HIGH TIMES From Visually Impaired Climber Red Szell
Ever since watching a documentary about Joe Brown and Chris Bonington’s ascent of the Old Man of Hoy, when I was a teenager in the mid-1980s, I’d dreamed of following in their footholds. So, I started climbing at Harrison’s (there weren’t many climbing walls in those days) and got quite good at it. Then, aged 19, I discovered I was going blind.
I hung up my harness pretty much immediately. Climbing is all about trust and I couldn’t see any climbing partner putting their faith in someone who could no longer trust himself. That was in 1989.
On midsummer’s day 2013 my dream became reality and I found myself standing atop Europe’s tallest sea stack – the first ascent by a blind climber. But without High Sports it would never have happened.
When, in 2009, my daughter announced that she wanted to hold her birthday party at the Climb London wall at Swiss Cottage, my initial reaction was ‘great, let the instructors do all the work and I’ll sit down with a cup of coffee and my iPod.’ Instead I found myself checking out the bumps and curves of the routes on offer.
There was an astounding variety; slabs with tiny nubbin holds; a 10m corner to bridge; a selection of 14.5m walls, some bristling with jugs, others scantily clad with pinches and features, and two dominated by an overhang so big that even my damaged eyes could make it out.
The itch that I’d done my best to ignore for two decades came back with a vengeance – I needed to go vertical.
A few days later I was back and asking, rather timidly, whether they’d consider allowing a blind man lose on their walls. The two instructors at the desk were incredulous. ‘Of course! Why wouldn’t it be okay? Would I like to start now?’
After a rope safety test that proved that, unlike riding a bike, climbing skills don’t always come flooding back, I was roped and ready. I fairly flung myself at the wall and began hauling myself up a jug-ladder, adrenalin pumping with every metre I put between myself and the ground. ‘God I’ve missed this!’ I thought as I topped out and prepared to be lowered off. Back on terra firma I collapsed into a happy, sweaty heap and asked my instructor what grade I’d just climbed.
‘Well,’ he hesitated, ‘you rainbowed it, so strictly it’s not graded, but I guess you could say it was about 4a.’
‘It felt more like 7a’ I muttered, deflated.
‘I’m not surprised’ he said thoughtfully, ‘you need to remember to use your legs as well as your arms. After all they support the body’s weight all day.’
How often have I heard that over the past six years? But those words set the tone for all the lessons from all the instructors I’ve had the pleasure of working with at High Sports. I neither want nor receive special treatment. In the context of climbing, my blindness is merely another obstacle to be guided around with encouragement, friendly, expert advice and above all, the belief that, with a bit of fine-tuning, any problem can be surmounted.
So when a couple of years ago I mentioned my dream of tackling The Old Man of Hoy no one laughed or said it was impossible. Instead everyone at High Sports got right behind me and made sure that I had a training programme to make me equal to the challenge.
As anyone who has a degenerative disease will tell you, it’s all too easy to get stuck in a mind-set where life feels a little worse every day. Getting back into climbing has got me into far better shape both mentally and physically – it’s made me look up again.
A lot of sports and activities become inaccessible if you lose your sight, or the allowances that have to be made for your participation just end up reinforcing your sense of reliance on others. I don’t feel like that when I’m climbing. At High Sports I just rock up, rope up and hang out with a bunch of easy-going people who, like me, like vertical problems.
I’m so glad my daughter chose the 9th birthday party she did.