High Sight Expedition to Kilimanjaro – Blind Climbers Break World Record
"Look no further! You've found the luckiest bloke in the world." These were the words of Wayne Sticher, proud participant of the High Sight Expedition to the highest mountain in Africa.
Just three degrees south of the equator, lies Kilimanjaro reaching a height of 5895m. Towering over the surrounding plains, She can be seen by no less than 160km away, and it is here, that about 12 000 people from around the world, gather each year in an attempt to reach her mighty summit, Uhuru Peak.
As one of the 7 summits, Kilimanjaro draws interest from would be climbers from around the globe, for not only is she the highest mountain in Africa, largest volcano and largest free standing mountain, but she is also one of the closest points in the world to the sun.
Who would have thought that this majestic mountain would be the focus of an expedition spear headed by Stephen Hilton-Barber in Australia, to break all world records by having the most number of blind climbers, to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro.
So it was that Stephen contacted his Dad in South Africa, Geoff Hilton-Barber, who lost his sight when he was about 21, with the idea of creating a joint expedition between South Africa and Australia. Amongst Geoff's claims to fame, is that he is the only non-sighted person to have sailed single handedly, from Durban in South Africa, to Freemantle in Australia. Naturally, he rose to the challenge. High Sight Expedition 2009 was born.
For the next 9 months, preparations were made and a team of climbers assembled. Two charities were chosen to benefit; Prevent Blindness Association in Australia and Horizon Farm Trust in South Africa. Nomadic Adventures came on board as tour operator and part sponsor, Westville Boys High School and Lions Club in South Africa, along with the High Sight Team in Australia doing everything from a 'Bunnings Sausage Sizzle' to a 'Gold Coast Blind Trek.'
On the South African side, the team was headed up by Geoff, along with his daughter Andrea (15yrs old), Rusty Zindela, who was born blind, teaming up with the Westville Boys, William Hayles, Richard Gardiner, Michael Smit, Yaseen Noon and Jonathan Martin, watched over by Peter Stevens, their maths teacher. Walking with Geoff was Bruce Maitre, who suffered a severe head injury resulting in double vision, along with Lions Club members Alec Collier and Adrian Barnes, and a Nomadic Adventures client Severine Renard from Belgium, who contracted cancer of both eyes at 1yr old and in recent years, bladder cancer.
On the 13 March, this incredible team flew from Johannesburg to Tanzania to climb Mt Kilimanjaro, joining up with the logistics team of 15 guides, 2 cooks and 50 porters to ensure a smooth and successful climb.
This was to be a challenge to all involved. Kilimanjaro is a daunting climb for anyone who can see where they are going. For people who are blind, the dynamics of the climb change considerably. Each blind person, had trained to walk behind their sighted colleague who would guide through the lush undergrowth, the alpine desert, from camp to camp until reaching the summit. Walking up through the Marangu forest on the first day, these challenges became even more apparent. Clusters of uneven spaced slippery moss-covered rocks posed as awkward hazards. Gullies dug across the path for water drainage proved to be major stumbling blocks. Yet through patience, perseverance and persistence, the team made it through the forest to emerge at Mundara Camp after 6 hours of trekking.
Having walked their blind colleagues across many obstacles on the first day, the team decided to feel for themselves what the experience is like and so the sighted climbers took turns to be blind folded and to be guided for 10 minutes each day. it is amazing how much we take our sight for granted. Giving yourself over completely to another person to be led through realy difficult and rough terrain is more challenging than climbing the mountain.
Over the next few days the team progressively made their way to Kibo Huts, the last nights stop on the Marangu route before reaching summit. By now the vegetation had changed and the team found themselves in an expansive alpine desert with the summit of Kibo crater, looming above them. The Kilimanjaro mass comprises three volcanoes, Shira and Mawenzi which are extinct, and Kibo, which is dormant. It is the volcano of Kibo that forms the highest point in Africa, her last eruption being about 100 000 years ago resulting in the loss of 5 meters from her summit. From Kibo Huts, that summit was still another 1200m in altitude, away.
it is said that if you can make it to sunrise, you can make it to summit, and sure enough, as the sun begin to rise and case its mornign rays across the crater, the team felt encouraged. Yet how do you describe the magnificence of a sunrise to someone who has never seen it, or a puffy white cloud that cannot be touched. How do you explain the enormity of the massive towering glaciers that line the route to summit, or the massive volcanic vent in the crater. So much beauty.
As sighted climbers we have these magnificent feats of nature to distract us from the hardships of a high altitude climb. Non sighted climbers rely solely on their senses; the feel of the ground, the touch of the snow, the icy breathe that cuts into their lungs, the warmth of the sun on their faces and the sounds of the wind around them. Their senses, are their eyes.
At 06h30 Tanzanian time on Wednesday morning, the team of High Sight Expedition stood on top of Mt Kilimanjaro, 24 of them reaching Uhuru Peak. In doing so, they broke a record of having the most blind climbers at the summit, proving to the world that great vision is not vested solely in the eyes of the sighted.
When asked why one would climb a mountain when you cannot see where you are going, Kellie Dore of New Zealand replied, "We do not undertake challenges to see where we are going."
Just three degrees south of the equator, Kilimanjaro stands as a beacon in Africa, the great sought after adventure of people around the world. For the team of High Sight Expedition it served as a beacon of hope and encouragement.
When joining the team in 2008, Wayne Sticher said, "being bestowed the honour of being part of this incredible expedition, I am beginning to think the only handicap in life is actually believing that something is unachievable." For Stephen Hilton Barber, whose focus on putting this expedition together was for the sole purpose of breaking down barriers between sighted and vision impaired people, his dream has undoubtedly been achieved.