With his Braille Mountain Initiative, Tyson Rettie is introducing visually impaired skiers to the backcountry. By Ryan Stuart. Photos by Ryan Creary.
“Yell at me before I hit something,” Tyson Rettie calls before pointing his skis down the last pitch of the glacier and taking off. Alone and out front. If anyone was watching him smearing arcs through the perfect corn high in the Purcell Mountains and then stopping just before the rocks, they’d be hard-pressed to know he only sees blurry shapes and colours and only in his peripheral vision. Rettie might well be the first blind backcountry skier.
“In the rest of my life, at some point, I always have to ask for help,” he says at the bottom of the run. “When I’m skiing a wide-open slope, I am independent. When I can just let go and ski, I forget about my visual impairment for a bit.” To share that same feeling of freedom, Rettie founded the Braille Mountain Initiative last May to inspire blind and visually impaired people to access the backcountry. Its first foray will be to Sorcerer Lodge in the northern Purcells next spring for a week-long guided introduction to ski touring.
For Rettie, the trip will be a return to work in some ways. In 2018, he was guiding at Great Canadian Heli-Skiing (which shares terrain with Sorcerer) and training for his full guide certification, but over the course of the next 18 months, he lost most of the sight in both eyes due to a rare genetic condition. Any hope for a guiding career was over. But Rettie refused to give up on backcountry skiing, and the impending trip into Sorcerer is both a chance to ski in his old office and empower other blind skiers to push their abilities.
Mark Bentz was one of the first skiers to sign up for the trip. For him, it’s a dream come true. “I’ve been wanting to figure out how to backcountry ski for 40 years,” says the former Paralympic racer, who has been blind since he was a teenager. “Trying things like this is crucial to show people with disabilities that a lot of what’s considered ‘impossible’ is actually possible.”