As if the idea of six entirely inexperienced, adolescent mountain climbers from Tibet attempting to conquer a 23,000 foot Himalayan peak next door to Mount Everest weren't reason enough to blanche, factor in the detail that all six are blind. Their incredible journey -- made under the supervision of expert guides from Europe and the U.S. -- is recounted in Lucy Walker's award-winning documentary, which also raises important questions that resonate far beyond the subject at hand: What is the meaning of accomplishment, and how do you define triumph?
All six climbers, whose ages range from 15 to 19, are students at Braille without Borders in Lhasa, Tibet, a school for blind youth founded in 1998 by German-born Sabriye Tenberken -- who lost her eyesight as a teenager -- and her sighted Dutch partner, Paul Kronenberg. The school is a rare refuge in a culture where ignorance and superstition demonize the sightless. Many Tibetans believe that the blind are suffering karmic retribution for sins committed in a past life, while others simply consider them devils who should be shunned. With her own accomplishments serving as the best example, Tenberken firmly believes there are few limits to what the blind can do, and she was particularly inspired by Erik Weihenmayer, an American who also lost his eyesight as a teenager but went on to climb Mount Everest. Tenberken wrote Weihenmayer, who expressed interest not only in a trip to Tibet but, with the help of a team of expert mountain guides, organizing a three-week climb to the top of Lhakpa Ri, a frozen peak adjoining Everest. Tenberken and Kronenberg select the half-dozen students they think most capable of making such an expedition -- a grueling climb for experienced mountaineers unencumbered by sensory challenges -- then put them through rudimentary training. And then they're off on a perilous trek filled with hidden crevasses, the constant threat of avalanches, approaching storms and a host of altitude-related illnesses, many of which could prove fatal.
Throughout the film -- beautifully shot by INTO THE VOID cinematographer Petr Cikhart -- Walker pauses to focus on the life stories of the six climbers, many of whom faced unbearably cruel treatment, and takes an extended detour into China to help reunite 19-year-old climber Tashi with his long-lost family. The excursion is poignant, but slows down the momentum of the film and distracts from the gripping developments that take place once the team passes Everest Base Camp at 17,000 feet. Illness, fatigue and bickering among the guides set in, and Tenberken begins to worry that in Erik's rush to the top, the kids are no longer "seeing" the landscape in the only way the sightless can. The greater triumph, she feels, lies accomplishing something as a group, even if it means no one makes it to the summit. Weihenmayer, whose never-say-die attitude belies a drive to prove himself as anything but disabled, has a different idea about what constitutes success. Though faced with similar challenges, Tenberken and Weihenmayer look at life from very different sides, and their conflict becomes as revealing about life without sight as the logistics of the climb itself. leave a comment --Ken Fox