Blind woman reaches summit of Grand
Stevens, first blind female on top, uses sound and feel.
By Miller N. Resor, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
August 29, 2012
Nancy Stevens sees with her hands, so to visualize the Grand Teton she knew she would have to climb it.
Born prematurely, Stevens suffered a damaged retina when she was given too much oxygen. Although she has been almost completely blind her entire life, the Grand Teton was not Stevens’ first summit. Stevens has been exploring the outdoors since she was a child, but the rock climbing on the way up the Grand made it the most technical ascent of her life.
Despite their daughter’s handicap, Steven’s parents introduced her to the outdoors, and she learned to hike and cross-country ski as a young girl. Stevens bikes, hikes, boats and recently caught the climbing bug. She was also part of the U.S. Paralympic Cross-Country Ski Team and competed in Nagano, Japan.
After graduating from Kalamazoo College in Michigan, Stevens moved to Colorado to work at a Girl Scout camp. It was while living in Colorado that she began hiking fourteeners, Colorado’s numerous 14,000-foot mountains.
Her first was Long’s Peak.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” she said.
Since then she has done a half dozen others, using trekking poles and seeing-eye dogs to negotiate the terrain.
Last year, while climbing in Curtis Canyon, Stevens met Ryan Burke, the program manager at Teton Adaptive Sports, an organization that strives “to promote and support sports and recreation opportunities for people with disabilities living in and visiting the Greater Teton Area.”
Burke has been with Teton Adaptive Sports for five years, but started working with people with disabilities years ago volunteering with Maine Handicapped Skiing.
From the first time Burke met Stevens, he was impressed by her “gung-ho attitude.”
“She has contagious positive energy,” Burke said. “It really opens your eyes to what is possible and blows your preconceptions wide open.”
Stevens and Burke talked about climbing the Grand last summer, and Burke encouraged Stevens to go for it.
Burke told her she could scale the peak, and Stevens returned this year to complete the challenge.
Stevens spent two days training near Hidden Falls with Exum Mountain Guides. Together, the Exum guides, Burke and Stevens created a language to help her navigate the mountain’s obstacles.
Words like “high feet,” told her to step over roots or boulders, “headbanger,” warned her of an overhanging rock coming in from above, and “crabwalk” was her technique for ascending chimneys or descending boulder fields.
The climbing party — made up of Stevens, her friends Anne Dalvera and Ginny Deal, Burke from Teton Adaptive Sports, and Exum guides Jessica Baker, Brendan Burns and Dana Larkin — left the lower saddle at 3:30 a.m. Aug. 22. Everyone in the group except for Stevens was wearing a headlamp.
When it became light enough to see, Larkin, who gave Stevens a running commentary on which mountains were nearby, the geology around them and how to navigate the obstacles ahead, told Stevens that the others were taking off their headlamps because it was now light enough to proceed without them.
For Stevens, the Grand Teton was still pitch black.
However, when the group reached the top of the Owen-Spalding route, cresting the divide between the west and east face, Stevens could see the bright morning light and knew that she was close to the top.
“It is not about proving I can do this,” she said before leaving on the trip. “It’s about the enjoyment of the challenge.”
Stevens is the first blind woman to climb the Grand Teton. Erik Weihenmayer was the first blind man to climb the Grand. (Weihenmayer is also the first blind man to climb Everest.)
On the way down, Stevens, who is also a singer and musician, sang with Larkin. “We had the best team of people,” Stevens said. “Exum was fabulous. I can’t even describe it, it was just amazing.”