Future Reflections          Special Issue: Sports, Fitness, and Blindness

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Blind Mountain Climbers Challenge Prejudice, and Reach for the Sky

by Kim Puntillo

 

Reprinted from the New York Times, October 31, 2004

EVEREST ADVANCE BASE CAMP, Tibet: When Erik Weihenmayer, the first and only blind man to reach the summit of Mount Everest, decided to teach six blind Tibetan schoolchildren how to climb, he returned to the scene of his greatest accomplishment. The goal: Lhakpa Ri, a peak next to the world’s highest mountain.

“It’s the easiest 23,000-foot peak in the world,” Weihenmayer said. “Although, that’s like saying it’s the most gentle piranha in the world.”

Erik WeihenmayerHis expedition crew of forty people and sixty yaks, strapped with duffel bags, tents, propane tanks, folding chairs, cooking equipment and other essential gear, wound its way through the Qomolangma (Chinese for Everest) Nature Preserve in southern Tibet for an arduous two-week trek to Advance Base Camp, where the north face of Mount Everest towered to the right and Lhakpa Ri rose to the left.

Trekking through the Himalayas above lower Everest Base Camp at 17,000 feet is dangerous enough for a sighted person, let alone for blind teenagers with little climbing experience, as was the case on this expedition, called Climbing Blind. Footpaths worn into loose rock on mountainsides can be as narrow as the width of two hiking boots, with thousand-foot drop-offs that can send any stumbling climber into an uncontrollable slide to icy glacial rivers.

“When stones are kicked over the side, I can hear them falling very far and I know that it’s dangerous,” said Kyila, eighteen, one of two girls on the trip. Like most Tibetans, she does not have a last name. “But I’m not scared. I follow the sound of the bell.”

Leading six visually impaired teenagers through Himalayan trails required a sighted escort trekking in front of each one. The escorts used one of three guiding methods: attaching a bell to the guide’s trekking poles while the child hiked with poles closely behind; holding a trekking pole backward with the blind companion grabbing the other end and following a pole’s length behind; or having the child hang on to a guide’s backpack. Occasionally, the blind climbers were warned of a falloff to the right or left, or a big step up or down, but they mastered a smooth pace without many verbal cues. On average, it took the teenagers only 50 percent longer to cover the same ground as a sighted person.

At 21,000 feet, Mount Everest Advance Base Camp is a desolate, sub-freezing, rock-covered encampment the size of half a football field on top of a glacier. The solid ice beneath rocks that were chopped away to level out the mess-tent floor numbed everyone’s feet at every meal. Temperatures at night reached 30 below zero with the wind chill, causing headlamp batteries and water bottles to freeze solid, as well as the instantaneous solidification of mucous from any runny nose.

The importance of keeping track of gear had to be impressed upon the group.

“Finding mittens, poles, and other equipment quickly is essential,” Weihenmayer said. “If a blind person misplaces something and it’s 30 below zero, he may never find it again.”

The six children never complained and did not appear intimidated. They were not strangers to adverse conditions. Tibetans treat the blind as outcasts because they believe they are possessed by demons or have committed evil in a prior life.

Tashi, nineteen, has a father who sold him to a Chinese couple. They beat him when he did not make enough money as a beggar, so he ran away at eleven and survived on the streets of Lhasa in Tibet. Recently, he found his way back to his village, where upon his return his father told him that he had “lost him,” not sold him. Luckily, Tashi had found a loving home at Braille Without Borders, a local vocational school for the visually impaired.

Braille Without Borders was founded in 1998 by Sabriye Tenberken, a blind German expatriate. Shocked at how Tibetans treated their visually impaired after coming there to study, she discovered that a Tibetan Braille language did not even exist. So she created one.

Running the school of forty-four students and eleven staff on a budget of $27,000 a year is one of many achievements that has led to Tenberken’s nomination this fall for Time Magazine Asia and Europe’s Heroine of the Year. Tenberken wrote to Weihenmayer after hearing of his Everest ascent, asking if he would meet her students. Weihenmayer felt compelled to do more.

“Everest was a great achievement, but I wanted to add to what I did,” Weihenmayer said. “These kids haven’t been born into all the opportunity I’ve had. I wanted to be that opportunity for these kids.”

He spent almost two years planning and finding sponsors to fund the Climbing Blind expedition.

The exhaustion of trekking to 21,000 feet forced setbacks when three of the students developed altitude sickness and cerebral edema, a life-threatening swelling of the brain caused by low oxygen levels. The symptoms were severe headaches, disorientation, and nausea. They were sent to lower altitude to recover along with five adults who were also sick.

Lhakpa Ri proved too ambitious a climb for the remaining three students, and the expedition was modified. Rope teams of guides and children explored the East Rongbuk Glacier, which bridges Lhakpa Ri and Mount Everest. Negotiating fissures and mulans, glacier holes caused by melting water, proved challenging enough and still taught the teenagers valuable lessons.

“Four people connected by one rope has a symbolic value,” Tenberken said. “It reinforces the concept of teamwork.”

The accomplishment of climbing to 21,000 feet remains significant--all six teenagers hold a record for reaching the highest altitude of any blind children in the world.

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