I’m now back from our memorable trip to Kazakhstan hosted by Eurasian Bank. When I fly halfway around the world for a speaking engagement, especially to a place with some of the most dramatic mountains in the world, I can’t help but get out and climb.
Jet-lagged and enveloped in a blanket of cold, my climbing partner, Rob Raker and I departed the frosty city of Almaty, Kazakhstan and headed up high in the Tien Chan Mountains for some rock climbing . . . Kazakh-style. As we ascended the narrow and bumpy road, winter was soon upon us and we had to stop to put chains on our truck tires. After a lot of spinning and grinding, we finally reached a spot where we started trudging uphill against a strong icy wind.
Our goal was a 250 meter tower called, the Bastion, and a classic rock route called Oktyabryonok, which we understand means, “child of the revolution,” named after those lucky enough to be born in October, the month of the Russian Revolution.
Arriving at the base, it was a new experience for me sitting in a deep pile of snow in my two insulated jackets, gloves and fleece hat, squeezing on rock climbing shoes. I’d blown it by forgetting a pair of wool socks but luckily, our host, Dmitry, had an extra pair. Even despite the socks, my feet were already numb and would stay that way throughout most of the day. Needless to say, as a blind person, I’m a better rock climber when I can feel my hands and feet, so the cold dramatically notched up the difficulty level as we started up the first pitch.
Our Kazak guide, Dennis, led up on two ropes, allowing Rob to climb about ten feet above me calling out crucial holds like, “a foot above your right hand is a good edge,” and “reach farther right for a side pull . . . try lay-backing it.”
The slick icy hand-holds were trickier and more strenuous to grab with gloves, and the small ledges, all covered with snow, threatened to send my feet skittering off into space. Despite that, we made decent time, stopping at each belay station to energetically swing our leaden feet and hands to bring back the blood flow. One of the pitches involved a big traverse right, and I knew a fall would send me swinging a long way. Fortunately Rob gave me great directions when I really needed it, and a few times, I may have grabbed a hanging quick draw, but I made sure there’s no photographic evidence of that.
We reached the fourth pitch about 2:00 PM and we were still in the sharp cold of the shade. However, the sun was creeping towards us, and for a tantalizing few minutes, remained an arm’s length out of reach. Then it washed over us, basking us in soft warmth and transforming moods; for the first time, our gloves came off and we climbed bare-handed. I even heard Dennis far above whoop with happiness. But the sun was fleeting and gone as fast as it had arrived. To speed things up and beat nightfall, I “jumared” a pitch. (Meaning I used ascenders to climb up fixed ropes. The ascenders slide up the rope but teeth on the device bite the rope and don’t slide down). On ascenders, and the fixed rope, I was finally as fast as Rob who was free climbing with his typical joy and enthusiasm.
As is often the case, the last pitch was a crux. It was too hard for me to climb with gloves, so despite frozen fingers, I climbed bare-handed, falling on one section a couple times before my numb hand finally stumbled upon the secret hold that completed the puzzle in the rock. I moved upward and reached the top around 4:30. The rappel took us into twilight as Rob and I visibly shivered at each anchor, and we touched the snowy ground, according to Rob, just before dark.
“That was one way to beat jet lag,” I mentioned as we inched our way down the slippery trail.
Despite the frigid conditions and tingling in my toes that has only recently dissipated, this experience has inspired me to get back into the climbing world – after a six-year hiatus to learn to kayak. It’s good to be home. Hurray for climbing adventures ahead!
Mountain Hardwear, Scarpa, and LEKI Athlete,
Last Thursday, I spoke at Kindred Health Care’s Clinical Impact Symposium in Louisville, KY.
After the conference, I was able to head over to the Kentucky School for the Blind to share and interact with some of the students. It was really fun getting to spend some time with the kids, and talk about my recent adventures but more importantly the No Barriers Mindset message.
As a young person, really for us all, life can be tough to navigate, but especially being blind. I’ve taken my knocks over the years, bled along the way and had to learn to always keep reaching. The kids had tons of questions, not just about adventure but more important topics like getting through high school and going to college, finding a job, going on dates and building relationships.
I’m very glad to have been able to spend the afternoon with these kids. Hopefully some of my stories will encourage them to take on adventures of their own. Thanks to Kindred Healthcare for helping make the connection.
On Tuesday, I spoke at the MillerCoors Veterans Day remembrance in my hometown of Golden. Local WWII historian Greg Kyle, let me check out some equipment from the famous 10th Mountain Division, an elite winter and mountain warfare unit that trained in Colorado during WWII.
Can you believe that they carried 90 pounds in their packs, plus skis and a rifle! For a little background, as the war in Europe intensified, the fight in the rugged Alps of Italy became critical and the 10th Mountain Division was called into action. Despite tremendous losses, these brave young men were able to break the Nazi entrenchment and contribute enormously to the success on the Western Front. Also, I was honored to be able to meet, in person, some original members of the Tenth Mountain Division. Needless to say, an inspiration for mountaineers and one tough bunch!
For those who want to learn more about the 10th Mountain Division and how they helped America win WWII, here is a video link- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NDLwezMHOAE
Last weekend, we actually had a No Barriers USA board retreat up at Camp Hale which is where the Tenth Mountain Division trained. It’s amazing to be a part of such an awesome rope team. Learn more about the No Barriers Board of Directors at http://www.nobarriersusa.org/about-us/boards/
On October 18th, I spoke in Oahu at a leadership conference for Hawaii Pacific Healthcare, a group of hospitals in the Hawaiian Islands. I love their theme, “unprecedented collaboration” as they work to change the healthcare industry through the way they deliver care to patients.
The next day, HPH sponsored a talk to the community at University of Hawaii, and despite an approaching tropical storm, almost 4,000 folks showed up. I was signing books and shaking hands for hours and loved hearing so many No Barriers stories from people of all ages and backgrounds.
These two talks combined with some outrigger canoe surfing and boogie boarding made for an experience I’ll take with me forever.
Last week, the Touch the Top Team and I spent a morning climbing with some local youth from the Redirection Center in Littleton, Colorado, which helps kids work through some of the challenges they face, both from circumstance and choices.
The Redirection Center partners with a great local organization called the Binning Family Foundation, to facilitate an experiential outdoor program throughout the year with activities like hiking, horseback riding and rock climbing. For the last several weeks the kids have been learning about climbing, so it was fun watching/listening to them test their safety skills: putting on harnesses, tying figure eight knots, and calling climbing commands.
However, I think the coolest part was getting to belay as the kids tested their strength and courage on some over hanging routes that really pushed their limits. Can you believe they trusted their lives to a blind belayer? A few brave students even reciprocated by donning blindfolds to give “no sight” climbing a try.
I also spoke to the group about alchemy, a philosophy I try to live my own life by. Alchemy is the ability to turn led into gold, not just by surviving life challenges, but harnessing them to propel ourselves to new, bold, and profound places. I pray they took it to heart as they continue to learn, grow, and transform.
Last Friday, our film High Ground, highlighting the struggles of injured soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan as they re-enter a civilian world, was shown at USCENTCOM (U.S. Central Command) in Tampa. Major General Michael Garrett presided over our visit. We learned such a screening was unprecedented in USCENTCOM history, a huge honor for us all.
High Ground portrays our first Soldiers to Summits (S2S) program, culminating in the climb of a steep and icy Lobuche, 20,075 feet and eight miles from Everest. I was in Tampa with S2S participants Steve Baskis and Aaron Hale, both blinded on the battlefield. They added a lot of reality to this very powerful story. This showing was arranged by Major Brian Smith, an S2S supporter from the outset, now a member of our Advisory Board, who is based at USCENTCOM.
USCENTCOM is our military command for the Mideast (minus Israel), from Egypt to Pakistan. Security there was extremely tight, with frequent electronic screenings of individuals in between closed doors, and with rooms electronically swept for bugs after people exited a critical office.
High Ground was produced by Don Hahn of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King fame, and directed by Michael Brown, who produced the award-winning documentary of my Everest climb, Farther Than the Eye Can See. The power of High Ground was evident in the emotional response of MG Garrett – who has commanded many combat forces – as he made closing remarks to the mostly military audience.
High Ground engenders heightened respect for our service men and women who volunteer to serve our country, and especially for those soldiers who incur life-changing war injuries. We owe them all our great thanks.
It is utterly amazing to witness individuals who push themselves to show the world what determination, teamwork, and a common vision can accomplish.
Imagine cross-country skiing nine miles a day with a total of 208 miles over the course of 16 days in temperatures as low as -50 degrees Fahrenheit and winds blasting against you at 50mph. To add icing on the cake, put yourself in the shoes of someone pulling 154 pounds on an arctic sledge with your eyes and hearts set on the vision of reaching the South Pole.
As some of you know, this is the 2013 South Pole Allied Challenge, a project No Barriers has taken on. Three teams of wounded servicemen and women are challenging themselves mentally and physically to show the world the courage veterans have after sustaining physical and cognitive injuries. Their ability to take on adversity after serving in the military, and facing life-altering injury is in itself inspirational. The teams departed on November 14, 2013. Their aim is to reach the South Pole around December 17, 2013. Way to go No Barriers and the staff for supporting such a great cause!
Back in August, at the No Barriers Summit in Telluride, I met the entire team. Just last week they were honored to meet the Queen of England. I have been telling my friends I am only two people away from knowing the Queen of England! I am figuring out if I can make this into one of my good jokes or not . . . jury is still out. Either way, it gets me talking about the South Pole Allied Challenge and what a significant expedition this is, to reach across the globe and along the way touch civilians, active service members, and veterans.
My friend, Charley Mace, with whom I climbed Everest, has been training the US Team for the last year. Thanks Charley for helping the Team! The three teams taking on the challenge are the US Team, which No Barriers is supporting, the second is from the UK, and the third is a combination of Australians and Canadians, referred to as the Commonwealth. To show support for veterans, Prince Harry, who is an active duty Captain in the British Army is accompanying the team.
The South Pole Allied Challenge is truly a living testimony of the No Barriers Mindset, “What’s inside of you is stronger than what’s in your way.” To give you an example of one of the individuals on the team, meet Mark Wise.
Mark served as an (Army) infantry officer in the First Battalion. During his time in Afghanistan in 2009 Mark was involved in an IED incident where he suffered from partial hand/forearm amputation, facial damage, and burns. Mark doesn’t see his experience as a reason to take a step back from serving but rather as another reason to keep going. Here is a quote from Mark, “As a leader of soldiers your responsibility never ends. I feel obligated to continue to set the example for those who follow not only in my footsteps as a wounded service member, but also for those returning home from combat.” To learn more about the team click here.
To learn more about the SPAC Challenge of 2013 and see current updates please visit the link to Walking with the Wounded’s website: http://walkingwiththewounded.org.uk/southpole2013/
If you would like to support the US Team please visit the link here: https://nobarriers.fundraise.com/southpole
Below are some of the videos on the South Pole Allied Challenge of 2013
A short video describing the SPAC of 2013: http://www.soldierstosummits.org/The-Program-Allied-South-Pole-2013-Challenge.aspx
Video on the departure of the teams on November 14, 2013: http://walkingwiththewounded.org.uk/southpole2013/video/
Come join me and my guide, Jeff Ulrich, at Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine a week from today at the New England Blind and Visually Impaired Ski Festival. We will be giving a clinic on the best method for guiding blind skiers and it’s open to anyone. I will also be giving a talk Sunday night on developing a No Barriers mindset.
Jeff and I have perfected a system that is far superior to the traditional technique of guiding from behind. Instead, Jeff leads and uses his voice to not only direct me but also give guidance on the shape of my turns. This allows me to ski more naturally and athletically instead of zigzagging down the slope. You can learn more about this pioneering system at Blind Skiers Edge.
The cost for the 4-day festival is between $365 and $535, which includes lift tickets and lodging. Sugarloaf is the second highest mountain in Maine and has over 400 acres and 80 trails open so there is something for everyone.
If you are in San Diego, Austin, Washington DC, Seattle, or Houston, then you have an opportunity to see the movie High Ground in the first week of October. If you aren’t in one of those areas or if you can’t make the date already set up, then you can arrange to host your own screening.
High Ground, featuring our first Soldiers to Summits project, is finally being released in theatres. I’ve watched, or should say, “heard,” a lot of films about our veterans, and none of them come close to portraying in such a powerful way the struggles and hurdles our military men and women experience as they try to make a life in the civilian world after life-changing injuries.
The setting is our dramatic climb of Lobuche, a 20,000-foot peak in the Himalayas. But this mountain only serves as a metaphor for the personal journeys these soldiers are embarking on as they make progress towards reclaiming their lives. their stories, both painful and deeply inspiring, carry this film and make it an experience which profoundly affects us as we consider our own barriers and breakthroughs. High Ground is directed by Michael Brown and produced by Don Hahn, who also produced such classics as Beauty and the Beast and Lion King, so the film has a beautiful soundtrack and I’ve heard, stunning imagery.
The High Ground screenings are organized through a new online service called Tugg.com. It’s a unique system where tickets are sold in advance and the movie then plays as long as they sell at least half the seats at the theater. If not enough tickets sell, you get your money back.
At present, San Diego will be October 1st, Austin will be October 3rd, Columbia MD and Lakewood WA will be October 4th, and Houston will be October 8th. None of these screenings are specific No Barriers screenings, but being hosted by local veterans organizations which in one way or another make the homecoming for veterans a more successful process. Also none of these screenings have reached their minimum ticket sales so please spread the word.
We’re now in the midst of our second Soldiers to Summits project, having recruited a new team of veterans. The project will end with a climb of Cotopaxi, a high volcano in Ecuador. Our mission is to provide returning veterans new tools and approaches, even a new mindset, to shatter barriers and continue to make an impact in the world.
Join me for the 2nd annual No Barriers What’s YOUR Everest? Challenge on June 2-3 for a climb of Mt. Elbert (14,400 feet), the tallest peak in Colorado. This fundraising event encourages you to embrace the No Barriers mindset and discover “what’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way.”
The trail to the summit of Elbert is 4.5 miles long, with 4,700 feet of elevation gain and over half of that is above treeline. For those worried they cannot reach the summit, you are welcome to join us for a picnic at treeline. Last year, despite heavy snow, 55 climbers reached the top of Quandary Peak (14,265 feet) and raised over $10,000 for No Barriers.
Our climbing team will include wounded soldiers from our 2012 Soldiers To Summits program as well as members of my Everest team. A kick-off dinner and reception on the evening of June 2nd in Leadville will inspire you to believe in the power of the human spirit to transcend all barriers.
The Elbert climb and dinner are open to anyone who donates $500 or more to No Barriers by May 30, 2012. If you’ve already donated that amount to No Barriers, Soldiers to Summits, or Global Explorers in 2012, you’re welcome to join us too! If $500 is out of your donation range, but you’d still like to participate, you can get pledges from your friends, family and colleagues. We’ve even set up a Crowdrise fundraising page for you to get started.
Come and push through your barriers! Register NOW online or send an email to email@example.com for additional information.
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