Braille Mountain Initiative, a non-profit organization with the focus of inspiring blind and visually impaired people to get involved in backcountry mountain sports, is launching the Great Canada Heli Ski Challenge.
The challenge is a fundraiser for the organization, where Tyson Rettie, the founder behind BMI and a former ski guide before losing his vision in 2018, and Mark Bentz, a Paralympic gold medalist who lost his vision at a young age, will attempt to ski 25,000 vertical feet in one day on March 30.
Rettie says the purpose of the excursion is two-fold: fulfilling a childhood dream to ski powder and to raise funds and awareness to help facilitate other trips in the future.
For Rettie and BMI, bringing vision impaired and blind people into the backcountry is about more than just the experience, but about teaching them the skills they need in order to enjoy future trips on their own.
The funds go towards future programs similar to what BMI did this past January at Purcell lodge, where blind skiers were able to go for a week and learn the skills and experience to be involved without the help of BMI.
“We taught them to use skins and bindings and got them their AST level 1,” said Rettie.
“It was the first group of blind and visually impaired skiers to receive their AST level 1. Most of our programs are longer in duration and are create to not create return cliental, we want to give them the experience to continue without our assistance.”
For Bentz, he says it’ll be a dream come true to experience heli skiing for the first time, and that it’s a bonus that the initiative will allow other people to one day share the same experience, which can be tough for those who are blind and visually impaired.
“I’ve always dreamed of going heli-skiing, but people wouldn’t typically take a blind person, it’s absolutely going to change my life,” said Bentz.
“My life is very different, going blind, you’re just limited. But to never be able to take it on, because it’s not like I’m not a competent skier, so to say I can’t go, as much as there’s equality in this world, there’s no equality.
“It a long goal of mine to do, and I’m going to do it.”
Bentz says that awareness is also important, because people have limitations of varying levels, but programs like BMI can help them access the backcountry just as easily as able bodied people.
In fact, both Bentz and Rettie say it can even be easier in the backcountry, as there are wider, more open tracks of snow to get more turns in before dodging obstacles like tree, whereas at resorts you often need one or two guides to help skiers dodge other resort guests.
While both say most people believe what they’re doing is crazy, the people who get it, get it.
“For those who have that sense of adventure, they get it. For those who don’t, they can’t figure out why we would do this,” said Bentz.
“Overall, the program is well received,” added Rettie.
“We have the odd comment from someone whose not educated on the subject, but we’ve had support from a number of different organizations within the ski industry for what we’re doing.”
For more information on the program or to support the fundraiser, you can visit braillemountaininitiative.com.