From left: Nick Gleeson, Ellis Janks, Rozanne Green, Charlie
McConnell, Gabi Hollows from the Fred Hollows Foundation, Lucas Trihey, and Graeme Innes, President of the Royal Blind Society, climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge recently to launch Blind Ambition – an expedition to
Africa to climb Mt Kilimanjaro which aims to raise money for the Fred Hollows Foundation and the Royal Blind Society. Climbing the tallest free standing mountain in the world would be a huge challenge for anyone,
but Nick and Charlie face even greater adversity – both men are completely blind.
We all may have metaphoric mountains to climb, but what about a
real mountain? And what if you’re blind? It’s a challenge that two Australian adventurers are ready to meet. KATHLEEN Carmody writes
Most of us would baulk at the idea of trying to
climbing Mt Kosciusko, let alone Mt Kilimanjaro, the tallest free-standing mountain on Earth. Rising 19,341 feet above ground level, the snow-capped peaks of Mt Kilimanjaro have lured climbers and adventurers the
world over for more than a century.
Whatever else these intrepid adventurers may have had in common, they all possessed the gift of sight.
Nick Gleeson and Charlie McConnell do not possess the gift
of sight, yet it is the same sense of adventure that is calling the two Australians to conquer Mt Kilimanjaro.
Accompanied by three sighted guides, Nick and Charlie will travel to Africa in late May to climb
the mountain to raise money for – and awareness of – the Royal Blind Society and the Fred Hollows Foundation.
The ‘Blind Ambition’ team hopes to attract sufficient sponsorship to fund the climb and for
educational purposes, including setting up and maintaining a website, sending email newsletters to schools and for other activities to raise awareness about disabilities.
It will take the team four days to
climb from the bottom to the summit and two more days to make the descent back to the base.
“It’s going to be very tough,” admits Nick.
He and Charlie have been blind since childhood – Nick lost his
sight in an accident at the age of seven; Charlie was born with glaucoma, which led to a rapid deterioration of his sight. Their blindness, however, has never stopped them pursuing their dreams of sporting success.
Nick, 39, especially, has had an outstanding sporting career, representing Australia in athletics, goalball and cricket.
He ran the 100 and 400 metres at the 1984 Paralympics and has also competed in
a variety of other sprinting events, marathons and fun runs, including the City to Surf. He has also competed in a number of stair climbing events – he was the first blind person to participate in the Empire State
Building stair climb and he finished 50th out of 1,000 in the Sky City Tower Challenge in Auckland.
Charlie, 42, has also played goalball and cricket for Australia and run marathons and other road running
events. And he’s a keen bushwalker and canoeist.
Both have a pretty impressive list of physical achievements to their credit, but neither has ever climbed a mountain.
So, rather than saying “oh, but I
can’t do that; I’m blind”; the pair started planning their greatest challenge to date – climbing mighty Mt Kilimanjaro.
“I’ve tried so many recreational events, but I’ve never tried any mountains,” says Nick.
“It’s something I’d love to experience. There’s a huge physical challenge to it.”
The expedition leaves on May 20 and returns on June 5.
With their fellow team members Rozanne Green, Ellis Janks and
Lucas Trihey, Nick and Charlie will aim to reach the summit, although Nick acknowledges they may not make it all the way to the top – but not for the reasons people might think.
Anyone reaching Kilimanjaro’s
summit has to survive on half the oxygen available at sea level – something many people can’t cope with.
“The biggest problem is altitude sickness,” Charlie explains. “That’s the biggest thing that
forces people down.”
Nick agrees that his disability will bring additional challenges. “We’ll have to negotiate what-ever’s in our pathway,” he said. “We’ll stumble and trip over more often; have a few extra
Nick says that effective teamwork will be absolutely critical to the group’s chance of making it to the top. He and Charlie will hold on to their partners’ backpacks – which will have some sort of
handle or strap attached – in order to stay on course.
And specific hand signals and language will also be used to communicate effectively.
Nick says that “getting the teamwork to perfection will
enhance our opportunity to reach the summit”.
The Blind Ambition team met at the Achilles Running Club, a worldwide organisation dedicated to enabling people from all walks of life, including those with
physical impairment, to enjoy walking and running in a supportive and social environment.
Rozanne Green is a past vice president of the club; Ellis Janks is the current president.
Lucas Trihey is a
mountain climber and guide of more than 20 years’ experience and the only member of the team to have climbed Mt Kilimanjaro. He will lead the team up the mountain – hopefully to the summit.
“Lucas is an
important person … he will make decisions about speed (and) he knows the signs when a person has reached the limit,” Nick says.
Nick still has moments of anxiety, despite all the prep- aration and planning,
the training, the wonderful team and all the support.
“I am a little bit nervous,” he says, “because I know it will be tough – there will be a lot of pain and challenging moments.”
At times like these,
he looks to God and to Mass for courage and inspiration.
“I pray, and I believe in God and that there is some form of power that looks after me and what I do, and looks after my family, and I find for me it
gives me extra strength and makes me feel so much better about myself,” he explains.
Nick’s fellow parishioners at St Luke’s in Revesby have been very supportive of his quest and he knows their prayers will
be with him and his family all the way. He says he will be looking for everyone’s prayers as the day draws nearer.
“It would be nice to have people thinking and maybe praying (for me) at that time.”
The Blind Ambition team particularly hopes that the African adventure will raise enough funds to assist the work done by the Royal Blind Society and the Fred Hollows Foundation in offering support services and
medical assistance for people with visual impairments.
“We want to tell people about the importance of the Royal Blind Society and the Fred Hollows Foundation,” says Nick. “They’re happy with the exposure
and for the public to see them as important organisations supporting us, (but) they definitely need funding as much as possible.”
On another level, Nick says he also hopes his quest may offer hope and
inspiration to people who may be feeling that life is a bit of a struggle.
“We would like to think that other people may be motivated – whether they have a disability or (not),” he says.
“If a person
wanted to benefit by seeing what a person who is blind is able to achieve, that would be a real bonus. They may be spurred on to take their own personal challenges.
“We don’t want to be seen as superheroes,”
Nick added. “We’re just ordinary people achieving goals that are important to us.”