Future Reflections Special Issue, Vol. 14 No. 2



by Barbara Pierce

[PICTURE] Face glowing with exhileration, Barbara Pierce hangs on the rock face while preparing to make her next move.

Reprinted from Making Hay an NFB Kernel Book

How does a blind person overcome the social conditioning that tells you that if you are blind, you can't. Can't what? Can't whatever it is, no matter what. One way is by choosing some unusual activity (like mountain climbing, for example) that everyone knows a blind person can't do--and then doing it. At the National Federation of the Blind's training center in Colorado, this is exactly what we do. Here is how Barbara Pierce, who is totally blind, describes the experience:

Everyone talks about the beauty of the Rockies, but somehow I was unprepared for it when I, along with several other blind people, arrived at the International Alpine School to go rock climbing. We were fitted with climbing boots, harnesses, and hard hats. Stowing this equipment, our water bottles, and lunches in our backpacks, we began hiking.

The air was incredibly clear, and though it was hot, the shade was cool and the breeze invigorating. There were thousands of birds who had had the good sense to take up residence in this ruggedly beautiful country, and not many insects. Much of the way we were accompanied by a noisy little stream rushing over rocks and generally adding a great deal to our appreciation of the place. The guides had been busy before our arrival placing ropes at several points on rock faces for us to climb. As far as I could gather, this entailed someone's climbing without the protection of a rope to the top of the rock to fix an anchor into the ground, through which the rope was then passed.

When one of us decided to try a particular climb, an experienced climber would sit down at the bottom and control one end of the rope. The other end was passed through the special loops on the novice climber's harness and tied securely and quite mysteriously.

We were shown how to tie these knots, but I, for one, was happy to let the experts do the job for me. Then, with the rope securely connecting climber to stationary belayer by way of the anchor at the top of the rock, one began to climb.

The early rock faces had obvious hand and foot holds as well as some slant. These were steeper scrambles than I had ever tried before, but with a rope and climbing boots, they were physically taxing but not hard.

Then came an all but vertical rock face with a few--a very few--cracks in it. The people from the climbing school protested that these were not very challenging, but they seemed pretty formidable to us. The picture shown here is of me walking backwards down this climb--a process which requires the climber to lean backwards until he or she is perpendicular to the rock face. The rope holds the climber in this position, enabling him or her to walk backwards down the distance that has so laboriously been crawled up. My grin in this picture is a measure of the exhilaration I felt after having pitted myself against the rock and won.

Those of us who wanted to try something even more difficult were then directed to a small cliff--I use the word advisedly. It was absolutely vertical, and there was almost nothing to stand on. I did not get more than ten or twelve feet off the ground, though at the time that seemed quite an accomplishment. My undoing came while I was sprawled across the rock. My left foot was more or less anchored in a shallow hollow in the rock, and my hands were spread wide far above my head, clinging to outcrops that were no wider than a quarter of an inch.

The guide who was holding my rope said in a calm (not to say placid) voice, "Now find a place to put your right foot," (which was, as I remember it, flailing around in a frantic effort to do just that). She told me to look higher, that there was a nice hold about two feet above my out-thrust foot.

Eventually, I found what she was talking about. It is no exaggeration to say that the crack in question was at the level of my right shoulder. When I got my foot up there, it felt like it was above my head. Then the guide said, "Now, just transfer your weight to your right foot."

She was so calm about it, as if such a thing could be done. I suggested that she had better begin singing "Climb Every Mountain," and several folks obligingly began doing so. This was the point at which the absurdity of the situation made me begin to laugh, and I peeled off the rock and hung there, helpless with laughter. My guide told me to rest before trying again. I did so, but by this time my limbs were shaking with fatigue, and eventually I asked her to lower me to the ground.

If I had been a member of a real class, however, I would not have been able to get off so easily. For the only time that day I was glad that I was not engaged in a real rock-climbing course. This entire experience is a small jewel in my personal collection of memories. Beauty; the camaraderie of adventure shared with good friends; the encouragement and help of warm, calm, and unsentimental experts; and the exhilaration of testing myself against a formidable challenge: these things set that day apart in my memory.

I can readily understand how valuable a whole course of rock-climbing would be as a part of a rehabilitation program. One emerges from such an experience more confident and self-assured. This is the very essence of rehabilitation.

One word must be said about the International Alpine School and its staff who are dedicated to providing climbing experience to blind people. They and their other instructors are wonderful people to work with. They begin with the premise that all climbers can benefit from experience on the rocks. They are unflappable and very encouraging, but above all, they are inspiring climbers, who believe that there is no reason why blind people can't learn to climb well too.

Editor's Note: The Colorado Center for the Blind and other NFB centers for the blind operate summer programs for blind youth. For more information contact the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230; (410) 659-9314.