Blind Climbers break record on Kilimanjaro

“Look no further! You’ve found the luckiest bloke in the world.” These were the words of Wayne Sticher, proud participant of the High Sight Expedition to the highest mountain in Africa.

Just three degrees south of the equator, lies Kilimanjaro reaching a height of 5895m. Towering over the surrounding plains, She can be seen by no less than 160km away, and it is here, that about 12 000 people from around the world, gather each year in an attempt to reach her mighty summit, Uhuru Peak.

As one of the 7 summits, Kilimanjaro draws interest from would be climbers from around the globe, for not only is she the highest mountain in Africa, largest volcano and largest free standing mountain, but she is also one of the closest points in the world to the sun.

Who would have thought that this majestic mountain would be the focus of an expedition spear headed by Stephen Hilton-Barber in Australia, to break all world records by having the most number of blind climbers, to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro.

So it was that Stephen contacted his Dad in South Africa, Geoff Hilton-Barber, who lost his sight when he was about 21, with the idea of creating a joint expedition between South Africa and Australia. Amongst Geoff’s claims to fame, is that he is the only non-sighted person to have sailed single handedly, from Durban in South Africa, to Freemantle in Australia. Naturally, he rose to the challenge. High Sight Expedition 2009 was born.

For the next 9 months, preparations were made and a team of climbers assembled. Two charities were chosen to benefit; Prevent Blindness Association in Australia and Horizon Farm Trust in South Africa. Nomadic Adventures came on board as tour operator and part sponsor, Westville Boys High School and Lions Club in South Africa, along with the High Sight Team in Australia doing everything from a ‘Bunnings Sausage Sizzle’ to a ‘Gold Coast Blind Trek.’

By the beginning of 2009, a team of 25 had formed. From Australia, the team headed up by Stephen Hilton-Barber, comprised of Janet Etchells who has been blind from birth, walking with sighted partner Janet Wilson; Brian Haupt, who started losing his sight at 26, partnered with Victor Lambros; non sighted Bryce Lindores who won the bronze medal in the men’s individual pursuit in the Track Cycling event at the Beijing Olympics, was partnered with partially sighted Wayne Sticher, who almost lost his left eye from a fungus infection; Shane Falconer, who lost his sight in a car accident, partnered with Mitch Mackinnon; Sandra Patterson who climbed as sighted partner to Kelli Dore of New Zealand, who lost her sight through Retina Pigmentosa.

On the South African side, the team was headed up by Geoff, along with his daughter Andrea (15yrs old), Rusty Zindela, who was born blind, teaming up with the Westville Boys, William Hayles, Richard Gardiner, Michael Smit, Yaseen Noon and Jonathan Martin, watched over by Peter Stevens, their maths teacher. Walking with Geoff was Bruce Maitre, who suffered a severe head injury resulting in double vision, along with Lions Club members Alec Collier and Adrian Barnes, and a Nomadic client Severine Renard from Belgium, who contracted cancer of both eyes at 1yr old and in recent years, bladder cancer.

On the 13 March, this incredible team flew from Johannesburg to Tanzania to climb Mt Kilimanjaro, joining up with the logistics team of 15 guides, 2 cooks and 50 porters to ensure a smooth and successful climb.

“When a position on the team to climb Kilimanjaro opened up, I was determined to join” said Richard, a 16yr old pupil from Westville Boys. “I had wanted to climb Africa’s highest mountain my whole life and … when I realised we would be guiding blind people up the mountain it added a whole new dimension and just added to the challenge.”

Challenge indeed! Kilimanjaro is a daunting climb for anyone who can see where they are going. For people who are blind, the dynamics of the climb change considerably. Each blind person, had trained to walk behind their sighted colleague who would “guide through the lush undergrowth, the alpine desert, from camp to camp until reaching the summit. Walking up through the Marangu forest on the first day, these challenges became even more apparent. Clusters of uneven spaced slippery moss-covered rocks posed as awkward hazards. Gullies dug across the path for water drainage proved to be major stumbling blocks. Yet through patience, perseverance and persistence, the team made it through the forest to emerge at Mundara Camp after 6 hours of trekking. “I had the privilege of leading Brian, one of the blind climbers from Australia for most of the day, said Michael, 17yrs old climber from Westville Boys. “I learnt of his life, when and how he lost his sight, how it affected his family life and what is he doing now. This made the journey seem shorter.”

Having walked their blind colleagues across many obstacles on the first day, the team decided to feel for themselves what the experience is like and so the sighted climbers took turns to be blind folded and to be guided for 10 minutes each day. As one climber said, “I cannot believe how much we take our sight for granted and the incredible trust that you have to have in your sighted guide. To give yourself over completely to another, to be guided through rough terrain to the summit of the highest mountain in Africa is a greater challenge than the walk itself.”

Over the next few days the team progressively made their way to Kibo Huts, the last nights stop on the Marangu route before reaching summit. By now the vegetation had changed and the team found themselves in an expansive alpine desert with the summit of Kibo crater, looming above them. The Kilimanjaro mass comprises three volcanoes, Shira and Mawenzi which are extinct, and Kibo, which is dormant. It is the volcano of Kibo that forms the highest point in Africa, her last eruption being about 100 000 years ago resulting in the loss of 5 meters from her summit. From Kibo Huts, that summit was still another 1200m in altitude, away.

By 10pm on the 17th of March, 25 people emerged from Kibo Huts, clad in several layers of thermal gear. A decision had been taken by the head guide to allow the Tanzanian guides to guide the blind climbers to the summit, accompanied by their sighted colleagues to describe the terrain and scenery as they went. By 11pm, they found themselves heading up the long slow, zig zag black shale path, climbing steadily and slowly to summit. In this deep volcanic shale, one step forward results in a slight slide back, which for a sighted climber is easily resolved with balance, but for a blind climber who can neither see where they are going, nor the terrain they are on, makes the going very hard. Small rocks or stones are kicked or tripped over and the only sensual feedback you receive is the sound of your feet on the shale, the wind at your back and the intermittent talking of those around you. Six hours later all 25 had reached Gilmans point and slowly began to make their way around the crater rim to the summit.

“If you can make it to sunrise, you can make it to summit,” were the words uttered by Michael who had been told this by a friend. Sure enough, within 30minutes the sun began to rise, leaving the team encouraged and warm. Yet how do you describe the magnificence of a sunrise to someone who has never seen it, or a puffy white cloud that cannot be touched. How do you explain the enormity of the massive towering glaciers that line the route to summit, or the massive volcanic vent in the crater. So much beauty. “Kilimanjaro makes you realise your place in nature…” said Richard.

” I will never complain about an uneven footpath ever again,” said Janet Etchells. “The terrain on Kill was unrelenting and I felt for the sighted guys having to describe it to us, there are only so many ways you can say “rock” and “stick”! Likewise at summit them having to describe the view – given that most of them were in tears at this point!”

As sighted climbers we have these magnificent feats of nature to distract us from the hardships of a high altitude climb. Non sighted climbers rely solely on their senses; the feel of the ground, the touch of the snow, the icy breathe that cuts into their lungs, the warmth of the sun on their faces and the sounds of the wind around them. Their senses, are their eyes. As said by Janet Wilson from the Australian team, “when t he lights go out we panick, but these people live in this world”.

At 06h30 Tanzanian time on Wednesday morning, the team of High Sight Expedition stood on top of Mt Kilimanjaro, 24 of them reaching Uhuru Peak. In doing so, they broke a record of having the most blind climbers at the summit, proving to the world that great vision is not vested solely in the eyes of the sighted.

When asked, “Why climb a mountain when you cannot see where you are going?” Kellie Dore of New Zealand replied, “We do not undertake challenges to see where we are going, we take them on for the spiritual mental and emotional challenges we get from them.”

Just three degrees south of the equator, Kilimanjaro stands as a beacon in Africa, the great sought after adventure of people around the world. For the team of High Sight Expedition it served as a beacon of hope and encouragement.

When joining the team in 2008, Wayne Sticher said, “being bestowed the honour of being part of this incredible expedition, I am beginning to think the only handicap in life is actually believing that something is unachievable.” For Stephen Hilton Barber, whose focus on putting this expedition together was for the sole purpose of breaking down barriers between sighted and vision impaired people, his dream has undoubtedly been achieved.

Article by Debra Bouwer

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