Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Walking on the Wild Side: Michael's Deaf Blind Challenge

Those readers that follow me on Twitter will be aware that I have recently been involved as part of the support team for Michael Anderson, a Deafblind man who climbed Ben Nevis on the 21st of July.  I wrote a couple of articles for the Voice for Arran before and after the event.  They are reproduced below: 

Part 1: The Preparation
Michael Anderson likes a challenge but his goal of climbing Ben Nevis for his 70th birthday is going to be a mighty test of his stamina and determination. Michael is both deaf and blind and hopes to climb the highest mountain in Britain to raise money for DeafBlind Scotland, a charity which supports and campaigns on behalf of people with dual sensory impairment, a complex disability that can be incredibly isolating.  Michael hopes to raise money towards a Training and Resources Centre that will support people with deafblindness, their families and guides/communicators.
I agreed to get involved with Michael’s challenge long before I met him.  As soon as I heard about his plans to climb Ben Nevis I wanted to help if I could and put myself forward as a member of his support team. However, it was not until a grey midgey morning on the shores of Loch Lomond in June that I finally met Michael, his daughter Fiona and her partner Nina. Michael is a gentle man with a soft voice. His kind exterior belies a man with a core of steel. Meeting him for the first time, for a training day on Ben Lomond, I wondered what on earth I could offer Michael and his support team. My knowledge of the mountain is one thing, but my experience in guiding deafblind people and the additional challenges we might face was at that point non existent.

On the Summit of Ben Lomond with Michael Anderson
At first I walked alongside Fiona and Nina and watched how they patiently guided him along the early sections of the path. I wondered at how, taking Fiona’s arm, Michael intuitively followed and copied her motion, gauging the size of steps and unevenness of the ground by feel.  Michael wears a hearing aid, and the two women loudly described the footpath before us.  Suddenly Michael stopped.  “We are in woodland?” We tried to explain how green corridors of oaks and birch surrounded us.  “May I touch a tree?” Michael asked.  Carefully we led him over to an ancient and gnarled trunk.  “Ah yes,” Michael smiled “An oak”.  Later he would identify a fallen birch by the feel of the papery bark under his fingertips.

Michael’s sense of direction is better than that of most sighted people, as is his balance, despite his damaged hearing. He has Usher’s syndrome, and has had a hearing impairment all his life; his sight has deteriorated slowly since he was a boy, and at the age of 33 he was registered blind.  He recalls climbing a mountain with his brother as a child and the wonderful emotions that awoke in him: “it was an amazing, uplifting sensation, both in what one has achieved and what we could see.  That was my first ever climb and I believed a seed was sown”
As a younger man, Michael enjoyed walking in the hills around his Berwickshire home and he is still exceptionally fit and active despite his disability.

For me to get a handle on how best to guide Michael and become part of his team, it was time to experience a glimpse of his world.  Approaching a rocky section of the path, I closed my eyes and took Fiona’s arm. I felt a huge leap of faith at this moment, and suddenly the act of climbing a mountain was condensed into each tentative step. Simple descriptive commands work best and though to the guide this can seem incredibly repetitive, it is vital information.  “Step up and over, left a bit, forwards, rock in path”. This steady flow of information is the guidee’s lifeline to progress. Fiona and Nina are very skilled at this, but as we approached complicated sections of path I could see the concern etched on their faces. 

Taking a turn at Michael’s side was nerve wracking initially, but his kind manner and careful concentration soon helped me to relax. Michael has an iron will and even though it was clear that he was weary, he never complained and continued to smile graciously. We left the treeline, and climbed up in to the grey clouds. He was keen to learn when the mist closed in.  We described the views, and how they faded from sight. He sensed the cold wind, and the brightening of the sky as we approached the summit.  Standing at the trig point taking photos, Fiona and Nina had tears in their eyes, but Michael’s face was a picture of pure joy.

Wise people say that when you reach the summit of a mountain you are only half way there, and for Michael this is more than true.  Each step is placed with equal care in ascent and descent, and as fatigue set in, the reality of the challenge dawned on us. Progress was slow, and through the stony sections painstaking. Ben Lomond is a lighter shade of Munro than Ben Nevis, which standing at 1344m is a worthy challenge for any hill walker. The Ben Nevis path is rough and rocky, and the weather on the hill often violently nasty.  We expect to be on the hill for at least eighteen hours, and will have to carry additional food, water and equipment.  Walking back through the woodland on the banks of Loch Lomond, I felt humbled by the immense challenge ahead for Michael, and honoured to be part of making it possible.

Part 2: Ben Nevis.
It was never going to be easy, but climbing Ben Nevis was a huge challenge for Michael Anderson and his support team because not only is he deaf and blind, but at 70, no spring chicken either. Michael was raising money for Deafblind Scotland, a charity that supports people with dual sensory impairment.  As part of his team I was able to take part in one of the most satisfying challenges of my life, and although it was hard for everyone involved, not least of all Michael, the whole experience was a huge adventure that forged new friendships.

We met at 4.30am at the visitors centre at the foot of Ben Nevis. The team comprised Michael, his daughter Fiona and her partner fun loving Nina, a cheerful young woman called Meg, George- an experienced mountain walker, Phil- a gear freak and walking guidebook writer, and finally, myself.

We set off in the early morning gloom grateful for evenness of the initial sections of the path. Michael set a cracking pace for his guides, and not even a peculiar design of stile (hard to describe to a blind man at 5am) slowed him down much. Optimism set in and as the sun rose and we were joined by other walkers on the track, the plan started to look distinctly feasible. By mid morning, Michael was striding out confidently alongside the “Halfway Lochain”. 
“Its in the bag” we thought….

The section of path above the half way lochain is very rocky. Loose boulders of considerable size litter the path despite recent work by the Ben Nevis Partnership. As we wove in and out of the obstacles in our way, progress ground to a standstill. Putting one foot in front of the other, we zig zagged our way up the shoulder of the mountain. I could see that this was taking its toll on Michael and the team and I began to seriously worry whether we would have enough energy left in hand to descend this sort of terrain.  I called a meeting and expressed my concerns.  Anxious that Michael was concealing his physical state from the team I asked him to level with us. Normally a quiet and polite man, he looked uncomfortable. Eventually he spoke: “Please don’t take this the wrong way,” he said, “I feel we are going too slow. I can go faster; I don’t need to go round everything!” 

Relieved, we pressed on, and the pace quickened. The support from other walkers on the mountain was fantastic. Phil was also sending out live updates to the internet via a satellite beacon that logged our exact position online. We felt as if the whole world was rooting for us to succeed.

We were joined by Jim, an elderly gentleman who was walking alone and looking for company. As we neared the summit, to my horror Jim took a turn for the worse and collapsed cold and insensible. Concerned that he was hypothermic, we wrapped him in warm layers and gave him sugary food. He perked up a little with some Kendal mint cake, but was hazy and incoherent. He looked in a bad way, but knowing that calling a rescue immediately would guarantee Jim could become seriously cold and ill in the long wait for help, trying to get him moving seemed like a good idea. George and Meg volunteered to descend a little with him.  I suggested that if he showed no sign of improvement in 10 minutes, they call the emergency services. In the event, Jim was able to walk off under his own steam after being fed and watered extensively.  It later emerged that he was diabetic and had not eaten sufficiently for the ascent. I believe he owes his life to George and Meg. 

On the Summit of the Ben!
Meanwhile, Michael was nearing the summit of Ben Nevis.  The final undulating plateau seemed to drag on interminably, but eventually at around 1pm the ruins of the observatory loomed in to view through the cloud. It was an emotional moment, with photos and phone calls home. We were even treated to a view, as the mist parted to briefly reveal the magnificent North Face of the mountain.

The descent was as hard as we knew it would be. Every single one of us was feeling the pain as the afternoon wore on in to evening. Michael seemed to have more energy than the rest of us put together.  At dusk, the midges descended hungrily.  We couldn’t escape them so plodded on regardless. Eventually, at half past ten, we crossed the bridge in to the visitors centre car park. For me this was a wonderful moment, tinged with relief and a huge sense of achievement. Michael had climbed Ben Nevis, and in doing so, had become the first fully blind and deaf man to stand on Britain’s highest mountain. 

Congratulations to Michael, and a huge well done to the entire team.  I’m looking forward to walking with you all again and eagerly waiting to hear what Michael’s next challenge will be!

To find out more about the work of Deafblind Scotland and the many other fundraising events they organise visit the website:

You can support his incredible effort by donating to Deafblind Scotland on

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