Written by: Tyson Rettie, Founder of Braille Mountain Initiative
Braille Mountain Initiative is a non-profit organization with the focus of inspiring the blind and visually impaired to get involved in backcountry mountain sports, and creates the opportunities for them to do so.
In the fall of 2018, I was preparing for the upcoming guiding season and my work at Great Canadian Heliskiing. I had also recently entered a new role as a rookie instructor with the Canadian Ski Guide Association. While teaching my first course, I noticed I was struggling to read a map. Shortly after this, I lost nearly all my vision in my right eye and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I was told with treatment I would recover my vision, but unfortunately this would not be the case.
This diagnosis was challenging, but I adjusted to using only my left eye and continued to guide full-time at Great Canadian Heliskiing. Shortly after the end of the ski season, I noticed the vision in my left eye was starting to change, and just four short weeks later, I would be legally blind.
It turns out, it was not MS, but rather a much more uncommon disease called Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy. LHON has no cure. The news was devastating, as I would not be able to continue my career as a ski guide. However this diagnosis would not prevent me from skiing in the backcountry.
Over the course of the next winter, I would learn to ski again. At first, it was a slow and exhausting experience. After months of relearning the basics, I was back to skiing fast in big terrain. With the help of a couple friends, I skied the 1700m descent from the summit of Mt. Jumbo to Commander Creek. It was truly a best day ever. I felt the best I had since losing my vision, and I knew I had to share this feeling with other blind skiers.
The following week Braille Mountain Initiative was founded. There are many adaptive sports organizations that do a great job teaching blind people how to ski, while providing a great resort-based experience. However, at this point in time, nobody was taking these people into the backcountry and providing a next level experience. That’s how we would be different—with untouched powder snow and no other people on the slope, we could give blind people the freeing experience of backcountry skiing.
As of this writing, we have taken two blind skiers on backcountry skiing trips in the Purcell Mountains. This upcoming winter, with the help of Valhalla Pure Outfitters and other supporting organizations, we plan on taking eight blind skiers on a week-long, life changing adventure into the backcountry. During these trips, we will teach them the skills needed to recreate safely in avalanche terrain and have an active role in Decision making as part of a group. They will be the first blind people to receive their Avalanche Skills Training Level 1 certification.
Our goal is not just to take blind people skiing but provide them with the skills, knowledge and equipment to stay involved in the sport with out the assistance of organizations like Braille Mountain Initiative. After their week with BMI, our participants will be able to have the feeling I had while skiing down Mt. Jumbo, which is still my best day ever in the backcountry.
In January 2022, Valhalla Pure Outfitters will once again be partnering with Braille Mountain Initiative to put on the annual Climb-A-Thon fundraiser. Ski tourers around Canada will have the opportunity to win up to $1000 Adventure Bucks just for getting out and doing what they love. Last year, this fundraiser raised over $9500 to help create equal access to backcountry mountain sports for the blind and visually impaired.
To learn more about our trips, fundraisers or to get involved you can visit www.braillemountaininitiative.com!