By Doug Hare EBS SPORTS EDITOR
Big Sky – For many avid skiers, skiing Big Sky Resort’s Big Couloir is a feather in the cap for those looking to challenge themselves on some of the most difficult and breathtaking inbounds terrain in North America. One wrong move, one miscalculation can be catastrophic, sending the skier down a rocky 40-plus degree slope with little hope of self-arrest.
During the final days of this season, 12-year-old Jacob Smith and his father Nathan skied “the Big.” While knocking off Big Sky’s most iconic run off the list is an impressive feat at such a young age, there is another detail that deserves mention—Jake Smith is legally blind.
He vividly recalls being 8-years-old and playing Bocce with his three siblings Andrew, Preston and Julia during a camping trip, but he was having a hard time seeing the pallino, the smaller ball that sets the target for the game, if it went 20 yards away.
After visiting numerous doctors, Smith was diagnosed with a meningioma or brain tumor “the size of a grapefruit,” he says, that was putting extreme pressure on his optic nerve. Since then, the North Dakota-native has been through nine surgeries and six weeks of radiation as the tumor continued coming back causing him to lose most of his sight permanently.
“After I woke up from the first surgery, I couldn’t even see the walls in the room,” Smith said. “But my sight has improved since then. I can see shapes but colors are tough for me.” His most recent medical report shows no signs of the tumor returning.
Smith, who competes for the Big Sky freeride team, had originally planned to conquer the Big Couloir when he was just 10 years old. “I was supposed to meet my dad at the top of the tram one day but I forgot to charge my phone and we never met up,” Smith said about that fateful morning. “I crashed pretty hard later that day on some terrain off of the Challenger lift and fractured my femur into 60 pieces.”
Most people faced with visual impairment, and after severely damaging the biggest bone in their body, might try to stay out of harm’s way. Smith’s physical setbacks had the opposite effect on his mentality giving him a kind of fearlessness that comes with adopting a worst-is-behind-me attitude toward life.
“I decided after that injury that worrying wasn’t going to be that helpful. I still knew I would ski the Big Couloir one day,” Smith said.
Smith’s dad Nathan, a farmer from North Dakota, has been taking Jake and his older brothers and eventually his younger sister to ski at Big Sky Resort since Jake was three years old. Nowadays, the Smith family spends most of the winter in Big Sky and enjoys spending quality time on Lone Mountain.
When asked about how he managed to ski the Big Couloir with limited vision, Smith replies with humility and a touch a wry wit: “Well, the snow conditions were good and my dad was able to give me some directions during the harder spots. The traverse out was actually the most difficult part because I had trouble seeing where the edge was,” Smith said.
Persons who lose one of their senses often report that other senses seem amplified in ways that help them cope. Smith reports that he has indeed become more in tune with other manners of engaging the world around him that don’t involve eyesight.
“It’s hard to explain,” he said. “The other day I clapped in the kitchen and asked my mom if she could feel the vibrations. She thought I was crazy but really I could sense the outline of the room by feeling the reverberations.”
What’s up next for the blind skier? His mother reports that he is currently learning Braille and working with a cane so he can get around independently. The young man is hoping for a seeing-eye dog when he turns 16.
Next season, Smith says he wants to huck a 15-foot cliff and land a black flip. In the warmer months, he wants to get involved in rodeo roping events and saddle bronc riding. Given the grit and resilience he’s already demonstrated so early in life, it would be hard to doubt that he’ll accomplish anything he sets his mind to.