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Knowing the Mountain by Heart

BY: Megan Michelson | Photographs by Steep Motion Films/Big Sky Resort | APRIL 8, 2022

Jacob Smith is legally blind. That hasn’t stopped this teenager from skiing the toughest lines at Big Sky.

In the summer of 2014, when Jacob Smith was eight years old, he started bumping into furniture and having trouble reading. His parents figured he needed glasses. Then his eyesight began to deteriorate rapidly.“In less than two weeks, it went from ‘he needs glasses’ to ‘wait, something is really wrong,’ ” says Jacob’s dad, Nathan Smith.

They made him a doctor’s appointment near their hometown in North Dakota, where the Smiths run a farm. (The family spends winters in Big Sky.) The doctor found optic nerve bleeding and a tumor in his brain, a meningioma the size of a baseball behind his eye socket. Jacob was immediately taken by ambulance to Bismarck, then airlifted to a children’s hospital in Minneapolis. He underwent a 15-hour emergency brain surgery, and doctors told his parents he would have permanent vision loss. Jacob has undergone another eight surgeries since, as well as countless radiation treatments. The tumor has been fully removed, but Jacob is legally blind.

“He just keeps on keeping on,” says his dad. “We have a kid still here with us today who has, yes, lost his vision, but has not lost his love for life.”

Stem cell research has a chance of restoring some of Jacob’s vision at some point in his life, but for now he is left with his altered view of the world, one that lacks focus and precision, one that has no depth perception or peripheral vision. He can’t see color, either. Imagine skiing on the most socked in, vertigoinducing storm day you’ve ever experienced, where visibility is zilch. That’s every day for Jacob.

The Montana School for the Deaf and the Blind gave Nathan a pair of glasses to try on that would mimic what his son sees as he goes about his day. “It was like the glasses were smeared with petroleum jelly,” says Nathan. “The biggest thing I noticed when I had those glasses on was my depth perception was way off. It made my balance zero. I could walk, but taking a step forward wasn’t easy. That’s the kind of thing Jacob has completely adapted to. He has points in his vision that function, but some points are zero.”

Above: Jacob’s line in Lone Peak’s Big Couloir. Below: Jacob skiing by feel.

“Racing is groomers and gates. Freeride is cliffs and powder. To me, that’s a lot more fun.” — Jacob Smith

Jacob and his three siblings learned to ski at Big Sky as toddlers and skiing is a huge part of the family’s life. There was no way Jacob was going to give up skiing after losing his eyesight. Most visually impaired skiers learn to ski through an adaptive sports program, where they’re dressed in a bright orange vest that reads “BLIND SKIER” and they’re tethered to a guide who offers verbal commands. That didn’t work for Jacob: No guide could ski fast enough for him.

“Other people who are visually impaired ski, of course, but not at the level that Jacob does,” says Bozemanbased Kerri Norick, an outreach consultant for the Montana School for the Deaf and the Blind, who has worked with Jacob in the past. “His awareness of where his body is in space is incredible. His other senses, like touch and hearing, become heightened. He really has to listen to his body’s sensations.”

With help from his siblings, Jacob set about learning every inch of his home mountain by heart—his dad skis nearby offering auditory commands. “I rely on my feeling senses more than any of my other senses,” says Jacob. He has essentially memorized all of his favorite runs at Big Sky: He can’t see what’s ahead of him, but he can feel it. “It’s all about memory and timing,”says Jacob. “When I’m at Big Sky, I know the. whole mountain. I’m just skiing.”

At age 11, Jacob joined the Big Sky Freeride Team. “I was racing before that, but once I was old enough, I switched to freeride,” he says. “Racing is groomers and gates. Freeride is cliffs and powder. To me, that’s. a lot more fun.”

He began competing on the Junior Freeride Series, a sequence of big-mountain competitions for the under-18 set. Never mind that he can’t really see the venue—the cliffs, rocks, and trees that make up the steep slope at a different ski resort each contest. While his peers do what’s called a visual inspection, Jacob and his dad discuss the route he’ll take, with Nathan helping to identify landmarks. During his run, they’ll use a two-way radio while Jacob skis down for auditory guidance as his dad calls out commands like “take four large turns, then head left.”

He’s held his own at those competitions, skiing at legendary mountains like Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Taos, New Mexico; Snowbird, Utah; and Grand Targhee, Wyoming—all places he hasn’t memorized, so he has to ski by feel. “It’s amazing what he can do on skis,” says his brother, Andrew. “It really blows people’s minds. He really shows me what people can accomplish.”

In 2019, when Jacob was 12 years old, there was one line at Big Sky that he hadn’t done yet: Big Couloir, that steep, foreboding chute that drops 1,400 vertical feet off the top of Lone Peak and requires checking in with ski patrol before you drop in. They waited for the right weather window, and by early April, the day arrived. Nathan skied first, then radioed up to his son to describe the conditions.

When Jacob dropped in, he says it all clicked into place. “I knew I could do it; it was just a matter of when,” says Jacob. “I was pretty nervous, but once I started skiing it was full send.”

On the radio, as Jacob dropped in, Nathan called, “Straight fall line. You got it!” He became the youngest legally blind person to ski the Big Couloir.

Jacob, who’s now 15, has skied the Big Couloir four times now. No big deal, he shrugs. Next up? He wants to hike and ski off the exposed Headwaters Ridge.

“Jacob is a tough kid,” says Nathan. “And skiing has given him a lifetime sport.”

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