Climbing Blind

UPDATED: May 24, 2023
PUBLISHED: April 26, 2011

One of the questions that I get asked a lot is how I found the courage to start rock climbing, given the many dangers it presents to a blind person. It all happened one weekend when the Carroll Center for the Blind took us rock climbing not too long after I lost my sight. I absolutely fell in love with the sport. To me it was the definition of adventure. It wasn’t like sitting on the back of a tandem bike and just peddling. It took strategy. It took brainpower to figure out how to connect the pieces of the holds on the rock, and to negotiate myself around the face.

Although I wasn’t able to see where I was going, I was able to feel it with my hands and feet—sort of mapping out a route—almost like solving a puzzle in the rock in order to get to the top. The textures of the rock beneath my hands, the amazing patterns of hot and cold with the sun and the shade—I thought, this is adventure!

I left a lot of blood and skin on the face of that rock the first time, but I got to the top and realized I would never again catch a baseball or make a lay-up. But in front of me were lifetimes of opportunity. And standing at the top, feeling the sun on my face and the texture of the rock under my hands and the sounds of openness all around me, my life was reborn.

I’ve always felt there has to be a solution to every problem. There has to be a way forward. Being blind I figured the only thing I could do is just forge ahead and try to reach my potential and live as full a life as I could.

Overcoming the Fear of the Unknown

I don’t see myself as being all that different than anyone else. There are people with disabilities doing some amazing things. They may not be climbing or hanging from their fingertips off the side of a mountain, but they’re doing some amazing things to make a difference. I just picked something that hadn’t been done before.

When you do something that has never been done, there’s a tremendous fear because, in a way, you’re walking into a black hole and creating your own way forward. It forces you to develop your own systems and surround yourself with the right team. Yes, it’s completely uncharted territory, but that’s where the excitement is.

Importance of Vision and Dreaming Big

Some people get into a rut where they’re just sort of surviving. I think you have to look forward and try to create a vision of what you’re going to do. Think about your life, your vision, and what kind of impact you want to have on the world and what kind of life you want to lead. It’s really a manifestation of your values.

Your vision will guide you, especially when times are tough, because when you can’t see ahead and you’re doubting yourself, that’s when you really need to understand why you are doing what you are doing and why it is so important. I believe in creating a vision for your life to help you stay true to what you want your life to become.

And it’s hard to do that when you’re facing lots of adversities and lots of doubt. It’s hard to stick with that vision. It takes a lot of courage and discipline to live within the framework of that vision so that it just doesn’t become a bunch of words.

Failure Is the Best Teacher

It really bothers me when I see people who don’t learn from their failures; they just keep making the same mistakes over and over again. I think it’s because they haven’t created the right system and foundation through those failures. On the other hand, I think sometimes if you fail and you learn some key fundamentals through that failure, it just gets you closer to what you want to do.

The year before we made it to the top of Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world, we failed in our first attempt. You fail 50 percent of the time when you climb mountains. I failed the fi rst time at Aconcagua, which is in the Andes and the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere. I learned a lot that eventually got me to the summit the next year. I failed on Mount Kenya the first year. And yes, I could blame it on the weather, but I also can blame a few things that I did wrong as well as things I didn’t face.

The year before we made it to the top of Everest we went to a peak nearby called Ama Dablam and made all sorts of failures as a team. But we needed to make those errors; we needed to fall short because we had no pressure to succeed. We learned from those mistakes and became a better, stronger team for the next year. We didn’t write ourselves off because we had built a foundation and team strengths that could carry us to the summit of Everest.

I think sometimes when someone fails they are on the brink of something great. Failure and success is not cut and dry. There’s a lot of alchemy that goes into it.

Believe in Yourself

I must admit that bucking the many naysayers is fun. It can give you that extra motivation you need. But I’m careful not to be motivated too much by that kind of negativity. I don’t want to go out and do things just because people say I can’t because that becomes just as reactionary as their comments. I want to stay motivated by what I think is important internally and be motivated by a sense of discovery—by a sense of what is possible for me and my team. You look at the things that are important to you, and maybe the world sees them as impossible or improbable, but you can’t let that squash your hopes and dreams. Find a way to move forward and create a plan that is realistic for you.

Critics said I had no business being up on Mount Everest and that I was going to kill myself or severely slow my team down and become a huge liability. I knew those people who spoke out were experts on climbing and on Everest itself. But they didn’t know anything about me. And I trusted the people who really mattered: my rope team. Everyone gets affected by negativity in some way or another. And you’ll get squashed if you’re surrounded by it. You need people who are there for you and believe in you. And through it all, you must maintain your vision, because it will guide you like an internal compass.