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