Touching the mountains: how the visually impaired and sightless people conquer the heights

Audio description: photo in color. Bright day. At the top of the hill a blonde girl is standing with her back to us, wearing bright yellow parka with a hood. She tied her hair in a braid. A magnificent view opens at her feet: few mountain ranges with green slopes and snowy peaks touching the clouds.

Each great success always originates from hard work, patience and a lot of self-overcoming. This is especially true for people with disabilities, as their every step requires breaking down inner and outer barriers. In active tourism in particular: only few visually impaired travelers can dare to set on a challenging walking trip. However, if you have a dream and a solid team, everything becomes possible — even conquering the highest peaks in the world, says Andrey Gostev, the leader of “Scale Plus” tourist club.

Andrey Gostev told the “Special View” web-portal about the trips for sightless travelers, crossing the Alps by touch, establishing the tourist club for visually impaired people, called “Scale Plus”, and the reasons why blind climbing of Elbrus shall be better planned for May.

From teacher for visually impaired to tourism instructor

Andrey Gostev was losing sight gradually, from his early childhood. However, this has never stopped him from getting to the dream. At first Andrey wanted to become a visual impairment specialist, and for many years worked in the rehabilitation center for visually impaired people. He liked his job, so that he decided to get the university education at the relevant faculty.

Having graduated in 2001, Andrey Gostev continued to work with sightless and visually impaired people: he helped them to learn the basics of being socially and materially independent. Once his friends invited him to a tourist camp — this was where he realized that tourism, team work, fresh air, physical activity and a bit of extreme are the best recipe for self-improvement and rehabilitation for a person with disability.

“In active tourism, not only your physical state matters, but as well the skill to work in a team, the ability to listen and to hear the teammate, make compromises. Sometimes it is even about tolerating each other, because the route is hard, and everybody show up their individuality. I thought — why couldn’t other people with same disability as mine try themselves in tourism? Since this is a great push to grow personally and physically”, Andrey Gostev told.

This was how the visual impaired specialist decided to become a tourism instructor, and he got the full education as well in this sphere.

“Overall, I was an excellent student. But studying things in theory is one thing, while practicing them is something very different. In order to pass the exam, I had to complete quite a serious walking trip with a group of people. Physically I was ready for any challenges, but I had difficulties with communication with people. I was afraid to let my team down because of my poor eyesight and do something wrong. That is why I chose the tasks that didn’t require any visual control, like putting up a tent, washing the dishes — instead of cooking, as I might put too much salt, or spill something, who knows”, Andrey recalled.

However, an instructor needs to be able to solve any issues, since he will need to teach same things to others, so Andrey had to overcome his fears.

“I need to say big thanks to the team who took me to my very first serious trip. We walked on skis, in Khibiny, and if not their patience, persistence and desire to help, I would probably never reach the finish line. They told me in advance, that they didn’t have any experience of interacting with sightless people, but they were ready to help, if would tell them directly how to do it, how to act, what is needed and what is absolutely not. We agreed to be fully open and honest with each other, and this helped us to get to the finish and me — receive my first precious experience”, Andrey told.

Having finished this route, Gostev successfully passed the exams and became one of the first tourism instructors among sightless and visually impaired people in St. Petersburg. His profession and wish to develop further led him to different tourist gatherings, where he witnessed how the teams of deaf people, along with people with no disabilities, participated in the same activities: crossing with a rope, orienteering in the forest, overcoming the obstacles and cross-country running.

“That moment I thought — why can’t the visually impaired people do the same? If you gather a team, try various routes, thoroughly work out the rules of interactions, then even a blind one can climb a tree, take a zip-line or run in the forest with a well-trained instructor. And I began to build a team”, Gostev said.

Andrey chose short routes for the beginning, so the sightless tourists could find themselves in extreme conditions, but with minimum risks. For the “test-drive” he took rafting in Leningradskaya Region lakes and rivers. Andrey’s team included sightless and visually impaired mates, as well as volunteers with a high level of tourist expertise, knowing how to act in emergency.

“Once we tested the first water routes, we agreed we liked it very much and it brought us unbelievable energy boost. Our successes got discussed in the Blind Society, and we decided to establish our ‘Scale Plus’ tourist club to be able to prepare for difficult routes in a more thoughtful way and to participate in competitions, organized by various tourist festivals, on an equal basis with people with no disabilities”, Andrey told.

From bicycle to mountains climbing

Audio description: photo in color. In the mountain slope, covered with reddish moss, stands a bicycle with a piece of red cloth attached to its handlebar. A dense coniferous forest is seen in the front, and the mountains lie behind.

In 2005, which was the year of the club opening, Andrey Gostev was offered to take on the development of the cycle sport. He mentioned, that by that moment there were few cycling tandems stored at the VOS (The All-Russia Association of the Blind) warehouse for 2 years already. The tandems were the gifts from visually impaired tourists from France.

“At first, I had no idea what to do with those bicycles, but then I realized it was a great opportunity to use them in our club’s projects. To start with, we decided to visit by bicycle all the educational centers in Leningradskaya Region, which teach visually impaired students. This very first bicycle race was to commemorate the 200 years anniversary of the first school for visually impaired people in Russia”, Andrey Gostev shared.

It was a success. The members of the club not only traveled around Leningradskaya Region by bicycle but became mentors and friends for the young students. The children, mesmerized, listened to their stories about rafting and tried riding the cycling tandems.

“Right after this bicycle project I came across a book of Ilya Gurevich about travels in Finland. It provided lots of practical recommendations for a beginner travel organizer, just like me, and I couldn’t wait to transform the knowledge into concrete result. We set on our first journey abroad, cycling from St. Petersburg to Helsinki and back. Our team consisted of few sightless and visually impaired members of the ‘Scale Plus’ club, accompanied by trained pilots, who lead the tandems”, Andrey Gostev explained.

Mountains became out next challenge. As the leader of the club says, this is critically new level, which requires cool head and thorough preparation. Before inviting any other visually impaired teammates, Andrey decided to pioneer the idea and to climb Elbrus.

“I go for reasonable risks and never chase the mere result. When climbing Elbrus, at the height of 4900 meters I felt, for the very first time in my life, that I’d better not go further. My ambitions protested, but the mountain sickness and my own instructor’s experience told me it was time to go down. And I did, and in a year easily climbed the Eastern peak, which was a lot more complicated than the Western one”, Andrey told.

He says that rocks were his biggest trouble in his first climbing of Elbrus. Even though Andrey was assisted by volunteers, he had to always rely on his own sense of touch and search for the fulcrum under his feet.

“The pace of movement of a visually impaired tourist, no matter how experienced he is, will always be half as fast as the one of a sighted person. And this is always a stop-and-go process. How does it happen for the blind? Here you trip, there you stutter. Then a couple of dozens of steps you walk without any impediments, and then stutter again. The sighted walked can keep more or less same pace thanks to the visual control, while for the sightless one the rhythm of movement is broken, and he gets exhausted a lot faster”, Andrey explained.

Andrey Gostev reviewed the mistakes, found new co-thinkers and decided to climb Elbrus not in August, as before, but in May, when there is still snow lying even in lower altitudes, as it is a lot easier to climb up blindly if the rocks are covered with snow.

“That was the right decision, thanks a lot for it to Alexey Negodyaev, an experienced instructor, alpinist and our teammate. In fact, I even went ahead of my team and in the last few hundreds of meters I was climbing by myself, almost by touch. Sometimes I focused on other sighted alpinists around, who participated in a high-speed Elbrus climbing competition that day. I recall, how I found myself at the fork and I didn’t know which of the two roads to take. I saw a girl, who was going down already, and asked her which path led to the peak. But she didn’t speak Russian! Later I knew she was the famous alpinist from US, and that day she won the competition”, Andrey continued.

When he reached the peak, on his own, some people didn’t even believe he could achieve it with his very poor sight. Once again Andrey made sure, that any dream could become true if you aim to it with good persistence.

Across the Alps by touch

Audio description: photo in color. Mountain landscape, bright cloudless day. A small round lake in a green valley, surrounded by mountain range stepping down to the lake’s shores. In the foreground there are tiny blue flowers blooming.

After Elbrus Andrey and other sightless and visually impaired members of the “Scale Plus” club conquered Kazbek, but the route turned out to be too difficult. The sportsmen got into severe snowstorm and for two days climbed down from the peak almost by touch. There was no difference between people with visual impairments and those without any — the snowflakes flew right into the face and there was zero visibility.

“Eastern Kazbek was one of the hardest ascents in my life. First, it is a lot more difficult compared to Elbrus, and I didn’t take it into account. Second, it turned out that our team lacked terribly the skills of technical alpinism, such as moving in a bundle, going up with ropes, fastening in and out, spotting each other and using other climbing equipment. That time it ended well, but I couldn’t allow same risks anymore”, Andrey told.

It was critically needed to close this gap in the sightless alpinists’ training, and the instructor approached Mikhail Saparov, the one-handed World’s champion in rock climbing. Mikhail was happy to help and started to train the visually impaired sportsmen. This not only allowed the club’s team to take on bigger challenges, but as well train Sergey Sharapov — the Russian visually impaired champion, the best on climbing wall.

“The practice of climbing let us feel a lot more confident, and we climbed whole Crimea, went to Khibiny and even tried ourselves in the mountains of Kirghizia, in Pamir and in Lenin Peak”, Andrey told.

In 2016 the members of the “Scale Plus” club planned an ambitious trip to demonstrate their support to Russian sportsmen.

“We decided to retrace the footsteps of Suvorov crossing the Alps, almost blindly. Suvorov is indeed a great example of strength of spirit, skills of endurance and strategic thinking. This was exactly what we, the club members, and Russian sportsmen needed to believe in ourselves”, Gostev reassured.

Initially, the team of two visually impaired tourists and one sightless traveler was to be led by a sighted instructor, but he got sick the very last moment, and the guys decided to go alone.

“Today this route is a lot easier, of course. There are signs and plates everywhere, and you can find small guest houses and cafes here and there, so you can stay to grab some snack. I mean, the necessary infrastructure is already there. Suvorov didn’t have anything like that. But it wasn’t easy for us as well, since we had no instructor to assist us and we moved almost by touch, relying on that tiny amount of sight that my teammate and I still had. Besides, count in the language barrier. Anyway, this didn’t stop us from getting to the finish, covering 200 kilometers by foot and crossing the Alps”, Andrey told.

In 2021 the “Scale Plus” club celebrated its 16 years anniversary, and as well — dozens of ascents and hundreds of trips. Each year brings more and more friends: the experienced sportsmen help novices to get comfortable, explain the rules and describe the peculiarities of tourist trips of different levels of complexity. As Andrey Gostev says, it is easier to make a dream come true if it is shared with other people and you have a team to rely on.

Organizing an ascent requires money, and the biggest part of it comes from the club members pockets — from their salaries and pensions. Besides, there are good people who help them to fulfill their dreams.

Audio description: photo in color. A girl in lying in the grass, with her hands on her belly, dressed in a yellow cloak with a hood, fitting her head and neck tightly. Her eyes are covered with dark glasses. There is a silver photo camera lying next to her. The mountains rise behind, with grey clouds in the background.

“This year our team created a new route, which will commemorate the 100 years anniversary of Komi Republic. In August we would like to climb the highest peak of Northern Ural — Narodnaya mountain, at the height of 1800 meters. It seems not that much, but Ural is famous for its difficult routes, and it will be a real challenge for our team”, the club leader shared.