Avid outdoorsman Tyson Rettie, who currently resides in Invermere, has spent his entire adult life pursuing backcountry skiing and working as a heli-ski guide. Rettie hails from Okotoks, Alta., and lived in Radium for several years before recently moving to Invermere.
Two years ago, Rettie began to loose his vision to a rare condition called Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy. This past winter would provide an entirely new challenge as it was his first season skiing as a visually impaired person.
Wanting to continue to pursue his passion despite his condition, he quickly realized how little opportunity there is for the visually impaired community when it comes to backcountry skiing opportunities.
“I’ve been in the ski industry my entire adult life; I started guiding at the age of 19. I started developing some health issues along the way and around the age of 24 I developed a chronic kidney disease, but it was undiagnosed,” he explained. “In 2018 I went from having 20/20 vision to over the course of two weeks having a substantial central blind spot and substantial peripheral vision loss in my right eye.”
He says that his body adapted fairly quickly to vision impairment in one eye, so he was able to continue working. Fast forward to the spring of 2019 and his vision started to go in his left eye.
“It took three to four weeks to get to the same point with my left eye, but it was still undiagnosed. From the onset of my vision loss to my diagnosis it took about a year,” Rettie said. “It was quite clear that I would no longer be able to heli-ski, but I continued to ski the backcountry with friends. I have yet to attempt skiing at a resort as a blind person. I enjoy the backcountry more and I think it’s perhaps safer as well because you remove the variable hazard of other skiers.”
He wanted to stay in the industry, so Rettie started researching opportunities for guided backcountry skiing for the blind.
“I quickly concluded there are none,” he said, adding that there are options for adaptive programs, but many blind athletes have goals and abilities that exceed the opportunities provided.
Enter the Braille Mountain Initiative — a non-profit organization aimed at getting blind and visually impaired skiers involved in mountain sports.
“Being a ski-guide and avalanche professional put me in a unique position to use my knowledge and experience to create exciting new opportunities for blind skiers in the backcountry,” he said. “I also wanted to create a platform to showcase my own adventures as a way to inspired sighted and non-sighted skiers alike.”
He started the initiative this past May, and the first official trip is planned for spring of 2021 to Sorcerer Lodge, north of Revelstoke.
“We have enough interest from the visually impaired community. We have confirmed a few really strong skiers with great athletic ability, but none of them have skied the backcountry,” Rettie said. “We will provide that training and support. These skiers are super keen and they are in that demographic that have exceeded their opportunities for skiing.”
He explained that Sorcerer was on board right away, offering the lodge at cost. A large component of wanting a multiple-night stay at a lodge was being able to offer avalanche training, which is necessary when in the backcountry.
“Obviously these skiers haven’t had the opportunity to have the proper training, so that was a big part of finding a lodge to accommodate our first trip. It really matches what we’re looking for. These types of training programs just haven’t existed for the blind.”
Now that they have the lodge and the participants on board, they need to find a sponsor or rental for equipment such as probes, transceiver, skins, skis, boots, etc., as well as sponsorship for the lodge itself.
“Arguably the biggest piece of the puzzle is finding a monetary sponsor for the lodge rental,” explained Rettie. “We will provide great footage and a great narrative of talented skiers in the backcountry doing amazing things. The great thing is that they have these skills, but they are visually impaired. It’s not typical content. It could be a great partnership.”
Rettie is familiar with skiing the Purcells and one of his favourite places to visit is the Farnham Glacier. One of his goals has always been to summit Mount Farnham, which he had admired while skiing Farnham Glacier.
This summer, Rettie took on the Mount Farnham challenge but ended up having to turn around 100m from the summit.
“That being said, I’m confident I’ll make it to the top another day,” he said.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in that area, so it’s really familiar to me. When you’re skiing the Farnham Glacier there’s a perfect view of the Mount Farnham Summit. It’s beautiful, amazing from every angle,” he said. “So as a personal goal I decided to reach the summit this summer. I’ve been working hard on my physical fitness as I’ve found myself with a little more time on my hands these days. I hope these personal adventures can be a source of inspiration for other blind people, too.”