Guide who lost his vision to lead visually impaired skiers on backcountry adventure

When Tyson Rettie started losing his vision, he had to give up his career as a heli-ski guide, but he didn't give up skiing.

Tyson Rettie lost his central vision and some peripheral but still returns to the slopes

How a group of visually-impaired skiers plans to hit the backcountry this winter

2 years ago
Duration 1:32
Losing his vision hasn't stopped this former ski guide, and now he wants to share the sensation with others who are visually impaired in a safe setting on an upcoming ski adventure in B.C.'s backcountry.

Tyson Rettie always loved skiing.

He learned as a child, then during his teens, he moved into backcountry skiing. Eventually, Rettie ended up working as a heli-ski guide.

But that changed when he lost his vision.

Rettie, who grew up in Okotoks and now lives in Invermere, B.C., was diagnosed with a condition called Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON) about two years ago. It's a mitochondrial disease that makes a person's vision deteriorate very quickly.

Tyson Rettie, a former heli-ski guide, lost his vision about two years ago. In the spring, he'll take his first group of other visually impaired skiers on a weeklong backcountry ski trip. (Submitted by Tyson Rettie)

It first affected his right eye.

"It took about two weeks to go from 20/20 vision to a loss of all of my central vision and a deterioration of my peripheral," Rettie said.

Then two months later, over the course of four weeks, the same thing happened to his left eye.

"I realized quite quickly that guiding heli-skiing was going to come to an end," he said.

Rettie says what he's left with now is no central vision and some peripheral vision — he can generally navigate without bumping into things, he says. But it hasn't stopped him from enjoying the slopes.

"I knew that skiing was never going to come to an end. There was always going to be an opportunity to do that," Rettie said.

Back to the mountains

When Rettie went out skiing again, it was exciting yet "very, very nerve-racking," he recalled.

"I very much felt like I was learning how to ski again," he said. "It was quite challenging to be in this area where I'm used to being comfortable, confident and very much in control as a guide to now being, you know, guided and not so in control of … my surroundings."

When Tyson Rettie skis in the backcountry with a guide, he aims for open spaces where he can ski freely and independently for stretches. (Submitted by Tyson Rettie)

He now wants the same opportunity for other visually impaired skiers.

Rettie has launched a non-profit called the Braille Mountain Initiative.

This April, as long as COVID-19 cases don't spike or rules don't change, he's set to take his first group of visually impaired people — four skiers and their sighted guides — on a trip north of Revelstoke, B.C., to Sorcerer Lodge for a weeklong backcountry ski adventure.

Wide open space

A key aspect to the terrain the group is heading to is its natural makeup — the remote spot has wide open ski terrain, Rettie says.

There are a few techniques he and his guide use to navigate skiing in the backcountry. While Rettie says he doesn't ski independently anymore, per se, the open space can offer about 500-metre increments of free skiing.

In the spring, Rettie plans to take his first group of skiers who also are visually impaired on a weeklong backcountry trip with guides. (Submitted by Tyson Rettie)

"The goal is to find wide open terrain, where I can ski freely and independently and, to some extent, forget about my visual impairment for a few minutes," Rettie said.

"So, in that scenario, essentially someone up skiing with me just says to me, 'hey, you've got nothing to hit for 500 metres,' and I'll just go skiing."

To get there, however, he says they often have to move through terrain that can be densely treed and contain a number of other natural hazards.

"In that case, there's a little bit of micromanagement involved. I'll often ski right behind one of my partners and they'll describe the terrain as we're going through," he said.

"You know, 'we're going right over a log or we're doing this, we're doing that.' It'll be very specific instructions given to me."

He says getting used to skiing with reduced vision takes time.

"A lot of it is just building that trust with the people you're skiing with, you know, and it takes a while to do that," Rettie said.

"It takes a while to mentally commit to the idea that there's nothing for you to hit for 500 metres."

Challenge and independence

Rettie says skiing provides him an opportunity to continue to challenge himself and "push the limits" — an experience he is hoping to pass along to others.

"I think it's important for other blind people to have those types of opportunities. And, you know, it's important for everybody to always have something to look towards and to work towards," Rettie said.

"This is just a new way that we can provide a greater feeling of independence and provide those challenges."

He says skiing the backcountry means less micromanagement of a skier compared with a resort ski hill, and less hazards to worry about like other skiers and lift towers.

Rettie says it takes time to build trust with the people he's skiing with. (Submitted by Tyson Rettie)

The sense of accomplishment is also a benefit.

"When you make it to the top under your own power.… We're not using helicopters. We're not using snowmobiles. We're just getting up from the lodge in the morning and hiking out to the terrain," he said.

"You don't have to wear an orange vest identifying you as someone who's different from the other skiers on the slopes."

Instead, he says, people can feel like they're back to being like any other person hitting the slopes.

"They're skiers who happen to be blind because that's that's how it's going to look," Rettie said. "They're just going to be out in the backcountry just like anybody else."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.


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