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November 17, 2009

Climbing Volcano Iztaccíhuatl

Filed under: life... — benmetz @ 11:19 pm

I’ve not been blogging recently.  You might be aware that I’ve spent the month in Mexico, a combination of holiday, some pro bono work for a couple of social entrepreneurs, an unexpected foray into the country’s social finance arena and the climbing of Volcano Iztaccíhuatl with a group of blind and partially sighted folk from Mexico and the United States.  I’m coming to the end of the trip, am back in Mexico City and finally am finding time to document what was a profound and remarkable adventure!

Ojos Que Sienten (trans. Eyes That Feel) is an organisation founded and led by Ashoka Fellow Gina Badenoch.  OQS works equally to empower blind and partially sighted people and to sensitise sighted and able bodied people to the skills and potential of people society considers to be disabled.  For the last year or so Gina and her team have been working to bring a group of blind and sighted folk to the top of Iztaccíhuatl, a +5,000 metre high volcano about two hours outside of Mexico City.  The team made it to the summit on Wednesday 11th November after a four-day adventure.  The event proved to be a profoundly moving and life-changing experience for many of the participants.  Thrown into the mix was a dinner in the dark for 150 people, a series of fantastic workshops, a number of presentations to universities and corporate sponsors and a book launch….  All in a days work for the OQS team!

The climb was led by Erik Weihenmayer, a blind climber who summited Mount Everest in 2001 and who has climbed the highest peak on every continent.  Erik proved to be a source of great inspiration for the climbers, sighted and blind, for the organising team, for the tens of media teams who interviewed him and for the hundreds of people who attended the various events OQS organised and for whom I seemed to become production assistant for.  For me the inspiration provided by Erik wasn’t limited to climbing alongside him.  Erik can eat anything at any time of the day or night, has the ability to back to back interview from dawn until way into the night, manages to retain an optimism and humour regardless of inane questioning and has pioneered the concept of positive pessimism (more on this in later blog posts).

Volcano Iztaccíhuatl

Day one – Acclimatisation to the new altitude, meeting the team and the first sensitisation workshop.  Prior to Erik’s arrival climbers and support staff met in Amecameca, a nearby town at 2,800 metres to get to know each other, begin to get our lungs used to the altitude and learn a little about what it’s like to be blind and what unique abilities this makes for.  The ‘lightbulb’ moment for me on this trip was the moment I put on a blindfold and was led around to explore a small garden by Steve, a 24-year-old US army veteran who lost both his eyes 17 months ago in Iraq.  Steve led us off at a blinding pace (pun intended!), scaring the living daylights out of us.  His sense of place in the world, confidence in movement, understanding of sound-scapes and positive go-get-‘em attitude immediately placed him as capable and those of us blindfolded as incapable.  Disability and ability – in concept and practice – evaporated in seconds.  Profound and hugely important is the only way to describe this workshop.

Steve and me at some point of the climb…

Day two – Acclimatisation walk.  Sleeping at 2,800 metres we wake early and head, by van, to base camp at 4,000 metres.  A four-hour walk up to 4,500 metres has me spinning, nauseous, gasping for breath and with a headache of monumental proportions.  I wonder if I’ll actually make it to the summit!  Guiding our blind colleagues makes for interesting learning.  Bear bells are used on ski poles to gauge direction.  Poles are used to tap out the location of rocks.  Words snatched between gasps of air are used, minimally, to highlight features and dangers.  Consequences to your left… Death fall to your right…  Rock step up…  Run the gauntlet!

Day three – Waking on the stone floor of the Televisa television relay station before dawn.  4,000 metres.  Mustering the team ready for the days climb to 4,700 metres and our campsite for the night.  My lungs seem to find more air but my head is still exploding.  Ibuprofen and Tynadol all round.  Diamox for those suffering the worst.  This, and exaggerated stories, are what real climbers seem to run on.  Our Mexican participants seem to be faring much better than the US folk.  Or the single brit…  I spend my time working with Steve and Eric (little Eric or little E rather than ‘big’ Erik W) a 16-year-old participant from Arkansas in the US, who has been blind since the age of ten.  Eric is nervous on his size 15 feet but committed and we make our way, thankfully slowly, up to what’s been termed advanced base camp.  On the last leg of the day we devise a new strategy.  One hand wound into the webbing of my backpack and one hand using a walking pole as a guiding cane.  We make phenomenally fast progress and I feel as if I am being driven by Eric up the last sections of the days exertions…  Once again society’s capable are left wanting.  I think Eric’s lungs match the size of his feet.  Inspirational words from Erik W over an awful meal of freeze dried vegetables and pasta (that tastes amazing at altitude – pretty much anything does!).  A sleepless night at minus five Celsius ceaselessly gasping for oxygen.

Day four – Waking at three thirty to begin the ascent.  The first hour: a 60-degree scramble up scree and loose rock.  Both Little E and Steve have doubts.  I would too but thankfully they are displaced by my focus on role as guide.  Stirring words and professional advice from Jeff Evans, pro-climber, doctor and long time friend of Big E, gets everyone moving and ensures I have my work cut out for the day with Steve and Little E.  Dawn breaks a couple of hours in and we get our first sight of Volcano Popocatépetl, the male partner and neighbour of Iztaccíhuatl, our target for the day.

The sun reveals our next challenge: two hours of climbing and scrambling over real rock faces.  The guides have set up lines and we start climbing for real.  Steve is challenged.  He lost 70% use of his left arm when he lost his sight.  We pick our way carefully, scarily (more for me than him).  We make it to the next pitstop and eagerly refuel.  The last section flattens out a little (45 instead of 50 and 60-degrees).  An hour to go. We are some way behind and hear the cheers of those making the summit.  A long 45 minutes later we too, are cheering…  28 of the 30 participants make it.  Some laugh, some cry, all agree how beautiful it is and how captivating the adventure has been.  But we are only half-way.  Now begins the descent…..

The team on the summit!

In retrospect and over a beer or two – the descent was slow and in some places dangerous for all.  I led Steve the whole way and saw how frustrated he became towards the end.  Aggravated by sheer exhaustion the mountain became an annoyance, no longer the friend it had been on the way up.  Despite this we agree to partner up for Mount Kilimanjaro in August 2010.  Steve’s on a mission and it’ll be an honour to be a small part of his next big adventure.

During this adventure I have been profoundly moved by each of the blind participants, commitment and capabilities.  I have found my own capabilities often turned on its head.  I have had my senses opened to a new level of experience.

My thanks to Gina and her team, to each of the participants and to those professional climbers and guides who kept watch while a bunch of crazy, inexperienced folk made it to the summit of Volcano Iztaccíhuatl!

And finally my thanks, on behalf of Ojos Que Sienten, to those of you who sponsored me.  At the time of writing my climb has raised almost £3,000 for OQS at a critical time as they begin expansion of activities across Mexico.

If you would like to donate to Ojos Que Sienten simply visit my JustGiving page.

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