When Tyson Rettie started to lose his vision two years ago, he had to cut short his career as a backcountry ski guide in B.C.
But with the help of his friends, he hasn't stopped skiing.
How does he do it? Rettie says it depends on the terrain.
If he and his friends are skiing an area with a large number of trees and other obstacles, he'll ski close to someone who "micromanages" him, calling out each turn Rettie must make.
The 29-year-old has a rare form of Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy, which can lead to a severe loss of central vision. The condition first affected only his right eye, but later both. Rettie says he has no central vision but has some remaining peripheral sight, though it's severely limited.
Based in the East Kootenay community of Invermere, Rettie prefers wide open alpine terrain where a buddy will describe to him what to expect at the top of the run. Sometimes he'll simply say: "You've got nothing to hit for 400 metres." Then once his friend has reached the bottom, he'll begin calling out to Rettie, who follows the voice down the mountain.
Backcountry skiing is an experience few blind people enjoy. Rettie hopes to change that with the new Braille Mountain Initiative.
"I just thought: If I'm doing this, why can't others?" he told Chris Walker, host of CBC's Daybreak South.
The non-profit initiative plans to give other blind and visually impaired people the opportunity to experience the sense of freedom and independence that backcountry skiing affords. While resorts often offer guided skiing for the visually impaired, he says his initiative would be the first to provide a backcountry experience for blind skiers.
Re-learning the ropes
Rettie admits it took some time getting used to skiing without the advantage of sight.
His first season back on the hill was a "constant adjustment period." Every little bump and undulation tired him out because he had no way of anticipating it. And learning how to put complete trust in his guide wasn't easy either.
"It definitely took me a while to build the confidence to just say, 'OK, there's nothing to hit? If you say so,'" recalled Rettie.
One of the largest obstacles for blind people who are interested in skiing is likely finances, according to Rettie. A 2019 report from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind found that more than 70 per cent of working-age blind or partially sighted people in Canada are unemployed.
But there's also a "public perception issue," he says.
"The majority of people don't have a great understanding of what blind and visually impaired people can be capable of."
'Blind skiers doing rad things'
He hopes Braille Mountain will challenge misperceptions and "inspire newly blinded people to really take on the challenges that they had thought to not be possible."
"This is a more interesting story than just rad skiers doing rad things in the mountains," Rettie said. "These are rad, blind skiers doing rad things in the mountains. I think that's a valuable thing."
Braille Mountain's first backcountry trip — a partnership with Sorcerer Lodge, just north of Revelstoke — is slated for next spring.