment, we were exhilarated by our proximity to fierce wildlife, while also at-ease since the Mamma bear had no regard for our presence, as she and her cubs were concerned only with foraging for their food.

After five days in hiking boots, a fun wrap-up party was held at the ACC Lodge in Canmore where we sat around enjoying pizza, drinks, and reminiscing on the week’s transformative events. The group went to bed that night, in the comfort of a lodge with mattresses & pillows, flush toilets, and running water, feeling grateful to have been part of this unparalleled experience.

Braille Mountain Initiative’s mission is “to provide lasting, life-changing experiences for blind and visually impaired individuals”. From all those who attended the first backcountry hiking trip, we can all agree that this was accomplished, and then some.