SALT LAKE CITY — Two climbers who are blind are pushing the limits of their independence and raising awareness of technology for blindness by climbing Mt. Denali in May.
Scott Smiley, a U.S. Army Major, and Martin Bailey, a retired Army Master Sergeant, will climb Mt. Denali in Alaska this May in an effort to raise awareness of technology and research to cure blindness. Local company, The Presidio Group, is sponsoring the event that is dotted with Utahns and former Utahns.
“I want to push our Congress, our Senate, our federal government to constantly look to solve disabilities that we humans have,” Smiley said.
Smiley and Bailey were both blinded while on tour for the Army. Smiley was injured by a roadside bomb in April 2005 while serving as a platoon leader in Iraq. The incident completely blinded him. Bailey, formerly of West Valley, lost his vision on Easter Sunday 2011 in Afghanistan. The specifics surrounding the event are classified, but grenade shrapnel destroyed his right eye and left optic nerve, leaving him completely blind as well.
While Bailey retired from the Army after his injury, Smiley was able to continue his work in the Army. He now works with Gonzaga University’s ROTC program.
Bailey was approached recently by John Schlichte, CEO of The Presidio Group, about the climb and together, the two formed the nonprofit Blind Strength with the intent of creating awareness of bio-retina implants research by institutions like Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
“What it comes down to is it’s curable,” Bailey said of the technology. “With funding from Congress, they can basically make prosthetics, just like a cochlear ear implant, that basically, it transmits a (visual) signal to the brain through a microchip.”
Approximately 285 million people worldwide are visually impaired, according to the World Health Organization. While about 90 percent of those people live in developing countries, 80 percent of all visual impairment can be avoided or corrected. In America, 21.2 million adults have visual impairment or are completely blind, according to a 2011 National Health Interview Survey report.
“Our whole goal was to bring awareness to a situation that affects every American and everybody in the world, too,” Bailey said. “That’s my motivation behind this, is to make people aware that this is something every single one of us can be effected with, a lot of us will be effected with.
Bailey reached out to Smiley, who has climbed since he was blinded. Enthusiastic about all things involving physical exercise and champion of optimism and perseverance, Smiley joined the group. Eric Alexander – who climbed with blind mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer to the top of Everest, among other climbs – also joined as Smiley’s guide. Frank Romney and Gil McCormick are also in the group.
For every blind climber in the group, two sighted individuals accompany. Smiley and Bailey have to put an immense amount of trust in their guides, who walk approximately 20 feet ahead of them, describing the trail as they go. A bell attached to the guide also helps the blind men find their way across the terrain.
Over the last weekend, the Blind Strength climbers came to Utah's Wasatch Mountains for a test practice run, getting used to each other and their equipment. Smiley called the climb “a doozy” as they climbed an 8-inch-wide trail against 25 and 35 MPH winds and snow. Stepping off the narrow trail with their snowshoes, Smiley said, was a frequent problem for he and Bailey, who would struggle out of the knee- or thigh-deep snowbanks into which they sunk.
The group will take a second practice climb in Colorado before the May climb.
Smiley said his motivation behind the climbs was to remind others with disabilities the power of determination and setting goals.
“It’s always a good thing to show that we can do anything that we set our minds to through hard work, dedication,” Smiley said. “It’s not just for those goals, it’s that hard work and dedication that helps us survive and helps us be who we are.”
He says that determination comes from a faith in God, who he believes has helped him stay alive and accomplish all that he has.
“If God wants me to climb the mountain and summit, I will. If not, it was a great try, it was a great challenge,” Smiley said. “Blind people and disabled people can do anything they set their minds to. It’s about accomplishing goals, perseverance, resilience and not having barriers put in your way.”