SUMMIT COUNTY — To Scott Smiley, Colorado mountains are the crunching of snow underneath his shoes, the scent of pine needles, the chirping of birds and the feel of fresh, alpine air on his skin.
Because the military veteran and instructor is blind, what he won’t see is the whiteness of snow or the sight of towering peaks, until guide Eric Alexander paints a mental image of the rugged mountains.
“I still think it’s one of the most beautiful things,” Smiley said. “The air is fresh, pure and clean. I live in Spokane, Wash., and you don’t get those senses hitting you all the time. There’s the beauty of seeing things, but those pictures go to my mind and it puts a smile on my face.”
Smiley and fellow veteran Marty Bailey both fought for the U.S. Army in Iraq, where they lost their sight — Smiley to a car bomb and Bailey to a grenade explosion. But being blind hasn’t dampened their sense of adventure. The two were in Colorado in mid-March to train for a May trip up Alaska’s Denali mountain (Mount McKinley) — North America’s tallest peak. Joined by Vail Valley resident and mountaineer Eric Alexander, the two got some altitude training in Summit and neighboring Park County by climbing Quandary Peak and Mount Lincoln — two of the state’s above 14,000 foot peaks.
Bailey and Smiley hope to make the first blind ascent of Denali’s West Rib, a more technically challenging and direct route than the more trodden route that climbs 9,000 feet to the summit. They’ll do so with the help of Alexander, who has summited peaks around the world, notably guiding his friend Erik Weihenmayer to become the first blind person to summit Everest.
“I’ll apply those experiences with these guys to help navigate the terrain. It’s up to them to get their fitness up, but I’ll lead them up the right path,” said Alexander, who first met Smiley while speaking at Westpoint, where Smiley taught at the time. “Part of this training (in Colorado) is just getting to know each other well before we head for the big climb.”
Along with a support team, the three did some ice climbing on Lincoln, where a snowstorm unleashed on the group during the excursion. The following day, they climbed Quandary, a 14,000-foot peak, battling 40-mph gusts of wind above tree line.
Besides acclimation, they worked on the system they’d use to find their footing. When ice climbing, it was a challenge for climbers without site to keep their ice axes and tools from tangling up in ropes. Even on a straightforward hike, changing conditions and uneven terrain pose difficulties for a blind person. The two soldiers relied instead on listening to the footsteps in front of them, hearing cues shouted out by Alexander, following the ringing of a bell and sometimes even following a fixed rope or grabbing the ski pole of the person in front of them.
Smiley, 33, has climbed Colorado peaks before as well as Mount Ranier, but Denali will be his biggest endeavor yet.
“(Those previous summits) were difficult, not knowing what each step is going to be,” Smiley said. “Your whole body flexes with the terrain. I never thought just walking could be so difficult. In the back of my mind I’ve wanted to give up, but I had to trust in my guide. I know Denali will be just as hard, if not more challenging.”
A climb with a mission
Both Smiley and Bailey want to continue to live healthy lifestyles and make the most of what their bodies can do. Yeah, climbing without sight is a big deal, but it’s the climbing experience itself that the two are training for.
The ultimate goal of the adventure, however, is to raise awareness for the two soldiers’ belief that life doesn’t have to end after such an accident. They also hope to lobby for research dollars into technology that could someday restore some sight for people like Smiley and Bailey.
Developing technology in China and Australia could create prosthetic retinas. Digital technology could hardwire images from a camera into a person’s brain. Congress just needs to put money toward this kind of research, Smiley said.
Both hold out for hope that some of their sight might be restored during their lifetimes.
“This climb is drawing awareness,” said Smiley, who chose not to retire after his injury, but remained an active officer, teaching at Westpoint and now at Gonzaga University. “It’s about doing things that I enjoy and being an example on others not to give up on life and push through hard times.”