Struck Blind At 20, Snowboarder Shreds On

My buddy Philip’s first day at Tremblant in years was my last day of the 2015 season. We’d missed the armies of tourists and freezing temperatures of March but still woke on Easter Saturday to fresh snow, a sharp wind, and a bright, blue sky that didn’t let the temperature stray higher than 10° below.


ML_Phil2 by Joseph Mathieu
Joseph Mathieu photo

Words by Joseph Mathieu


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We did indeed stop in the Grand Manitou lodge a few times but we didn’t go in for lunch. No, we ate leftover beet patties from a baggie at the lookout above “Eric Guay” and went quickly back to riding. We avoided moguls all day but still hit some bumps, which Phil snowboarded through like a champ. He narrowly avoided getting clotheslined by a rope tied between bamboo poles, but at the last minute ripped one out of the snowpack and sent it flying. I was never really worried about him — his reflexes are sharpbut on the very last run, as we came out of “La Crête” to cross the busy funnelling run of “Nansen”, I saw every single beginner, family, and ski class as a threat to his helmetless head.

“Ready?” I asked. “Yeah!” he cried, unconcerned. He grabbed the end of my ski pole and I skated us closer to the current of yetis, all of them covered in snow, all of them abominable. I abruptly popped into Phil’s unprotected head and heard the scrape of edges on the still icy run through his ears.

I could feel a pole’s basket in my mitten, the sliding of my snowboard on the run, and I could see the blurry blue circle of Joe’s helmet, and the dark shapes of novice skiers and snowboarders flying by. They were getting closer as we approached “Nansen”. I felt no fear, only delight. I was 22-years-old again!


ML_Jibbing by Eric Scharf
Eric Scharf photo


Suddenly, I hurtled back into myself. I was back to being a skier pulling a blind snowboarder on top of Mont-Tremblant, wondering which one of us was crazier for being there.

On Mother’s Day 2013, a 20-year-old Philip Scharf was planning to practice driving with a new license and take his mother and grandmother out for brunch. Between his grandma noticing how he squinted at his phone and him confessing that he couldn’t read the street signs, his mother Lise decided to call the doctor. It took months of tests, theories ranging from tumours to pigmentation loss, and many frustrations to diagnose Phil with Leber’s hereditary ocular neuropathy (LHON), a rare visual impairment caused by an inherited gene mutation.

Suddenly, I hurtled back into myself. I was back to being a skier pulling a blind snowboarder on top of Mont-Tremblant, wondering which one of us was crazier for being there.

Philip’s line of sight disappeared, leaving only his peripheral vision. The swelling of nerves in his eyeballs did not lead to macular degeneration however, and by this small blessing the translucent circle in the centre of his vision would never go completely black. His whole outlook still had to change drastically, and pastimes like reading and watching TV became trials.

That first winter, he hung up his snowboard indefinitely. But this last winter he decided to get back up, as I’ve seen him do again and again. He wasn’t going to be swayed into staying away from his favourite pastime of all. After snowboarding Camp Fortune a few nights, he agreed to help me build a ramp made of pallets in my backyard. That was in mid-March when a very sick Phil threw himself off my balcony to a kicker spray-painted red that led to a PVC pipe. He was hacking up a lung and had to lie down for a few hours, but he wasn’t going to give up the opportunity to do some urban for the first time in two seasons.

It was that day we hatched the plan to hit up Tremblant. Already the spring was looming, and we had to act quickly if we were going to get him on a mountain in the daytime.


ML_Phil_Scharf_by Joseph Mathieu
Joseph Mathieu photo

That April morning, a liftie at the Lowell Thomas said he’d seen some 10-inch drifts as he bumped the chair into our calves. Although I would have been happy to hunt for those deeper pockets, we stuck to the green circle “P’tit Bonheur” that meandered down the top of the North side. “‘Lil Boner’! All day every day!” we hollered. We lapped the ancient triple-seater all day too, skirting the crowds through the vacant single line.

“I’m fine in full sunlight, or in full shade,” said Phil, “but not so much when it goes back and forth.” The hardest run for him was been “Toboggan”, a winding and mixed-terrain blue square on Tremblant’s Soleil side. It changed continuously from soft snow and powder to ice and death cookies. We stared down the black diamond “Jasey-Jay Anderson” and decided to steer clear of its beautiful slush moguls that my skis ached to carve into. Phil’s hype was enough to get him down any run but I felt no need to push him to the limit.

His enthusiasm did not wane in the slightest, even as we crossed the hightraffic “Nansen” at my skis’ pace. Kids in jeans and fluorescent sweaters barrelled past and tots on leashes did their best to trip us up as we moseyed along. “Alpine” turned out to be another expressway but there was enough pitch for Phil to manoeuvre without me pulling. We hadn’t called it as the last run of the day for superstitious reasons but my nervous feeling lifted once we got halfway down to the TGV chair.

I hopped a large patch of Canadian Shield, level with the run, at the turn onto “Chalumeau” but Phil didn’t quite make it out. His wax bit the rock and didn’t let go, throwing his entire weight onto his left shoulder. He groggily checked his phone and tested his ribs—both seemed to be intact.

“Well, that was one of the better falls,” he said and laughed. He got back up, as I’ve seen him do again and again, and he walked the flat to the final pitch.

“Ready?” I asked. “Always!” he cried, and we dropped in.


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