Three years ago Easter Sunday my husband, Marty Bailey, was blinded during battle in Afghanistan. His sight was taken forever when a grenade exploded above his head during a firefight. He has no light perception. No shapes. Only a “velvety blackness — a tunnel with sounds and voices surrounding him,” he describes to me.
Today, he is one of eight members with team Blind Strength attempting to summit the highest peak in North America: Mt. McKinley — known to locals as “Denali,” which translates roughly into “great one” — in Alaska. Marty is one of two blind climbers on the team. Joining him is Army Capt. Scotty Smiley. Capt. Smiley, who is now stationed in Spokane, Washington with his wife Tiffany, and three young boys, was blinded in Mosul, Iraq, in 2005 when a roadside bomb changed his life forever.
But they’re not just summiting the mountain: they’re trying to do it in a way no blind climber has ever done it before — if successful, and weather permitting, Marty and Scotty will be the first blind climbers to reach the summit of Denali by climbing up the West Buttress.
“This isn’t going to be easy,” said John Schlichte, one of the founders of Blind Strength and whose company invested a good portion of the money to make the climb a reality. “We’re going to do it together and hopefully change a few lives along the way.”
Schlichte, who also happens to be a family member, founded Blind Strength to draw attention to the growing number of wounded warriors with vision loss and the current advancements that make curing blindness a real possibility in the near future.
Schlichte is part of the eight-member team that will be relying on each other during the grueling three-week climb. And while Marty and Scotty may not have their eyes during that time, I know they’re proving they can pull their own weight. Their faith in God, the team and their families has replaced their eyes.
“No matter how high we get on this bad ass mountain, I hope that they are inspired and that others are inspired by it too,” expedition leader Eric Alexander told me. “We all have insecurities. But then when I see what these guys can do, we stop complaining, we find a way to stop kicking ourselves and we find a way to do it. I think they’ll all come back down the mountain with a new take on life.”
This Memorial Day, as we remember those who’ve given their lives for our country, the team should be ready to head up the fixed lines on the mountain to the 16,200-foot mark.
It’s not difficult to brag about my husband. I’m not over exaggerating when I tell you he’s one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met. I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of interesting individuals as a reporter but I’ve never met anyone with the conviction and will to live life to its fullest like my husband.
And he doesn’t let his circumstances get in the way.
Less than a year after Marty was blinded, he came home from rehabilitation in Northern California and remodeled our unfinished basement. With the help of a friend and his brother, Doug, he built a bedroom, bathroom and play room for the kids.
I was stunned.
“Wow,” I thought. “I won’t be able to complain about not getting something done ever again. Who can top this?”
He could. Now after training for more than a year, he’s climbing a mountain.
Denali is unforgiving.
There are crevasses that sneak up on climbers and drop them thousands of feet into darkness. The men on the team are roped but that doesn’t mean the unpredictable weather won’t be a problem or altitude sickness if they ascend too quickly. Climbers have been known to freeze to flash freeze on the mountain in the extremely cold subzero temperatures. And tragically a female climber lost her life on the mountain several weeks before my husband’s team headed up. My heart sinks to think about it.
So I don’t.
“I think guys like Marty and Scotty are wired even more for adventure than most,” said Alexander, who has led blind climbers to six of the highest peaks in the world.
“These guys were made for this and they lost a part of themselves in the war. Marty can’t have that typical role that he normally had before he was blinded. He can’t drive you anymore, see you and some ways they may feel they have lost a sense of hope or purpose. It’s difficult for them and I’m sure they don’t burden you with it.
“Through this climb I would hope they get the ability to lean on others and realize they can have a great adventure in their current state and embrace life and hope again,” Alexander concluded.
Alexander’s right, nothing’s perfect. Climbing mountains, and for that matter life, teaches us those hard lessons.
Marty is a man’s man. Before he was blinded he loved to ride his motorcycle, work on his car, work on our cabin in Tennessee, shoot his guns and was in charge of all the driving. He’d never let me drive when we were together unless he needed some sleep. And yes, it may have had something to do with how he feels about my driving. He’s gotten over that now.
But there were lots of nights where we shed tears together. We learned to say goodbye to the old ways and forge ahead into the unknown. We’ve learned to rely on each other, just as team Blind Strength will have to rely on each member as they make their way up past Denali’s dangerous Windy Corner, where they will carry their cache of equipment up past the 14,000 foot camp on Saturday. The summit is 20, 322 feet.
They will still have a long way to go.
But I have so much faith in the team being led by Alexander, who scaled Mount Everest in May 2001, with one of his best friends, blind climber Erik Weihenmayer. Some of you may remember Weihenmayer from CBS’s reality show “The Amazing Race.”
The last time I had heard Marty’s voice was before he flew to the first base camp on the southeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier on Saturday. I’ve been following the updates on their Blind Strength Facebook page and a local CBS Anchorage reporter covered the first part of their story here.
“There’s no pack mules like there are on Mount Everest,” Marty reminded me on the day he was packing his gear at home, referring to the first half of the Mount Everest climb where pack animals are common place. “We carry our own stuff.”
And over the past year and half, he’s had practice building his back muscles. We had a beautiful baby girl, Analiese. We nick-named her “Demando Commando” because she’s like her dad and loves to be carried in a backpack. They are inseparable. He says he knows what she looks like in his mind. I tell him, “she’s a much prettier version of you.”
There are no words that can express my love for him or how proud we are as a family — that includes our six children and extended relatives — that he has overcome such incredible obstacles and is challenging something as intense as the “Great One” in subzero temperatures. But I think we all miss him more now than all his deployments overseas. At least I know I do.
I realize how much I need him but I know he needs this climb. I know our veteran’s need not only their families’ support but the support of their country.
Alexander reassured me that they will not fight nature and “the most important thing is that we’re safe.
“The summit is like the icing on the cake, it’s the road there that’s important,” he explained.
I remember a doctor asking Marty after he was wounded how he adjusted so quickly to going blind.
“Doc, there isn’t much I can do about what happened to me, dwelling on it is only going to make it worse,” he replied. “All I can do is forge ahead and go on living.”
And I’m proud to say, that’s exactly what he’s done — it’s exactly what he’s doing on Denali.
Follow Sara A. Carter (@SaraCarterDC) on Twitter.