A Blind Man’s Epic Quest to Conquer Everest
07 Sep, 2021  |  Source:Sixth Tone  |  Hits:2602

Zhang Hong often used to daydream about what he’d do if he reached the summit of Mount Everest. Sometimes, he imagined himself performing tai chi or singing a song; “You Are My Eyes” by the blind Taiwanese pop star Xiao Huangqi was a top candidate.

But when the moment finally arrived on May 24, Zhang did nothing at all.

The 46-year-old completed his final ascent at 9 a.m. Nepal time, becoming the first blind person from an Asian nation to scale the world’s highest mountain. Yet as he stood on the peak under a piercing blue sky, Zhang didn’t feel like celebrating. He was too terrified.

Icy wind took over his body. The cold was so intense, Zhang couldn’t feel the sunrays on his skin and assumed the sky must be overcast. He feared he might not survive the descent back to base camp.

I will never see the world again. But I hope that, through this, the world will see me.

“At the top, I couldn’t sense even a trace of heat,” Zhang tells Sixth Tone. “The wind was so strong that it could have taken my life at any time.”

It’s difficult to overstate the scale of the challenge Zhang undertook just under seven years ago, when he first heard the name Mount Everest — and set his heart on climbing it.

Scaling Everest remains a perilous task even for veteran mountaineers. Nearly one in three who attempt it fail; at least 11 people died on the mountain in 2019 alone. In 2001, Erik Weihenmayer, an American, became the first blind person to stand on the 8,849-meter summit. Since then, only two other blind climbers — including Zhang — have been able to reach the top.

Zhang had to start his journey literally from scratch. A former migrant worker who lost his sight at the age of 21, he had never even seen a snow-capped mountain before — let alone climbed one. But he was driven by a fierce determination to claim a place in history.

“I will never see the world again,” says Zhang. “But I hope that, through this, the world will see me.”

Zhang comes from humble origins. He grew up in a poor village outside central Chongqing, a megacity in southwest China. As a child, he often had to act as a guide for his father and uncle, who had both lost their sight to glaucoma. He still recalls the judgmental looks their neighbors gave them as they passed by.

In his teens, Zhang was diagnosed with the same eye condition. Medical treatment failed to slow the disease’s progression, and at 21 years old he lost his sight completely. He had flunked China’s college entrance exams and was working blue-collar jobs in the city to scrape by.

During this dark period, Zhang attempted to kill himself multiple times. Even with his girlfriend’s support, it took years for him to accept the hand fate had dealt him and find a new purpose in life, he says.

“I became so self-enclosed,” he says. “I always wanted to do something different to prove myself, but I’d never found a direction that would allow me to make such a breakthrough.”

The young migrant worker spent several years bouncing between China’s major cities, before eventually moving to Lhasa, capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, in 2012. It was here that his dream of conquering Everest took hold.

By 2014, Zhang had found some relative stability in his life. He had a steady job at a local hospital — where he performed massage, acupuncture, and other physical therapies — and gotten married. In the mornings, he often stopped at the park to do some tai chi before work. One day, a friend grabbed him after his routine and introduced a man named Luo Ze.

Luo Ze, it turned out, was one of China’s most famous mountaineers. The pair struck up a long conversation, during which Luo Ze described his experiences climbing the world’s 14 highest mountains — including Everest. Zhang, who had never heard of the mountain before, was fascinated.

“I asked him whether a blind person had ever ascended Everest, and he said, ‘Yes, an American reached the summit in 2001,’” Zhang recalls. “Then, I asked: ‘Could I make it, too?’”

At the time, the idea sounded ludicrous — even to Zhang himself. “I had never seen a snowy mountain before and I didn’t have any experience of outdoor sports,” he says. 

Nevertheless, Zhang set about trying to make his extravagant dream a reality. He started by getting fit. Each day, he spent an hour repeatedly climbing and descending the stairwell in his apartment building, interspersed with sets of push-ups.

Over the next few years, Zhang began accompanying Luo Ze and other local mountaineers on expeditions across western China. He completed a series of increasingly challenging climbs: Luodui Peak (6,010 meters) and Chomolhari Kang (7,050 meters) in Tibet, followed by Muztagh Ata (7,546 meters) in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

During this last trip in 2019, Zhang was paired with a guide named Chen Tao — a 40-year-old army veteran-turned-professional mountaineer who went by the nickname Qiangzi. The pair struck up a rapport during the long ascent. When they reached the summit, Zhang shared his ambition to conquer Everest.

Qiangzi didn’t take Zhang seriously at the time. But as they got to know each other better, he grew increasingly impressed by the blind man’s self-discipline. He decided to try to help.

“People climb mountains because they have the spirit to explore the world, as well as themselves,” says Qiangzi. “Whether he ended up making the ascent or not, I knew it would still be a meaningful and enlightening experience.”

By this stage, Zhang’s preparations had already kicked into high gear. In 2018, he’d begun a campaign to raise the tens of thousands of dollars he’d need to fund an expedition to Nepal. 

Thanks to generous support from several charitable organizations, Zhang was able to arrange a nationwide series of speaking events to raise funds. Along with a hefty donation from his employer, he had the necessary funds ready well ahead of his planned departure date in early 2020.

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