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February 2022

From Paralympic Games to Backcountry Skiing: Braille Mountain Initiative Participant Donovan Tildesley

Written by: Donovan Tildesley

Photos: Bruno Long

Many have said that I've has accomplished much in my 35 years. I'm a 35-year-old Vancouver native with a BA in English Literature from the University of British Columbia, and I work full-time as an insurance broker. I'm also an accomplished swimmer who has travelled the world extensively. In the winter, I love nothing better than to rip down Double-Black Diamonds on Blackcomb Mountain.

But there’s one more thing you should know about me: I am totally blind, and have been since birth. I was born with a condition known as Leiber’s Congenital Amaurosis, which left me without retinas.

Despite this fact, my parents were determined to expose me to any and all activities that a sighted child would be a part of. They first put me in the pool before I was six months old, and by age nine, I had joined my vert first swim team. Three years later at a provincial competition in Kamloops, I first heard about the Paralympics.

Intrigued, at twelve-years-old, I made it my mission to one day compete in the Games. Four years later, that childhood dream became a reality! I joined the national team at age sixteen, where I competed in the Sydney 2000 Paralympics, winning a bronze medal in the 200 m individual medley (IM).

Swimming wasn't my only sport. I started on skis at the age of three, and quickly developed a passion for the mountain over the course of many family trips to Whistler. At age 10, one of my guides told me about the Couloir Extreme, one of the steepest double-black diamond runs on Blackcomb Mountain. I made it my goal to one day conquer that run, a goal which became a reality five years later.

Today, you can find me up at Whistler most winter weekends, shredding the steepest terrain I can find! When Braille Mountain Initiative's Tyson Rettie approached me in Spring 2020 with his plan to bring blind and visually impaired people out into the backcountry, I was eager for this new adventure. "Several of my ski guides told me about their back-country adventures and I was intrigued to see how a blind person could take on this challenge."

A Week at Purcell Mountain Lodge with BMI

I will admit that I had some initial reservations about the inaugural Braille Mountain Initiative backcountry trip. Here I was, going to a completely unfamiliar ski area with, aside from the one friend/guide I brought, a whole group of people who I didn't know. I knew that Tyson was an experienced heli-ski guide, but he didn't have much prior experience working with blind people. I had no need to worry as the trip exceeded all of my expectations! All of the guides were highly professional, making sure that the safety of all participants was always taken into account. While I was definitely pushed outside my comfort zone at times, it was never anything that I couldn't handle.

On a personal level, the banter and camaraderie of the entire group brought the whole experience to another level. Purcell Mountain Lodge was a very comfortable home away from home; delicious food, staff who went above and beyond to provide a first-class back-country ski experience, not to mention showers with warm water!

Tyson Rettie has a winning attitude and an Olympic (or should that be Paralympic?) mindset. To lose most of one's vision and then immediately create an organization to empower others who are blind or visually impaired shows a certain strength of character and mental toughness that you don't see in many people. Through his vision loss, Tyson is now opening the eyes of the ski world to what blind and visually impaired people can really accomplish. I look forward to going on another trip with him in the future. Overall, I couldn't have found a better way to kick off my 2022 than this recent trip with Braille Mountain Initiative.

To learn more about Braille Mountain Initiative trips, fundraisers or to get involved you can visit!