BIG SKY -- With a sustained pitch of 50 degrees and more than 1,000-foot vertical drop, the Big Couloir is considered one of the toughest ski runs in North America. It can be intimidating to even the most experienced skiers, but not for Jacob Smith.
In 2019, Smith skied the Big Couloir at the age of 12 while also becoming the first blind skier to ever do so.
Jacob, who is now 14, started skiing at the age of 2 and said skiing the Big Couloir has always been a goal of his. While growing up, his father would take Jacob and his brothers up the Lone Peak Tram during ski season to ski down easier trails.
After skiing certain terrains, the Smith brothers would be rewarded with different avalanche safety gear (backpacks, shovels and transceivers), ultimately preparing them for the Big Couloir.
It wasn't until six years ago Smith lost his eyesight.
“What I remember was I was around 8 years old," said Smith. "It was a couple of months after my birthday. My mom had kind of been saying that I’d been running into things, so they took me to the eye doctor. My optic nerve was bleeding. I got ambulanced to Bismarck, North Dakota, and then airlifted to Minneapolis for emergency surgery. The first surgery was like 15 hours, and then after that, I woke up with no vision.”
Doctors discovered that Smith had a meningioma the size of a softball, which is a tumor on the brain.
"It’s something that no parent wants to get that phone call that something’s wrong, and then when you see a scan and see this big mass in their head and all you can do is think the worst," said Jacob's dad, Nathan Smith.
August 2014 was just the beginning of a four-year battle filled with surgeries and radiation, but skiing is what got Jacob through it all.
"We tried to make it normal actually right after the first surgery. We came back to Big Sky," explained Jacob's father. "We had him on skis at Thanksgiving. We didn’t want life to stop, you know, just how you can adjust to keep life moving forward.”
It was an adjustment, of course, but Jacob taught himself how to rely on his memory and senses to navigate the slopes.
"It’s pretty much all memory and feel," explained Jacob. "But if I’m skiing at like different mountains where I’ve only been there a couple of times a year for comps, or I’ve never been there, it’s more on feel for moguls or like drops, cat tracks, stuff like that. Lift poles are hard to see so to listen where a lift is, and then just trusting whoever I’m skiing with as a guide.”
To ski the Big Couloir, avalanche safety gear isn't the only requirement. Skiers must have a partner as well.
“I went up there with him," said Nathan Smith. "I skied before him, got down midway, talked to him about what to expect, and he dropped in and let it rip.”
Jacob and his father were able to talk to each other with two-way radios. In a video put out by Big Sky Resorts, Jacob counted down to his father before dropping into the Big Couloir.
"The three, two, one was probably the most nerve-wracking three seconds," said Jacob. "It’s almost like dropping into a gate competing, but once I was in it was pretty much a couple of turns and then just go and full send.”
Jacob will forever hold the title as the first blind skier to ski the Big Couloir, but he’s hoping this accomplishment will only inspire others.
“I definitely want to show people that it doesn’t matter if you’re legally blind, completely blind or paralyzed, it doesn’t stop there," he said. "You can go on and do whatever you want. If you have a love for the sport you can kind of figure out how to work your way around anything. Live life to the fullest.”