Blind Climbers Solo El Cap, Ascend Old Man of Hoy
8/14/13 - Erik Weihenmayer, who climbed Mt. Everest (and, perhaps even more impressively, also climbed the Naked Edge, the five-pitch 5.11 testpiece in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado) is not the only blind climber pushing boundaries. This summer, two other climbers who have lost nearly all of their eyesight made remarkable ascents.
Steve Bate, a New Zealander living in Great Britain, climbed two routes on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley and then soloed Zodiac, despite having decent vision in only about 10 percent of his field of view. Bate, a former climbing instructor, was diagnosed a couple of years ago with retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive condition that is expected to leave him completely blind within three years or so. His eyes are deteriorating from the outside in, leaving him with a form of tunnel vision.
"If I was sitting six feet away from you and looking you straight in the eye, I could see your face very clearly, but everything else around your face would be blank to me, until I turned my head," Bate said. "As you can imagine in terms of climbing and searching for holds, if you're face climbing it can take me a long time to find them, and often it's by running my hand over the surface of the rock to feel for them."
Not wanting to waste any time before his condition deteriorated further, Bate traveled to Yosemite in early June with British big-wall ace Andy Kirkpatrick, and the two men climbed Zodiac (16 pitches, C3+) in a 31-hour push, with a three-hour rest high on the route. Bate then climbed Lurking Fear (19 pitches, 5.7 C2) over three days with Kirkpatrick and Alwyn Johnson.
With the warm-ups out of the way, it was time for the main event. After fixing two pitches on Zodiac, Bate spent six days and five nights solo-climbing that route. Though he fell twice and worried about route-finding, only the overhanging Mark of Zorro pitch gave him any trouble: "For me this, by far, was the hardest, most draining pitch," he wrote at his website. "It was also the only pitch on the climb where I had trouble finding the route…. But with a long scan of the rock and a browse over the topo I chose the correct path to a welcome bolted anchor." Bate's friends met him on top and helped him carry down his gear after the first known solo of an El Capitan route by a legally blind climber.
In the far north of Scotland, meanwhile, Red Szell, another climber with retinitis pigmentosa—this time with only 5 percent of his vision remaining—successfully ascended the famed Old Man of Hoy sea stack with guide Martin Moran. The 450-foot tower goes in four pitches at about 5.9, after a rugged and at times exposed approach down a grassy headland.
Szell had been a climber back in the 1980s but gave it up after he began losing his eyesight. When a new climbing wall opened near his home, "the itch returned" and he began climbing again. "If the instructors at Climb London were surprised to have a novice with a white stick they didn’t show it," he wrote in a short trip report at the British Mountaineering Council website. "Rather they treated it as a challenge to get me confident enough to climb outdoors again."
Soon he was training for his dream climb: the Old Man of Hoy, and on June 24 the climb was completed.
"Facing a disability and climbing a wall are not that dissimilar," Szell wrote at the BMC website. "Both can appear insuperable obstacles until you break them down into a series of moves and pitches; you buzz on your small successes and come back again to try and defeat the sections that throw you off; sometimes you just need to tough it out."
Below is a short video by Andy Kirkpatrick of his single-push climb of Zodiac with Steve Bate:
Dates of ascents: June 2013