Mon, Nov 01, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Climbing blind in the shadow of Everest

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE , EVEREST ADVANCE BASE CAMP, TIBET

Tackling the world's tallest mountains proved to be a learning experience for blind Tibetan teenagers.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

When Erik Weihenmayer, the first and only blind man to reach the summit at 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 7,045m peak next to the world's highest mountain.

"It's the easiest 23,000-foot (7,000m) peak in the world," Weihenmayer said. "Although, that's like saying it's the most gentle piranha in the world."

His expedition crew of 40 people and 60 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 5,544m 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, 18, 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. On average, it took the teenagers only 50 percent longer to cover the same ground as a sighted person.

At 6,340m, 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, 19, 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 11 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.

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