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January 2023

Skiing is My Life's Passion. It is my refuge: Braille Mountain Participant Mark Bentz

Guest Author: Mark Bentz

Photos: Steve Shannon / @steveshannonphoto

My name is Mark Bentz. Born and raised in Vancouver, I am the owner of one of Canada's largest multidisciplinary clinics. I have been an avid skier for my entire life. From the time that I was 2 years old, our family spent the holidays skiing in Whistler and Sun Peaks. On the weekends, you could almost always find me on the local mountains of Vancouver, hitting the slopes with my friends. Skiing is my life's passion - it is where I feel the most grounded, the most free, and the most calm. It is my refuge.

When I was 9 years old, I was diagnosed with Cone-Rod Dystrophy - a rare degenerative eye disease. My prognosis was that by 19 years old, the majority of my vision would be gone. By the age of 55, I could expect less than 1% of my vision. I knew right then that while my vision loss would likely affect virtually every aspect of my life, I was determined to make sure that my disease wouldn't stop me from being able to ski.

In my teens, I was fortunate enough to have access to programs like BC Adaptive Snowsports. This allowed me to continue to ski; so much so that in 1984, I competed and won 2 gold medals in the Paralympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria. I'm proud to say that in the world of resort skiing, my loss of vision has never held me back!

Throughout my ski career, I have often heard the epic stories of people who had been backcountry skiing. While I've always wanted to do it, this area of sports has been unrealistic for people without sight. So, when Tyson approached me about the the backcountry trip with Braille Mountain Initiative, I was initially skeptical. Resort skiing without sight is one thing, but backcountry skiing blind is a completely different ball game - you're dealing with new terrain, a new sport (skinning up the mountain), new (and potentially dangerous) conditions and more. But, I've never been one to let my vision stand in the way of anything, especially skiing,so I signed on. And I am so glad that I did!

This week-long trip was everything I could have dreamed of and more: the experience of the guides and extreme attention to detail they took for trip planning, preparation and execution calmed any reservations I had about skiing in the backcountry.

My ski guide Harry was a rockstar. Guiding a blind person on skis is no easy feat - teaching them all they need to know about backcountry skiing is a whole other level. He effectively guided me down steep terrain. Together, we also learned how to properly identify key features for backcountry trekkers, without sight. Harry was also incredibly encouraging and patient when it came to skinning up the mountain, something that was pretty new to me as it doesn't exist in resort skiing.

Everyone on the trip was awesome! We had a great time on and off the slopes. We covered avalanche safety training, had some great conversations and laughs after our day on the hill and ate incredible food. The accommodations were comfortable, they had hot showers, beautiful views of Nordic Glacier, and Cara - one of the owners - was exceptional. And the house dog was a bonus to come home to every night! Her staff were so amazing at dealing with a group of visually impaired people. Sorcerer Lodge was the most amazing stay - if you can get out there, I would highly recommend that you check this place out. They were fantastic!

I want to say a huge thank you to everyone who made this trip possible. These trips do not come for free - the time of those who came on the trip to teach us these skills, the financial support from donors and sponsors - it takes a community to make these happen. And finally, I want to say thank you to Tyson Rettie - the mastermind behind the whole operation of Braille Mountain Initiative - for making one of my biggest dreams a reality!