SPIRIT OF DETERMINATION

The vision of Pelion started during a rock climbing trip with residents from a drug abuse treatment program.  Over a period of two years I was constantly being exposed to different outlooks on life and individual spirit from the sublime enthusiasm of blind children allowed to rush into the trees and rocks heading toward the sound of a river to the defiant rejection of opportunity by teenagers with drug problems. 

After returning from the Pelion expedition, Bud Keith, one of the blind climbers, who was the President of Ski-For-Light, asked me to participate in a Ski-For-Light summer program at the Land of The Viking ski lodge in North Eastern Pennsylvania.  At this program individuals, teenagers and adults, with visual and physical disabilities spent a week doing a number of activities ranging from target practice with bow and arrow,  small arms shooting, tandem-cycling, shuffle board and hiking.  The armament director from a nearby police department set up a target mounted on a resonating metal bullet trap.  Those that wanted to had an opportunity to hold a gun and fire it in a highly controlled setting.  The officer stood behind them and described how to hold the gun, and verbally directed their sighting on the target.  People went from being apprehensive at first to enlivened with the jolt of power they felt when the gun fired. 

I took Fred Noesner on one trip and he demonstrated a sighting system he had developed for rifle target practice.  Fred was the first blind person to sign onto the Pelion Project.  Blind before the age of five he was allowed to grow up where he learned to sense his environment.  His father ran a machine shop and Fred learned how to work in a potentially dangerous environment and keep his fingers.  He was a craftsman with skills few sighted teenagers develop.  A hobby of Fred’s was guns.  He made several revolutionary war, black powder rifles and has since published several articles of guns.  When I first met him he took me into his basement where he had a rifle range and demonstrated an infrared sighting system he had developed that allowed him to sight his rifle on a target.  At the Ski-For-Light program he set up a target and showed a number of blind participants his system.  The rifle had a scope that detected an infrared source that was put next to the target.  The scope sent audio signals to a set of earphones.  When the target was properly sighted the audio signal was constant. If the barrel moved up or down or left to right the signal pitch changed.   The scope was adjusted to indicate the center of the target, not the infrared source otherwise he would shoot out his imaging system.

Fred’s familiarity with guns was illustrated after dinner in the lodge.  Fred talked to the officer about guns.  At one point Fred asked the officer what he used.  It was new glock.  Fred asked if he could see it.  The officer removed the clip holding the bullets so there was no danger of an accident.  Fred ran his fingers over the barrel, the trigger guard, the handle for several minutes.  “When did they add the knurling behind the trigger guard?” He asked.  Fred asked about other changes he had noticed from prior models.  The officer looked puzzled.  He had not noticed the changes from prior models. Fred knew more about the officer’s gun than the officer.

Initially I had been asked to set up a rock climbing opportunity and had driven along the Delaware River and up and down a number of roads looking for some cliffs that might be used.  What I eventually found was an outcrop a short distance from the Ski-For-Light lodge—up a ski slope, into some woods, over some old stone fences that had collapsed to rocky rubble   and up a wooded slope.  The outcrop did not provide much in terms of climbing opportunities but I could set up a rappel that had a challenging twist.  Rappeling is one way to descend a cliff in which a person walks down or jumps away and slides down the rappel line.  We would use this outcrop for the next three years.

The top of the outcrop was twenty-five feet high.  We walked around to right of the outcrop and climbed up a dirt path to get to the top which was a broad ledge bordered on the uphill side by large trees to which we could tie anchor ropes for the person rappelling and those belaying.  The front of the ledge faced the ski slopes and the lodge below.  Echoes from gun shots and the clank of the metal bullet trap drifted up from below. The front edge rounded to a vertical face four feet high then dropped away to nothing.  The face of the outcrop cut back twelve feet under the ledge forming a ceiling.  If it was raining the underside of the outcrop would be a shelter.   At the lip of face where the ceiling started was a ledge four inches wide. 

Once a climber was put into a harness and shown how to hold the rope to control their descent they were tied to a safety line so that they couldn’t fall if they were to lose control.   They were then shown how to stand, with their legs apart to form a tripod, to stand erect and lean back over the cliff and how to walk backwards down the face…slowly. In order to move they let the rope slide through the metal figure eight that was connected to their harness and they had keep leaning back so their feet would be forced into the rock.  If they did not lean back their feet would slip. 

 I walked down the face with them on a separate line encouraging them to lean to the left or right as needed to be able to move a foot down while reminding them to lean back. Eventually they had the balls of their feet on the small ledge at the edge of the undercut ceiling.  A sighted experienced climber at this point would jump back and let the rope slide and drop below the ceiling.   A blind, inexperience person would not be able to jump back and slide without serious injury from banging their head against the rock. 


     Now just lean back and let the rope slide

At this point I had them get stiff like a board, lean back and let the rope slid through their figure eight.  If they bent their knees they would collapse into the rock and fall off.  With encouragement they slowly let the rope slide until they where perpendicular to the cliff at which time the rope would stretch slightly and they would flip upside down.  The rope tension pulled their feet up against the ceiling like they were walking on the ceiling.  They were stuck upside down. They were then told to pull their knees down to their chest.  When they did, they would rotate into a sitting position swinging in their swami harness under a cliff.  As they let the rope slide they lowered themselves to the ground.

The sighted members in the party described to the blind what was happening.  Nobody, sighted or blind could quite believe what was going on.  There was lots of screaming with fear, anticipation and delight.  It was pointed out repeatedly that nobody had to do this.

A couple of people started and walked backward to the edge of the cliff. Their quivering voice and hesitancy to take the first step over the edge typically evoked shouts of encouragement from the dozen people on top waiting their turn.  I would talk with the person assuring them that it was okay not to continue.  They could try again later.  The whole group was supportive and nobody was made to feel bad about not going over the edge. In several instances a person who hesitated relaxed after talking with others who had gone over, flipped upside down and then lowered themselves to the ground.  After they relaxed they were able to complete the challenge.  One woman came back the next year with the resolve to make it over the edge and succeeded. Another woman faltered the next year but succeeded on the third year.  Her success was the basis for a party after dinner. 

The members of the Ski-For-Light group, blind and sighted, were supportive of each other and all shared a determination to take on challenges that many sighted people would not.   For one woman, who I will call Peggy, the challenge and her resolve was exceptional.  She was blind and had MS with a significant disability and distortion in her right leg.  She did not have the strength to stand erect without cane or other support let alone walk backward off the edge.  Eventually I walked backward and she leaned back against me until we got to the small ledge then we both went over.  I could force us both away from the edge until we were below the lip so she would not bang into the rock ledge, then I let go of her and she continued the rappel on her own.  At the end of the week Peggy went home, joined a gym and started a leg strengthening program and worked at it every day for a year.

The next year she had developed the strength to walk unaided, backward down the face and complete the rappel.  Peggy’s determination has been an inspiration to a number of people.

I had a new video camera on that trip had brought a friend along to film the activity.  She was video taping participants from below.  When Peggy started walking out over the cliff the person with the camera repeatedly shouted up that she should straighten her leg.  After Peggy was on the ground the camera person found out, to her embarrassment, what the situation was.    

One year there was a fellow that had polio and needed crutches for any mobility.  His ability to work his way up the rocky, rutted ski slope, then painstakingly place the tips of his crutches on the rocks of a collapsed rock wall, test the stability of the rock, reject the placement and eventually find a rock solid enough to support the movement he needed to make then search for a place to place the other crutch.  What for sighted and guided blind person would be a five minute walk would take twenty minutes.  To get him to the top of the overhang we first devised a sitting harness and a chest harness combination that would allow him to hang over edge and lower himself.  Several supporting people help him to the top.   He descended by rolling himself over the edge down to the lip.  I pulled up on a strap tied to the back of his harness so he could push himself away from the lip.  The belayer lowered him enough so he was below the lip at which time he took control of his descent until he was seated on the ground.   Then he started the slow calculated return to the lodge down a boulder strewn slope, over piles of debris from crumbling rock fences and finally down the dry rutted dirt slopes of the ski slope to his wheelchair.

It was always a pleasure to work with individuals who manifested such a spirit of determination.