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Climbing Blind in the Foothills of Everest
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Jul 4, 2004 17: 02 EST
At almost 12,000 feet on the windswept Tibetan plateau sits the Braille Without Borders school for the blind in Lhasa. From May 23rd to June 10th, 2004 Erik Weihenmayer visited the school along with seven of his Everest team mates, including Michael Brown who is sailing on the Nirvana right now with Gary Swain.

With the help of the school teachers, Erik selected a small group of six highly motivated blind students to teach his specially adapted hiking and climbing techniques. Some of his techniques include using two long trekking poles to feel the terrain ahead, and following bear bells attached to a leader's pack.

Erik and Mike took the kids on a week long training adventure, including rock climbing, trekking over a 17,000 foot pass, and a clinic practicing glacier travel. The students continue to train through the summer and, in September, Erik will return to Tibet, and lead them on a three-week expedition to the summit of Lhakpa Ri, 23,000 feet. The children are around 14-15 years old and are among 30-40 students in the school.

“My upcoming expedition to climb a 23,000-foot peak in Tibet with six blind Tibetan teenagers may sound a little ambitious, but the plan is inspired by the words of Pasquale Scaturro, our climbing leader on my 2001 Mt. Everest expedition. High up the Lhotse Face, exhausted and oxygen deprived, Pasquale shared with me his reoccurring dream. ‘It’s a strange dream. You and I are on top of the Hillary Step, and I know we have only a short hike to the summit of Mt. Everest. It almost brings tears to my eyes, because I know if we pull this off, it will be one of the greatest achievements in mountaineering history and the hardest thing I’ve ever done.’

Two days later Pasquale’s dream became fact when, along with 18 trusted teammates, I stood on top of the world, and became the first blind climber to do so. The next year, I fulfilled my seven-year quest to climb the “Seven Summits,” the tallest peaks on each of the seven continents.

There is a blurry line separating what the world sees as impossible yet what we know in our hearts to be fully possible. After such an extraordinary personal journey, if I can find a way to reach out across race and culture, and shatter the harsh boundaries which have been established through generations for the blind people of Tibet, and pass to them that same sense of joy and achievement with which I have been blessed, It will be the fulfilment of my climbing career and in the words of Pasquale, the hardest thing I’ve ever done."

“During the entire trek,” commented Mike Brown to ExWeb, “the kids never complained, never got cold, never got tired. They just smiled the whole way. You go into something like this thinking that you are there to help someone else out but in the end you get so much out of it that you feel it was the other way around.”

Because the average elevation of Tibet is around 14,000 ft and it is a dry and dusty place problems with the eyes is all too common among children. Along with the altitude and dry dusty air, yak dung is used for heat in rural communities and the smoke from that results in a much higher rate of blindness in Tibet. Before the school was opened the official word from China was that there was no blindness there, it was a struggle to keep the school going but things are slowly changing in China.

Aboard the Nirvana is Michael Brown and Gary Swain. Mike and Gary are using the brand new Contact 3 GEO. The software uses the Contact 3.0 platform in addition to a small GPS device attached to the PDA. When a dispatch is uploaded it automatically places the boats position on a map - online! Check out the live dispatches during the race.

Mike is a three time Everest summiteer and the man behind the camera for blind climber, Erik Weihenmayer's historic ascent of Everest and the subject of a two time academy award nominee film, 'Farther Than the Eye Can See.' It was also the first time a High Definition camera was taken to the summit of Everest.

Gary Swain's story is remarkable. In need of a heart transplant Gary is living life to its fullest by doing what he can, a major open ocean race in this case. If he is able to get a new heart and make a recovery he and Mike plan to climb some of the world's biggest peaks in the coming years.

Image of Erik Weihenmayer courtesy of Didrik Johnck.

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