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Dropkicking the Blind

Others' Lives Are Risked For Pointless Record

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, January 10, 2001.

It's been fifteen years, and tradition is strong, so it's time again for Dark Cloud to drop-kick the blind. There are those who might, you know, find this offensive, so let me backtrack some and explain that dropkicking anyone is not my goal, but I am sometimes accused of such. So if I'm going to be accused of it, bring it on now.

What brings this on is the announcement that a blind man, a Mr. Weihenmayer from Denver, is going to climb Mt. Everest this March. He is going to do so on the route pioneered by Hillary. If I may quote from the Reuters story:He does not need constant company on ice and when rock climbing, but he needs someone near him when the climbing involves a mixture of rock, snow and ice. He also needs someone to give him information about the terrain when traversing, but he does not want anyone to touch him. "I climb because I enjoy adventure," Weihenmayer told Reuters during a trip to Nepal last year. "You learn about yourself and the outside world."

While true, and inspiring in a way, this infuriates me. And it brings to mind my original foray into the sensitive world of the frustrated blind. About fifteen years ago, a blind man planned to sail across some ocean or other solo. My contention then was that by his own admission (he was quoted as saying he had never been out of sight of land before....) he was utterly unqualified for the voyage had he the eyes of Odin. But worse, I resented his assumption that he would be rescued because I knew, long before the Perfect Storm melodrama, how bloody dangerous sea rescue is during a storm, and I resent ego-maniacs getting called heroes for failed attempts at a personal record for personal fortune when the real heroes are the twenty-somethings dragged out of bed to dice with death on their behalf, and it offends me the same if its some drunk halfway up the Flatirons or a blind man screaming into his microphone in a Force Nine gale off Iceland. He never made the attempt, to my knowledge.

And I am furious that after all the justifiable navel gazing brought about by Jon Krakauer's book on the Everest horrors of five years ago that rich people and ego maniacs are still risking the lives of cash-starved Sherpas to get to the top of the world. And the fact is, blind or sighted, most people who have sat atop Everest really, in the world of mountaineering, didn't climb it at all. They had their stuff brought up, they may have been essentially carried up by the amazing but mortal Sherpas, and it's a vapid and increasingly meaningless monument to themselves to pretend to be George Mallory who, whether or not he ever summated the thing, is still King of that Hill for getting as close as he did with the crap equipment he used.

Is this fair? After all, I do not know how good a climber this Mr. Weihenmayer guy is, or any climber for that matter and I myself have to slip restoratives under my tongue after each long sentence because I'm so out of shape. I don't know if he has experience at that altitude, I don't know if he is anything more than a day climber or an impressive Mallory with a vacant stare. But I do know that absent exceptional circumstances, he cannot pull his weight on a mountain. For one thing, he cannot go to rescue anyone else, and although Krakauer's book disabused me of my assumption that there was a law of the mountain as there is a law of the sea, Weihenmayer's entire group will have to revolve around him. He cannot lead out, since, quote, he needs someone near him when the climbing involves a mixture of rock, snow, and ice. Unquote. Which, while I don't spend weekends on the Everest summit myself, I would think well describes the terrain. He cannot see weather coming in, or where to place a piton or if his partners are frost bit or ill. He cannot see.

And what is the inspirational lesson here? That other blind people can climb Everest? We just got through learning far too many sighted people are only remotely qualified to make the attempt. That anybody can do anything if you work hard enough? Sure, if you have enough money at your command to pay Sherpas to act as coolies. That blind people have the same rights as the sighted?

No. They do not. We don't let them drive. We don't let them hunt with guns. And we shouldn't let them or anyone endanger the lives of Sherpas, their partners, themselves for a record that isn't even terribly important or, ironically, as impressive anymore. And we are bunch of sick, bored, celebrity-starved sadists to encourage this sort of crap. And if the event is successful, in that he summits and nobody dies, we'll never be told the true story, because it won't reflect well on everyone. Recall Scott Fischer, the ambitious and incredibly competent tour guide on Everest who made a gazillion trips in 1996 between base camps carrying stuff in order to leave the impression with his clients that they had indeed climbed the monster. When it hit the fan and his expertise was needed, the man was dead on his feet. And now, he is dead on the mountain, no more than a rope cleat on the way up, frozen to the rock as a memorial to a bad, bad idea: that anyone can climb Everest with the right, professional help. The more probable lesson is, nobody can climb Everest without luck and a good day no matter how skilled.

I used to joke that the Guinness Book of Records would eventually lead to someone pogo sticking up and down Everest. We've already had people ski down the mountain, so the pogo stick cannot be far behind. At this rate, perhaps in our lifetime we'll have a tear jerking book about the first attempt by blind, gay, hermaphrodigic quadriplegics pulling themselves up by their teeth. At the loss of only four Sherpas, one helicopter, we will have received in turn a made for TV movie and a soundtrack by, oh who cares. This is stupid, dangerous and about as inspirational as television coverage of a Russian Roulette. That the guy currently with the revolver is blind is of overpowering unimportance. This is DC.