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by Christopher J. Lynch, Los Angeles, California
By this point in my life I thought I understood the meaning of the word "challenge." After all, I had been active my whole life and had climbed numerous peaks, including Mount Whitney and Mount Kilimanjaro. But those past glories quickly faded when I met a group of brave individuals who taught me in a few short months what I had spent an entire lifetime trying to learn.
The goal was Mount Baldy. At 10,064 feet, it was the highest point in Los Angeles County and the third highest mountain in Southern California. I had climbed it at least a dozen times before and had led over 50 people to its trademark iron sign at the rock-strewn summit. But those were people with a full inventory of senses. Leading a group with little or no sight over rutted trails and past steep drop-offs to a summit almost two miles above sea level would dramatically change the equation.
My contacts at the Los Angeles Braille Institute were able to provide 14 adult students who wanted to make the climb. They had varying degrees of visual impairment, from the totally blind to those who just barely met the definition of legal blindness.
In addition to the wide disparity in the magnitude of their impairment, the students also came from a variety of backgrounds and had lost their sight in unique ways. Odette lost her sight from a rare blood disease while giving birth to her daughter. Melissa lost hers as a result of rheumatoid arthritis, Demetrius from a botched cataract surgery. Joanne (aka "Jo-Jo"), was the only one to have been born blind.
After receiving "Sighted Guide" training from the Braille Institute, several volunteers and I embarked on our first training hike on April 17. We had three months to train for the Mount Baldy summit in mid-July.
The first hike was Chantry Flats/Sturtevant Falls, a benign family hike of three miles with nary an elevation gain. I had done this trail at least half a dozen times before, but it looked foreign to me now as I saw it through different eyes. A rut in the middle of the trail could force you dangerously to one side or another; a tree root served as a trip wire to a face plant; every rock was a potential twisted ankle.
I could sense the tension in both the volunteers and the students that first day. How would the blind students respond to their sighted guides? Would the guides be up to the challenge of leading the students safely? How would the students, familiar with the perils of city streets, fare on the unforgiving terrain of a trail? Would we have arguments, hurt feelings, or worst of all--injuries?
The first mile or so was tentative; the guides were hyper-vigilant and the students, unfamiliar with their new leaders, remained on guard. Slowly though, a thaw began. From my position up front, I could hear the chattering increase.
We went a little more than three miles and made six stream crossings that day without incident. The highlight was a grand 60-foot-high waterfall at the turn-around point that the students could both feel and hear. More importantly, relationships were beginning to form between the students and guides. Trust would be an important factor as the trails got steeper and more treacherous.
Preconceptions about blindness were also beginning to break down. One of the sighted guide volunteers remarked, "Wow. I expected them to all be very sad and bitter about their situation."
Over the next several months, we completed more training hikes of ever-increasing difficulty: Solstice Canyon--three miles, 300 feet elevation; Sycamore Canyon Falls--five miles, 500 feet elevation; Mishe-Mokwa Trail--six miles, 1,000 feet elevation; and Icehouse Saddle--seven miles, 2,700 feet elevation. On July 3, we set out on the hike that would determine whether or not we were ready for Mount Baldy. We would climb Mount Baldy's little brother, Mount Baden-Powell.
Named after the founder of the Boy Scouts, Mount Baden-Powell stands just to the north and west of Baldy. At 9,407 feet and with four miles of switchbacks, it would be our toughest hike to date.
The apprehension at the trailhead that day was running extra high as it would be a make-or-break for many who had come so far in just a few short months. I reminded them that this trail was climbed the same way as every other one we had conquered--one step at a time.
The words of encouragement and the hard work of the past several months paid off, as seven hours later, we stood atop the summit. The students were ecstatic, as it was the first time many of them had ever climbed a mountain. We were only 600 feet below the summit of Mount Baldy. In two weeks, we would be climbing it.
The big day had finally arrived, and we milled about the trailhead in the early morning light waiting to take off. Before us was over seven miles of trail and over 4,000 feet of elevation gain to the summit.
I had chosen the Backbone Trail to take us to the summit and back. It was the longer of the two main routes to the top, but not as steep, and therefore, safer. We arrived at the Mount Baldy ski lodge about four hours later. Distance and elevation-wise, we were now at the halfway point. It had been an easy walk up a fire road to get here. The trail would get tougher and narrower over the next three-plus miles to the summit.
The Backbone Trail is aptly named as a good portion of it travels along the spine of the mountain. The trail is only three feet wide in some spots with steep drop-offs on either side. One spot in particular had me very worried. The trail narrows to only two feet and has a wall on one side and a steep cliff on the other. We went through one pair at a time, with the students tracing their hands on the wall to keep as far away from the cliff as possible.
Four hours later, we stood atop Mount Baldy, tired and winded but thrilled and proud as could be. There were tears of joy from both the students and the guides. Mark, one of the blind students, had lost his mother only two weeks prior and carried her picture with him to the summit.
We arrived back in civilization at 7:30 PM--3 hours after we had started--and reveled in our collective victory with a well-deserved meal at The Baldy Lodge Restaurant. The huge table was filled with students and guides, 28 of us in all. Most of us had never met before this endeavor, and yet we came together and united for a common goal. No one's life would ever be the same after today. Because, in the end, it wasn't about a mountain, it was about people.
A documentary film is being made about the Mount Baldy climb. You can view and hear a trailer at www.baldyfortheblind.com.
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