Trevor Thomas has always had a passion for extreme sports, ranging from backcountry skiing to racing cars. Then suddenly, his entire world changed at age 35 when he learned that he had a rare autoimmune disease with no cure, leaving him blind within eight months. Thomas says, “I thought I’d been issued a death sentence. Every day my vision got worse. I went from being perfectly normal to having to learn everything all over again.”
After being encouraged to get out on the trails by an inspirational speaker who was a blind hiker, Thomas began training for long distance hikes. He accomplished his first hike blind in 2008. While it was a huge achievement, he didn’t complete it unscathed and endured several broken bones. He then reached out to several guide dog organizations across the United States with a request for a dual-mode guide dog that not only could perform normal guide duties, but could also handle extreme hiking and navigating the back country.
Denied by all but one organization, his request was finally answered by Guide Dogs for the Blind. In 2012 Thomas and Tennille, an energetic black lab, graduated from training, marking the start of a truly unique and life-altering friendship.
“Trevor and Tennille are an amazing team and we are proud of all they have accomplished both on and off the trail. We are grateful for all of Trevor’s efforts to help change perceptions around blindness and to serve as an ambassador for our organization,” commented Karen Woon, VP of Marketing, Guide Dogs for the Blind.
To date, Thomas and Tennille have crested over 6,000 miles and are aiming to reach 7,000 this year. He says, “It’s mind-boggling the miles she has covered in only 4 years. There are many long-distance hikers who have not done as many miles as Tennille.” Thomas is the first blind person in history to complete a solo, end-to-end thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, which is 2,175 miles long. He says one of his biggest successes thus far was completing the Colorado Trail, since he attempted it in 2011 and was unsuccessful without Tennille. “There are no other guide dogs that I know of that do what Tennille does. She’s enabled me to do things not only personally but professionally that I otherwise would not have been able to achieve; in a sense, she saved me.”
While Thomas says they err on the side of caution and try to take every safety measure possible, sometimes things can be unpredictable while in the backcountry. They’ve had their share of close calls on the trail, but that it was always comforting knowing he had a way to reach out to get help if needed.
“Safety for Tennille and I is my priority when in the back country. No matter who you are, things can go wrong and my SPOT Gen3® is the most important piece of gear that I have to let folks know where I am and summon for assistance if needed,” comments Thomas. “And should I truly be in a life-threatening situation – I can remember a few close calls – the S.O.S. button on my SPOT device will be there for me.”
Not only does he carry a SPOT Gen3 for himself, but Tennille also has her own SPOT device which she carries on her pack. “It’s simple. She is very important to me and while I know she would never voluntarily leave me, if something were to go wrong in the back country and we were separated, then her SPOT will be pinging and we could find her,” he says.
When they aren’t on the trail, Tennille holds Trevor to a strict schedule. “Every day we hike 8 to 15 miles just to stay in shape. She can tell time and will definitely give me attitude if I am working in my office all day and we haven’t gone on our daily hike.” Tennille also enjoys car rides and visiting their local grocery. “People are always amazed when we walk into a store and I tell her my list and she will bring me to the items. We end up with an audience following us around. She can differentiate between specific chips and even varieties of the same sports drink brand.”
According to Thomas, Tennille has a very strict diet she must adhere to as all guide dogs do, and that “trail angels” will often bring her some of her favorites including bananas, baby carrots, mangos, broccoli, Greek yogurt and green beans. When they complete a thru-hike or a special trek, he says they have a tradition, “We both get filet mignon!”
Upcoming adventures for the pair include hiking the high altitude Collegiate Peaks Loop in Colorado, a total of 187 miles that will take around two weeks to complete. From there they will travel to California and thru hike the John Muir Trail to summit Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States. Completing this climb will make Tennille the first guide dog ever to do so and set a new altitude record for a blind person and guide dog at 14,997 ft.
Throughout the year and especially during September Guide Dog Awareness month, Thomas hopes to help educate society on the importance of what guide dogs do for people in everyday life. “None of the guide dog schools receive public funds. They are raised and paid for by donations only.”
In addition to supporting Guide Dogs for the Blind, Thomas is also passionate about his foundation, Team FarSight Foundation, Inc., which he founded in 2013 to challenge misconceptions and to push the boundaries of what is considered possible for a blind person to achieve. The Foundation is devoted to empowering blind and visually impaired young adults through outdoor activities like hiking. Through these programs, Team FarSight Foundation helps participants develop self-confidence and adaptive skills needed to succeed in mainstream society.
Ever optimistic, Thomas feels that every day is an accomplishment, focusing not on what they have done, but on the challenges ahead. He looks forward to taking on these challenges with Tennille by his side, saying, “She makes life more enjoyable because she is my best friend. She helps me to do expeditions that I wouldn’t be able to do by myself. The sky is the limit.”