Imagine, if you can, the final gruelling steps to reach the summit of a mountain: hands clasping rock, toes jabbing to find a foothold, lungs gasping for oxygen from the thin, icy air and limbs burning with exhaustion. Then, the reward as you crest the peak and the landscape is revealed below your feet. Where eyes had been carefully trained on the terrain ahead of you, they now drink in your achievement – marshmallow clouds glowing glorious pink as the sun rises over East Africa, or the snow-clad Alps, all laid out beneath your feet.
But what if there was no view to reward those efforts?
This is the position that adventurer Miles Hilton-Barber found himself in on three of the world’s great mountaineering challenges: summiting Africa’s highest mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro and Mont Blanc; and climbing to 17,500 feet in the Himalayas.
A rare condition
Born in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, in 1948, Miles had planned to follow his father’s lead (he was in charge of the nation’s civil aviation) and join the Royal Rhodesian Air Force. That dream was dealt a heavy blow when he failed the eyesight test. Three years later, Miles was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, an affliction that would soon lead to total blindness. Unusually, this rare genetic condition had skipped several generations but affected both Miles and his brother Geoff.
In their early twenties, the world went dark. “The first sign was when I was hitch-hiking around Australia with a friend aged 19 and I realised my night vision was going”, he recalls. “My sight kept getting worse and at 21, I found out I was going to go blind. Until the age of 50, I believed blindness was a bad thing.”
Miles describes the victim mentality that blighted those intervening years, a period of stasis that came to an abrupt end when Geoff became the first blind person to sail solo from Africa to Australia, in a self-built yacht.
Call of the wild
This “wake-up call” from the man he calls his role model marked the beginning of a new chapter in Miles’s life, one that drew from his early experiences in Africa. “I was a great lover of the bush. A friend of mine was the head of [Rhodesia’s] national parks, so we’d go camping in the Zambezi valley. I loved listening to the sound of lions hunting around us at night” he says. “Being out amid nature and away from the fingerprints of man started my love for outdoor places.”
This love of the great outdoors was reignited at the age of 50 by his brother’s achievement. In the last 20 years, Miles has made the world’s most extreme landscapes his playground. He was the first blind person to haul a sledge over 250 miles of Antarctica. He has completed several endurance races: the 150-mile Marathon des Sables across the Sahara Desert, the Siberian Ice Marathon, an 11-day race from the Gobi Desert to the Great Wall of China. He has made those three mountain ascents, driven a lap of the Malaysian Grand Prix circuit at 145mph, completed more than 40 sky-dives and a solo Kamikaze Skeleton run down Lillehammer’s Olympic bobsleigh track.
What lies beneath
However, one of Miles’s greatest achievements was conquering claustrophobia on a wreck dive in the Red Sea. In the wheelhouse of the ship, he felt a rising panic, sensing how small the space was from the echoes around him. But with concentration and slow breathing, he was able to overcome his fear. Similarly, on a microlight flight from London to Sydney, he flew into a deadly storm over the Mount Lebanon range. Covered in ice, he suddenly felt as if a warm blanket had been thrown over him – something he puts down to his father, who had not lived to know his sons’ extraordinary achievements, looking down with fondness and acknowledging that he was living out a life-long dream.
So how does travel now compare to his early experiences in the bush? He describes finding a similar peace amid landscapes such as Antarctica, the Sahara and Himalayas: “Surrounded by thousands of square miles of nothing but ice, snow or sand, you realise you are not as special or important as you thought you were and also how fragile life is.”
And while he wasn’t able to see the view high up in the Himalayas, his best friend and guide, Jon Cook, was able to describe “the moonlight on three of four of the highest mountain peaks in the world looking like great big ice cream cones and above the black velvet of night with stars as bright as diamonds.” What he could sense was the “absolute silence… awesome, beautiful moments.”
About 80 per cent of the information we receive is through our eyes; cut that off and you start listening more. Miles describes that while losing your sight doesn’t improve your other senses, you pay them more attention. Once, while walking with his daughter Deborah, they came to a stream and he asked her to stop and describe how many different sounds of water she could hear. After a minute, she could identify a dozen. “There’s an orchestra of sound around us,” he says.
He also points out that sighted travellers are often distracted by visuals and thereby miss sensory experiences that he’s able to point out, whether it’s the scent of a pomegranate tree or cumin plant, or the murmur of a distant village.
That said, improvements could be made for travellers with visual impairments, such as a greater diversity of specialist travel operators and the simplicity of asking what sort of assistance they’d like.
These are minor quibbles though. Ultimately he feels that all travellers, sighted or visually impaired, benefit most when they open their eyes, and their minds, to the opportunities of travel.
Miles Hilton-Barber features in the trailblazers category of the San Miguel Rich List 2017 – inspirational men and women who have devoted their lives to pursuing experiences
Source : https://inews.co.uk/essentials/lifestyle/travel/how-a-blind-adventurer-sees-travel/