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'Climbing Blind' in the Himalayas

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'Climbing Blind' in the Himalayas

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'Climbing Blind' in the Himalayas

'Climbing Blind' in the Himalayas

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It's climbing season in the Himalayas, where every year climbers take great risks to scale the world's highest peaks. But for six Tibetan teenagers who attempted to reach the summit of Lapka Rhi last year, conditions were especially challenging. They're blind.


This week, Ed Viesturs became the first American to scale all 14 of the world's tallest peaks. It's climbing season in the Himalayas, the best time of year for scaling the mountains, or at least looking at them. It is a strange and unfortunate coincidence that Tibet, a nation that is home to Mt. Everest, is also home to a population that is slowly going blind. Disease, UV rays and environmental stressors have made Tibetans particularly vulnerable to blindness. The most recent survey of Tibet found that 30,000 people in a population of 2.6 million have lost all or most of their sight. But despite the widespread affliction, Tibetans who are blind face ridicule or worse at home. Many are believed to be possessed by demons or retarded; only a few are climbing out of this life of hopelessness to brave a mountain. From Lhasa, Stefani Jackenthal reports.

(Soundbite of rushing water)


Imagine hiking up a narrow rocky ridge line 400 feet above a rushing glacial stream. The footing is so tight you have to step heel to toe. The high altitude air is so thin that your pace is as slow as your coordination. Your only guides are two trekking poles, a bell and a companion's voice you follow along the sheer cliff.

Unidentified Woman #1: OK, step big here.

JACKENTHAL: Now imagine you're trekking to the peak of a 23,000-foot Himalayan mountain and you're blind.

Unidentified Woman #1: Step big up here.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

Unidentified Woman #1: OK. So stay to the right; it drops off steep left.

JACKENTHAL: Last October, six Tibetan teen-agers set out to do just that. Their undertaking wasn't really to conquer a mountain so much as it was to build self-confidence. Every step up would be a testament to what purpose and perseverance can accomplish, as important for the blind to experience as for the sighted to witness with their own eyes.

KYLA: I want to show other people--there's a lot of Tibetan people--they think that we, the blind people, cannot do anything. I want to show them we can do something, you know.

JACKENTHAL: That's Kyla, an 18-year-old massage therapist who's been blind since birth. She and the other five teen-agers on the expedition are students at Braille Without Borders, a Lhasa-based training center for the blind. Each kid had an English-speaking guide; I was Kyla's.

KYLA: I want to go to Panmundovich(ph). My parents, they always say, `Oh, no, you cannot. You'll fall down,' or something like that.

JACKENTHAL: Despite living in the mountain mecca of the world, none of the kids had ever been in the mountains. They were in luck. American Erik Weihenmayer, the first and only blind person to summit Mt. Everest, would lead the team. The goal? To summit Lhapka Ri, a 23,100-foot peak on the north side of Everest. The project was fittingly enough called Climbing Blind.

Mr. ERIK WEIHENMAYER (Blind Climber): Climbing is one of these things that has a way of just ingraining itself into your character. It gives you confidence, it gives you skill. It's the greatest thing to be able to teach yourself skills and systems and then survive in this environment that's so inhospitable to anyone, not just to blind people.

JACKENTHAL: Erik Weihenmayer went blind when he was 13 years old from a congenital degenerative retinal disease.

Mr. WEIHENMAYER: If these kids can have a success on a high mountain in Tibet, what a statement it's going to make. It's just going to continue to push that social change further and faster.

JACKENTHAL: In May, we did some early training with the kids and took them on a four-day practice hike. We returned five months later for the big climb. First stop? The place where the idea first germinated: Braille Without Borders in Lhasa.

Ms. SABRIYE TENBERKEN (Founder, Braille Without Borders): When I found out that they can climb a mountain and then they can master a rock like that, then I guess they can even do even better in life. I hope, at least.

JACKENTHAL: Sabriye Tenberken founded the organization seven years ago. Now she and partner Paul Kronenberg run the vocational center Braille Without Borders in downtown Lhasa. Tenberken has been blind since 13. After hearing about Weihenmayer's 2001 summit of Everest, she invited him to the center. She and Kronenberg will make the journey with us to Lhapka Ri.

Unidentified Woman #2: Maybe he don't understand.

Unidentified Man #1: I don't know.

JACKENTHAL: We left the Snow Leopard Guest House in Qomolangma nature preserve on a brisk, bright October morning. Altitude: 14,000 feet. Anyone in Tibet wanting to climb Everest, the world's sixth-highest peak, begins here. Kyla and I rambled along the rocky path under bright morning sunshine.

Stepping up. Stepping up.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)


JACKENTHAL: So now it's 10:15. We're getting a little bit later of a start than we expected, but we're heading up right now. We're heading up right into a nice little saddle of the ridge.

She treks closely behind me, feeling the rocky terrain with her poles, following my footsteps and listening for my bear bell and direction. That night, we camped near a rushing glacial stream. The endless black sky was painted with bright blinking starlight; the temperature dropped below 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

KIENZEN: (Singing in foreign language)

JACKENTHAL: That's Kienzen singing. He's 16 years old and studying to be a teacher. Like many Tibetans, Kienzen's family heated their home with yak dung which doesn't burn properly at high altitudes. The soot infected his eyes and he lost his sight. He and the other teen-agers had no real sense of the potential danger ahead.

KIENZEN: I think it is not dangerous.

JACKENTHAL: It was up to the guides to keep them on track.

(Soundbite of bell clanging)

Unidentified Man #2: No, no. We can't go anywhere with a crazy kid this morning.

JACKENTHAL: Along the way, Buddhist nuns at the Rongbuk monastery blessed us and prayed that our hike up to Everest base camp and beyond would be safe.

Group of Nuns: (Chanting in foreign language)

Group of People: (Singing in foreign language)

JACKENTHAL: We finally arrived at Everest's base camp. I'm standing looking at Mt. Everest just behind a running stream that's coming down the glacier stream off of Everest. It's this big rock field, and it's sort of barren.

During our two rest days in the shadow of Everest, we had to learn to breathe all over again at 17,000 feet. As we repacked our gear and waited for 60 yaks to arrive, the teen were feisty and fired up to go higher. They were in a hurry. We cleared British Camp, then Inchun camp(ph), then Chaing Si camp(ph) at 19,900 feet. Soon, we'd be at the glacier on Lhapka Pi.

Mr. JEFF EVANS (Medic): They were super fired up just to nuke it.

JACKENTHAL: Jeff Evans is the team's medic.

Mr. EVANS: They were just ready to go, and that's a combination of being a teen-ager as well as being on such an adventure. But just within any, you know, mountaineering experience and adventure, we really have to kind of pace ourselves and allow our bodies to get used to being up high.

JACKENTHAL: The next day, we got our first peek at Lhapka Ri as we approached Advanced Base Camp's 21,000-foot blustery site. Weihenmayer was pleased.

Mr. WEIHENMAYER: The whole team made it; pretty impressive.

JACKENTHAL: But Sabriye Tenberken sensed trouble was on the way.

Ms. TENBERKEN: We saw the kids this morning and some of the kids had headache, one had nausea, one didn't want to eat, you know. So for us, it's always: `Shall we risk it? Shall we really go up there? Shall we really risk the kids' lives or just the kids' fun?'

JACKENTHAL: Exhaustion, an incoming snowstorm and a bevy of assorted concerns got the better of us. Weihenmayer and the team decided against continuing to Lhapka Ri. We refocused our sights on Rombuk glacier, 2,100 feet shy of Lhapka Ri's peak.

Mr. WEIHENMAYER: And I didn't want to be like a Captain Bly, you know, just like pushing miserable blind Tibetan kids to the summit of some peak. At 21,000 feet, they had worked extremely hard.

JACKENTHAL: Later that day, Kyla, who was giggling and singing upon arrival, developed acute mountain sickness, with a splitting headache, nausea, difficulty breathing and no appetite.

KYLA: And I wake up--Oh! It hurt. All the body's very cold and freezing foot, very hot and then start to headache and it's really strong.


KYLA: Oh, my gosh. I never have headache like this. Ow!

JACKENTHAL: Are you all right?

The pain stabbing her left eye became so severe during the night, I pulled on my thick down jacket and trudged to Jeff Evans' tent for ibuprofen and a steroid called steccajohn(ph) that shrinks the brain's swelling.

(Soundbite of zipping noise)

JACKENTHAL: This was just a temporary solution. Kyla needed to go down the mountain the next day to avoid a life-threatening situation. Evans stopped by our tent the next morning to check on Kyla and break the bad news.

Mr. EVANS: Kyla?

KYLA: Yeah?

Mr. EVANS: This medicine has made you feel better. And if you didn't have this medicine in you right now you would feel bad, like last night.

KYLA: Mm-hmm.

Mr. EVANS: Remember? So the best thing for us to do is to have you go down, down to base camp, and wait for a couple of days for us. Because up here when you're this high, you don't get better; you get worse. And I can help you with medicine only up to a certain point, but then if the medicine stops working, then we're in trouble.

JACKENTHAL: Kyla wasn't alone heading down the mountain. Sixteen-year-old Sonam Bongso was combatting a relentless headache, and 19-year-old Tashi was vomiting.

OK. Bye, you guys. Thanks.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Unidentified Man #3: Sonam, bye-bye.

JACKENTHAL: Sonam, you all set? You ready to roll?

Unidentified Man #3: Sonam, stop crying and put a smile on your...

JACKENTHAL: That left three kids and three guides plus Weihenmayer, Tenberken and Kronenberg at Advanced Base Camp, also known as ABC. It would take us two days to descend to base camp, a drop from 21,000 to 17,000 feet down slippery, snowy, rocky trails.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

JACKENTHAL: It's 8:30, and we've just arrived and tucked into tents. I'm sitting between Sonam Bonso and Kyla, who are just exhausted and sleeping. The Sherpas will bring us some dinner. They've tried to...

Meanwhile, Weihenmayer and his team were waiting out a screaming snowstorm.

Mr. WEIHENMAYER: ...wanted to come down and I said, `Please, just hang on for one more day. Let's get a nice day and let's get across that icefall onto the glacier.'

JACKENTHAL: And the next day, under clear skies, they did it. They got on Rombuk glacier, wriggling across ice humps and sheer snow bridges, navigating shallow hidden holes and scores of pinnacles. We rendezvoused in nearby Shigatse two days later.

Mr. WEIHENMAYER: When we ultimately were able to step foot on to that glacier, I felt like every single kid had given everything they could, and that's all I ask for.

JACKENTHAL: Do you think the kids who made it to the glacier realized that that was the climax of the trip?

Mr. WEIHENMAYER: Well, a summit can be anything, you know. It could be a rock at 17,000 feet, or it could be the summit of Mt. Everest, you know. I mean, my definition of a summit is getting as high as you can and giving it everything you have.

JACKENTHAL: Out of the high mountains, Kyla's spirits gained new heights.

KYLA: I think it's good to experience for me.

JACKENTHAL: What do your parents think now?

KYLA: And now they think, `Wow, blind people can do a lot.' Yeah.

JACKENTHAL: It was time to go home. We turned our bus toward Lhasa and hit the bumpy road.

Group of People: (Singing) You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when sky is blue.

JACKENTHAL: For NPR News, I'm Stefani Jackenthal.

Group of People: (Singing) So please don't take my sunshine away. You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are blue. You don't know, dear, how much I love you. So please don't take my sunshine away. You are my sunshine, my only sunshine...

WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION. Scott Simon is back next week. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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