On a warm spring day, a small crew of skiers meets at the bottom of the Wizard chair on Blackcomb Mountain. One of the skiers is Donovan Tildesley, 24, Canada’s flag-bearer at the Beijing Paralympics and a world-record-holding swimmer. Wearing a black and orange vest with “Blind Skier” printed on it, he jokes about his other problem, dyslexia. “I was born with one of the poorest senses of direction you could have. Friends tell me I walk around like an old man.”
Tildesley, who was born without retinas, learned to ski at age three on Grouse Mountain in North Vancouver. He skied backwards the first year because it felt easier that way. “Yeah, it’s not like I can see where I’m going.”
His guide at Whistler this day is James Peters. To pass certification, guides for the disabled must learn to ski blindfolded. On the mountain, Peters will trail Tildesley, calling out directions with a minimalist’s touch. He avoids using “left” and “right.” “I’ll just say turn and turn and that’s a lot easier than having to think about left and right.” The last time Tildesley skied Whistler, a guide got confused and said left instead of right. “Boom. I was in the air and then in knee-deep powder,” he says. “I fell off a cliff.” “Oh, a cliff’s a bit of an exaggeration,” teases Mark Lyttle, a volunteer guide who saw it happen and who now jumps into the conversation.
“Well, what would you call it, a gully?” asks Tildesley. “He just went off the edge of a little lip,” says Lyttle, smiling. “A little six-foot drop. And just for the record, I wasn’t the guide who did it. Everyone’s looking at me!”
Peters reaches for Tildesley’s forearm and the two glide side by side down a gentle incline, just as a metal chairlift banks a corner and scoops them airborne like an eagle with a fish. Peters pulls down the safety bar on the swaying chair, and starts in with the plan for the morning. They’ll do a warm-up run off Jersey Cream, then head over to Crystal chair where they’ll get into some “ridiculous stuff.” Ridiculous stuff? “We’re going to hike into the back bowls up Spanky’s Ladder,” says Peters. “There’s probably only about one or two per cent of the people who come to this mountain who actually ski back there.”
There are rumours around Whistler that some blind guy can ski the Blowhole. The way an Australian ski instructor tells it, it sounds fishy. The instructor doesn’t know the guy’s name. He hasn’t witnessed it himself. But he knows the Blowhole: a chute so steep and narrow, from the top it looks like the rabbit hole Alice fell down. Tildesley clarifies things: “I’ve only skied the Blowhole once, and, actually, I think Spanky’s Ladder is the tougher terrain.”
Tildesley nails the warm-up run, which turns out to be a steep mogul field not marked on the trail map and nicknamed “The Wall.” Next, he readies himself at the top of the start gate for a practice run through a series of gates set up for a giant slalom race. At the bottom Tildesley asks what people thought of his performance and then admits, “I was scared, to be honest. I’m freaked out by the gates.” He’s toying with the idea of becoming a serious racer but doubts nag him. “If ski racing was a wide open double black diamond, I’d totally go for that. But one of the things holding me back from racing is the gates. What if I hit one? I don’t like surprises. I hit a gate and pretty soon I’ve popped out of both my bindings and I’m doing a yard sale.” In his first big race last year on Whistler, “I came out of the starting gate and veered too much to the right and crashed into the starting clock. It’s a good thing there was no microphone to catch what I had to say.”
On Crystal chair, far above the treetops, Peters says, “I think we should start doing trees,” meaning skiing the gladed runs. Tildesley laughs. “I don’t know,” he jokes. “My name’s not Sonny Bono.” Now they’re both laughing as Tildesley sings “I’ve Got You Tree” to the tune of Sonny and Cher’s I’ve Got You Babe.
“A lot of people when they meet a blind person are a tad uncomfortable, but if I can crack a blind joke, it loosens them up. I love to rub it in. If I’m skiing and I run into somebody I’ll say, ‘Oh sorry. I didn’t see you.’ Or if I smash into the wall swimming, I’ll stand and say ‘I can see! I can see!’ ” What makes him cringe are politically correct people who ask if he listens to TV. “You watch TV. That’s the socially accepted term, you watch TV. Or if someone says ‘I’ll hear you later’ I think, ahhh, you don’t need to do that.”
For the climb up Spanky’s Ladder, Lyttle carries Tildesley’s skis and poles. It’s a heart-accelerating hike up and over the ridge into the back bowls of the glacier. “Climbing Spanky’s Ladder is a full-body experience,” says Tildesley. “As it gets steeper, I move onto all fours, using both hands to find purchase.” The work is paid off in spades by the epic slope on the other side. “People are astounded,” says Lyttle. “They watch. It’s all rated expert skier. There’s no easy way out of there.”
At the bottom of the bowl, a stranger can’t believe what he’s just seen. He skis up to Tildesley, his mouth agape. “Did you just ski that and you’re blind?!” Lyttle leans in and whispers, “That happens all the time.”
Last year, Peters and Tildesley dropped a 10-foot cornice. The picture is on Tildesley’s Facebook. “That’s probably the craziest thing we’ve done together,” says Peters. “People look at me and think this is somehow out of this world, but it’s not for me,” says Tildesley. “I love to ski. I’m a young guy. I have lots of energy. I just happen to be blind.”