Blind Hikers Training in Arizona to Climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

Posted By Mike Padgett

March 4, 2009

PHOENIX, Ariz. – These hikers headed up the steep desert trail northeast of Phoenix are huffing and puffing, but they barely break out a sweat. Others on the trail might feel their nostrils burn and their pulse pound like a drum, but these seasoned hikers march on. They’ve been training in Arizona for months.

They feel this trail on Pinnacle Peak with their hiking poles, like handheld radar. They might leave a little blood on the rocks when they scrape a knee, but they make the trek look easy, almost like they could see the trail. Which they can’t.

They are blind or visually impaired, these eight hikers from metro Phoenix. They and their guides, 18 sighted hikers, are training to climb 19,340-foot-high Mount Kilimanjaro in June. They range in age from 12 to 42.

The group from the Foundation for Blind Children in Phoenix plans to leave Arizona on June 20 and arrive at Kilimanjaro’s base on June 23. Their climb will last seven days. They will pass through five climate zones, from tropical to glacial, and reach the summit on June 30.

The oldest of the hiking group is Tom Hicks, 42. He believes the group of blind hikers trekking up Kilimanjaro’s slopes will “send the message that if you have the proper training and the proper access, then you can do just about anything you want to.”

The hikers have been training in Arizona since mid-2008. Their first hike was at night in June. They hiked the Peralta Trail in the Superstition Wilderness east of metro Phoenix. The sighted guides carried flashlights or headlamps. That hike was followed by a strenuous trek up 12,643-foot Humphreys Peak north of Flagstaff in September.

One of the group’s toughest hikes so far was in November. They completed the two-day, 22-mile Phoenix Seven Summits Challenge, which involved climbing Camelback Mountain, South Mountain, North Mountain, Piestewa Peak and other local peaks in metro Phoenix.

“That was a gut check, but we made it and we did it, and I think we’re just kind of on fire now to get to the top of Kilimanjaro,” says Hicks, a case manager for blind or visually impaired military veterans at the Phoenix VA Health Care System.

The hikers have divided up into teams to raise funds to pay for the trip. Their Web site is www.seekiliourway.org. Part of the proceeds raised for the trip will benefit the Foundation for Blind Children.

Living with blindness

Hicks once had normal vision. He was an Army captain in combat intelligence for Special Forces in Fort Lewis, Wash. He was 13 years into his military career when retinitis pigmentosa began turning his world dark. That was 12 years ago.

“Nothing heroic,” he says. “I didn’t jump on a grenade or anything. I just slowly lost my eyesight and lost my career.”

But unlike his younger hiking buddies, who since birth have never known colors or shapes or smiles, Hicks had to relearn how to live without his eyesight. When he dreams today about his children, who are now adults, they “have these little-kid faces, because that’s the last time I remember seeing them,” Hicks says.

“Blindness is a pain in the ass,” Hicks says matter-of-factly. “It’s a huge mountain every day.”

This Saturday hike up Pinnacle Peak was led by Hicks and his sighted guide, Kristy Kevitt, business development manager at the Phoenix office of SmithGroup, a national architecture firm. Hicks’ other sighted guide for the Kilimanjaro trip is Grahame Richards, who wasn’t on today’s hike.

Hicks and Kevitt set an aggressive pace on today’s hike. Most of the time, Hicks kept one hand on Kevitt’s backpack. Kevitt described the trail’s obstacles to Hicks, like a boulder sticking out from the mountain wall. Or a step up or down on the trail.

Their legs were in step – right, left, right, left – like the giant iron arms pumping a locomotive’s wheels. Behind them, the other blind hikers and their sighted guides became a single-file train of white “See Kili Our Way” T-shirts.

This is perfect weather for hiking desert trails. The weather is cooler, the air is clearer, and the snakes are hibernating. In many places, this steep trail is a ledge carved between and around boulders. One misstep, and it’s a long tumble among boulders and cacti.

The trail winds up and down and around Pinnacle Peak. The switchbacks make it easier to go uphill or downhill. One or two sighted guides help each blind hiker. One is in front, the other in back.

At times, the blind hikers step aside to let others pass them on the narrow trail. I’m following Max Ashton, 12, the group’s youngest hiker. He was born with limited peripheral vision. His sighted guide today is Zach Mastro, a family friend.

I see obstacles in and along the trail and react to them. If I stumble, I might fall. But Ashton, when his feet bump obstacles, seems to react faster.

Behind me for part of the hike is Max’s father, Marc Ashton, executive director of the Foundation for Blind Children in Phoenix. He asks me how I’m doing. I’m focused on the trail looking for more photo ops. Someone else jokes that Ashton is keeping tabs on me in case I need a piggyback ride. We laugh.

Every climber succeeds

Marc Ashton says he is learning more about himself by training for the Kilimanjaro climb. Although he is not an outdoors enthusiast, Ashton feels compelled to finish the climb and help others do the same. He adds that everyone who climbs Kilimanjaro, even if they don’t reach the summit, will succeed.

“It’s not going to be failure if people don’t make it to the top,” Ashton says. “It’s about the journey. What are the climbers going to see when they get to the top of Kili? They’re all going to see something. It’s not a matter of the view – it’s a matter of the vision.”

When the group completes today’s hike and meets back at the trailhead, they are only halfway. They paused before hiking the trail a second time. Everyone chowed down on energy bars, trail mix or sandwiches and water or sports drinks. They expected to burn 500 calories during each of this day’s two roundtrips. On Kilimanjaro, they will need about 2,000 calories a day.

Walking among the hikers during the break was their coach, mountaineer Kevin Cherilla, a professional mountain guide and a veteran of Kilimanjaro eight times. He made sure everyone was recharging with food and water. Cherilla is a physical education instructor for middle- and high-school students at Phoenix Country Day School.

Cherilla was part of the climbing team that guided the first blind person to the top of Mount Everest in 2001. He has guided more than 100 climbers on Kilimanjaro. In 2006 and again in 2008, his Kilimanjaro groups included Darol Kubacz, a paraplegic athlete. Cherilla also organizes hikes to Machu Picchu in Peru. Details and photographs of his hikes are on his Web site, www.kcsummits.com.

Mental strength critical

Cherilla says mental conditioning is as critical as physical training and a healthy diet. He says many people in reasonably good physical condition can climb Kilimanjaro, but few are mentally ready for the strenuous hike. And especially for the mountain’s final 4,000 feet, which is almost vertical and covered with snow and ice.

“For most people, what happens is, they mentally lose it because of the long hours and the (climbing) day after day after day,” Cherilla says. “These guys are going to be on the mountain for eight days, which is a long time.”

During the weeklong climb up Kilimanjaro, the Phoenix hikers will face fatigue, nausea and lack of sleep. They should also be prepared to climb during rain and, on the final day, snow and strong winds, Cherilla says.

“What I tell these guys is, the more you train and the more you suffer here, it’ll pay off over there,” Cherilla says. “If you wake up sore, then get back out there the next day and get sore again. Eventually, that’s going to go away.”

During their nights on Kilimanjaro, while the hikers rest their sore muscles, they will have time to read, listen to music or play cards or charades. Cherilla says charades are a favorite activity for the African porters. He says about 100 porters will be needed on this trip, if the Arizona group numbers 30 or more.

Today’s first trip up Pinnacle Peak started at 9 a.m. The group made the first 3.5-mile roundtrip in about 90 minutes. Now, after a break of about 20 minutes at the trailhead and park office, it was almost 11 a.m. The temperature was rising, and the Arizona hikers headed for Kilimanjaro needed to do the trail again. They were recharged, ready for their second hike.

“Are we ready to roll,” someone shouted.

“Let’s roll,” came a response.

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Mar 4th, 2009

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