In the winter of 2020, Tyson Rettie stepped into his ski bindings once again. He started skiing in the backcountry of British Columbia’s Yoho National Park, which had unobstructed terrain where he could learn at his own pace.
At first, Rettie was very timid, doing big, zig-zaggy turns across the slopes, following a guide down the mountain, stopping when he would approach the tree line. It was a slow, exhausting, nerve-wracking experience. The reason? It was Rettie’s first time skiing since losing nearly all of his vision.
But he got more comfortable and, after only a few months, Rettie was able to make a 1,700-metre descent down Mount Jumbo, an advanced-level peak near Invermere, B.C.
“For the first time in a while, I felt close to being myself again, having that sense of freedom, skiing in the wide-open space, with good consistent snow,” Rettie says. “That’s when I started thinking, ‘This is something that other blind or visually impaired people should have the opportunity to do.’”
Everything began to change for Rettie back in 2015, whether he knew it or not. A long-time skier and mountain sports obsessive, he was diagnosed with kidney disease, upon experiencing symptoms of weight loss, nausea, vomiting. Rettie’s kidney function continued to deteriorate, but it didn’t stop him from pursing his love of the outdoors. By 2018, he was working as a ski and snowmobile instructor with a couple of outfits in British Columbia.
That fall, Rettie started losing the vision in his right eye. Eventually, he ended up at the hospital, where doctors told him his bioptic nerve had been damaged, but that his left eye would be unaffected. “I bought into the idea that it would only be one eye, so I thought, it is what it is. It didn’t really impact my lifestyle,” he says.
Rettie kept guiding skiing and snowmobiling tours, riding his motorcycle, going about his day-to-day life, albeit with very little vision in his right eye. In the summer of 2019, Rettie was working one of his other jobs, as a journeyman welder, at a gas plant near Edmonton. One day, he was having a hard time welding, his cuts were off. Once again, he headed to the hospital, where he underwent tests in the hopes to slowing or reversing the vision loss.
Nothing worked. Eventually, doctors determined that Rettie had a rare mitochondrial disease, which also explained his kidney failure. His condition is incredibly rare, especially in adults, explaining why doctors had such a hard time with the diagnosis. From that point forward, Rettie could only rely on his very limited peripheral vision. “Here’s how I explain it,” he says. “I can walk into a room without bumping into the furniture, but I wouldn’t be able to tell how many people were in the room.”
Things would never be the same after that. He couldn’t read. He couldn’t draw. He couldn’t drive. And, of course, he could no longer work as a backcountry guide, which requires a high degree of visual acuity, both to determine the condition of the terrain and to lead others safely through it. “I was pretty sure I was never going to be able to guide again,” Rettie says. “But I always knew I would be able to ski.”
Over the next year, Rettie had to relearn pretty much everything, with the help of his girlfriend, Sue. He figured out how to use a phone and computer with a screen reader, how to tell time with a braille watch. The couple made their house accessible by putting tiny rubber nubs on everything, from the microwave to the washer and dryer, giving Rettie touchable reference points.
Then he tried learning how to ski again. “I had seen blind skiers on ski resorts, so I knew it was possible,” Rettie says. With the help of his friend Max Flowerday, Rettie conquered those slopes in Yoho National Park in the winter of 2020. It was stressful. He worried about bumping into things. He was used to guiding others, not being guided. But, once he settled in, Rettie started to feel like himself again.
“I had made a life out of skiing,” he says. “Now, when I’m out on the hill, in the open terrain, it feels familiar and normal, close to how it was before my vision loss. It’s huge for me.” The experience pushed Rettie to find a way for other visually impaired people to get out into the wild. So he founded the Braille Mountain Initiative (BMI), a not-for-profit that helps the blind and visually impaired get involved in backcountry sports.
A couple of times a year, BMI hosts week-long expeditions into the backcountry, where attendees are taught how to be self-sufficient in the wild. Camping, hiking, skiing, avalanche prevention. It’s all included, at a subsidized cost of roughly $1,000 a person. To fundraise, they auction off winter gear provided to them by companies such as Valhalla Pure Outfitters. “Seventy per cent of the visually impaired are unemployed or under employed, the average income is $18,000 a year,” Rettie says. “It’s a demographic who aren’t going to have the chance to do something like this.”
Recently, Rettie took three visually impaired skiers on a BMI expedition in the Rockies. He hit the slopes with Spencer Allen, a 22-year-old with albinism, which causes vision problems; Peter Quaiattini, 60, who went completely blind from glaucoma; and Donovan Tildesley, 38, whose retinas didn’t develop at birth. They were all led by Greg Hill, an accomplished skier. At first, Hill was apprehensive about leading this type of group, but by the end of the trip, he was awestruck.
“Taking visually impaired people into the backcountry increases the risk by tenfold. There’s so much risky terrain, an average person would be intimidated,” Hill says. “The confidence needed to take on these conditions as a visually impaired person is unbelievable. They all had this brazen confidence, which I found really empowering.”
Participants were picked up at the Calgary airport, driven a couple of hours out to Golden, B.C., where they took a 10-minute helicopter ride to the Purcell Mountain Lodge, which operates off the grid. No roads. No power. Over the course of seven days, the crew underwent rescue training, studied avalanche prevention, did tons of hiking and learned how to ski with a guide, which involves following behind and listening intently for verbal cues. Those can range from simple instructions like “go a little bit faster” to using a numerical system to describe the steepness of the slope, depending on the skier’s level of experience.
For Allen, who’s been skiing for eight years, the chance to go out into the backcountry was freeing. “You don’t have to worry about other skiers or snowboarders cutting you off. There’s no crowds, no noise from the chairlift,” Allen says. “It feels almost zen.”
At night, the group returned to the lodge, which had a cozy social space where everyone could hang out. They ate extravagant dinners prepared by a chef. Then everyone went off to bed, sleeping four to a room, tired from a day on the mountain, hoping to get some rest before they did it all again.
This seven-day trip is featured in Snow Blind, a short documentary that recently premiered at the Banff International Film Festival. These days, along with running BMI, Rettie works as an avalanche forecaster for Avalanche Canada.
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