[mountainstate] Fwd: Blind hikers travel the Grand Canyon from rim to rim
dcain at hsc.wvu.edu
Mon Oct 18 15:21:48 GMT 2010
Thanks for sending. Oh, I would love to do this.
From: mountainstate-bounces at acb.org [mailto:mountainstate-bounces at acb.org] On Behalf Of john gerhardt
Sent: Saturday, October 16, 2010 3:57 PM
To: Mountain State (West Virginia) Council of the Blind discussion list
Subject: [mountainstate] Fwd: Blind hikers travel the Grand Canyon from rim to rim
Blind hikers travel the Grand Canyon from rim to rim
by Dennis Wagner - Oct. 15, 2010 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
GRAND CANYON - Just before dawn, 13 blind hikers begin a descent into the abyss, unable to see the trail at their feet or the gaping chasm they are about to enter.
The plan seems audacious, if not crazy: A group of adults and kids from the Foundation for Blind Children sets out to complete the Grand Canyon's 24.3-mile trek from rim to rim in a single day on a rock-scrabbled route where hikers are one false step from a fatal plunge.
The challenge, considered grueling even for experienced hikers with working eyes, covers nearly 2 vertical miles and is so demanding that Grand Canyon National Park signs warn not to attempt it.
But the Canyon Crawlers, as the hikers facetiously dubbed themselves before their expedition, are out to make a point to themselves and to the world - that those who can't see are able to achieve - and to appreciate one of the planet's Seven Natural Wonders without viewing it.
By day's end Sunday, 10 of the blind adventurers make it out, some of them long after dark, sporting blisters and scrapes as badges of courage.
Two spend the night with guides on the Canyon floor at Phantom Ranch, exiting a day later. One gashes his leg so badly in a fall that he must be flown out by helicopter.
Marc Ashton, chief executive officer at the Phoenix-based foundation, says he believes the expedition set a rim-to-rim record for hikers who can't see.
"Our goal was to prove to the world that blind people can do anything," says Ashton, whose 14-year-old son, Max, was among the successful trekkers. "Our climbers proved they could."
Group starts at 8,500 feet
Camping on Saturday night on the North Rim, the hikers share dinner and anxious humor around a bonfire at 8,500 feet.
Seven men, four women and two boys trained for months with volunteer partners, climbing urban peaks in metro Phoenix as practice. But the Canyon crossing is monolithic by comparison: More than 50,000 steps, each with extra strain and stress for those who don't know what's underfoot.
By firelight, the youngest, 12-year-old Dillan Owens of Mesa, sits in silent trepidation. Dillan's vision began to fail in fourth grade. Doctors found a brain tumor. There were two surgeries. Now in seventh grade and legally blind, he has been through repeated chemotherapy treatments since September of last year, training at intervals.
"I'm pretty nervous," the boy admits. "But we're going to prove to people that the blind and vision-impaired can do something."
Mike Holsten of Phoenix, the oldest participant at 64, was a correctional officer at a state prison near Buckeye until late last year. After cataract surgery, an infection took nearly all his vision in January.
Holsten chokes up briefly at his loss: "It was like getting hit with a baseball bat, you know?" Then he quickly apologizes for a momentary weakness. "Sorry about that," he says, stiff-jawed. "I still feel sorry for myself sometimes."
Though Holsten and his wife, Rosey, are experienced hikers, he admits being unstable less than a year into blindness.
"I can't see my own feet when I'm standing up," he says. "So, every step is a crapshoot."
Hikers begin march
Wakeup call is 4 a.m. An hour later, the group assembles at the North Kaibab Trail, guides wearing headlamps. The march begins without fanfare.
Each visually impaired person works with at least one sighted guide, who provides step-by-step instructions along the way. The guides' constant drone of directions reverberates softly against Canyon walls:
Step down here. Step down again. Mule crap here. Now a big rock. Step down. Overhang on right. Step up. Cliff on the left.
Pathfinders - friends, families and volunteers - mix jokes, encouragement and descriptions of the landscape with guidance.
Teams develop unique marching styles, rhythmic bonds of trust.
Dillan latches on to his father Jay Shingleton's backpack and seems to become a trailing appendage.
Mike Armstrong, a 40-year-old with prosthetic eyes, follows the jingle of cowbells on a guide's belt. Armstrong uses a pair of walking sticks as antennae, reading the trail like Braille.
When he strays off-course, nearly over a ledge, another guide to his rear shouts, "Whoa, Mike! Where are you going?" Then, he taps Armstrong back in line with a walking stick.
Because paces vary, the Canyon Crawlers are soon separated over several miles of trail. Other hikers along the way furrow their brows in confusion or curiosity.
"Pretty ambitious," says hiker Brian Clark, 33, of Pittsburgh, who allows Dillan to pass along a 280-foot precipice. "I thought about what it would be like to do this with my eyes closed. . . . I'd be filled with anxiety."
Sighted people come to the Canyon for spectacular views and the acrophobic thrill of gazing a mile down. Blind folks experience the Canyon with other senses, and for other reasons. They talk of the echoing silence, the taste of trail dust and scent of pine, the Canyon's warm breath rising from sun-baked rock.
Tom Hicks, 44, of Gilbert, lost his vision to retinitis pigmentosa 13 years ago. The former soldier, now a case manager for blind veterans, says he never visited the Grand Canyon while he had sight.
"I won't get to see it tomorrow, either," he says. "But I'll feel it."
Armstrong, a karate instructor wearing a sampan hat, says limit-testing develops personal confidence and motivates others to achieve. He completed the rim-to-rim hike twice over the weekend, training for an 800-mile trek on the Arizona Trail in the spring.
"For me, it's about having a challenge and meeting it," Armstrong says. "And along the way, if you inspire others, that's even better."
1 injured; 12 hikers remain
At noon, the speedier hikers congregate for lunch at Phantom Ranch. Word spreads that Holsten, the oldest participant, fell after only a few miles, cutting his leg, and was flown out. (His wife later tells the group that he was disappointed but otherwise fine, with only a flesh wound.)
Twelve remaining hikers, duly sobered, continue.
Debi Black, 51, of Sun Lakes, blinded by retinitis pigmentosa for nearly 30 years, falls several times, twisting an ankle, suffering scrapes and bruises. After one spill, she stands up and limps on, muttering, "Everything hurts now except my right elbow and knee."
Undaunted, she listens as guides describe majestic cliffs, waterfalls, the roiling brown Colorado River beneath a dazzling blue sky. Black says she can picture the scenery from their words, just as a person conjures images while reading a book.
"Everything echoes in the Canyon," she says. "You can just feel how huge it is. I loved listening to the river. And they described the layers of red rock, the sunshine glimmering off the water."
By dusk, hikers are strung out along switchbacks on Bright Angel Trail. Fatigue and reduced oxygen levels take a toll on Dillan, who begins wheezing. His father and another guide urge him forward.
"You're doing great, son! Switchback left. You can do it! Step up here. You're so close! Big step, up and over. I'm so proud of you!"
Supporters at the top hoot into the darkness. As the boy summits the South Rim, he seems stunned, speechless, proud.
"He tells himself he can't do things, and I know it's totally the opposite," his dad says.
"If you keep telling yourself you can, your mind takes over. This was a life-changing experience."
Black is the last to complete the trek on Sunday, after 17 hours. Despite a swollen ankle, lacerations and leg cramps, she says her memories will be of multihued cliffs towering overhead and sunshine glimmering off Bright Angel Creek.
"That was the hardest thing I've ever done," Black says, "worse than childbirth. But it was just beautiful. The mountains and rivers and waterfalls.
"So beautiful but so painful."
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