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Bottom's Up

Guide Turns Blind Man's Failed Quest Into Personal Triumph

February 02, 2001|PETE THOMAS

The tip of his nose blackened by frostbite, Douglas Stoup returned to his home in Santa Monica last Saturday 30 pounds lighter but otherwise no worse for wear.

"I'm feeling pretty fresh," he said. "Actually, it's a tough transition. Here you are, dealing with this daily routine in the middle of nowhere for so long, and then all of a sudden you're thrown into a reality situation and having to deal with people and traffic and all of that kind of stuff."

Stoup, 37, a former personal trainer trying to become a full-time adventurer, traded civilization and crowded roadways for howling blizzards more than two months ago to lead a blind man on a historic 730-mile skiing adventure across Antarctica, the highest, driest, coldest and windiest continent.

England's Miles Hilton-Barber, however, was not able to fulfill his dream of becoming the first blind person to ski to the South Pole. He made it only 250 miles before frostbitten hands caused him to request a rescue plane from Patriot Hills in western Antarctica, not far from Stoup's starting point at Hercules Inlet.

Stoup, though, was not to be denied in his quest to become the first American man to ski to the South Pole. (Ann Bancroft of Scandia, Minn., reached the South Pole days before Stoup on a skiing expedition--with the use of kites for sail power--across Antarctica with Liv Arnesen of Norway.)

Covering about 15 miles a day, with the sun constantly circling overhead and sub-freezing winds raging across a wintry wasteland, Stoup and his Australian partner, Damien Gidea, along with Hilton-Barber's sight guide, Jon Cook, pushed into Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station, sleds in tow, on Jan. 20.

Their days of eating oatmeal and freeze-dried foods were finally over; they had arrived just in time for an afternoon brunch of pancakes, bacon and eggs.

"I did dream about food and some other things along the way," Stoup said. "But mostly your mind just wanders out there. You go through your whole life and there's a lot of introspective thought."

For Stoup, the triumph over the Antarctic elements was a milestone that ranks high on a list that includes so many great adventures.

In 1999, he was part of a team of five to reach the 16,087-foot summit of Antarctica's Mt. Vinson Massif, and he and fellow adventurer Stephen Koch performed the first snowboard descent.

Last February, Stoup and another team of five rode snowboards down several peaks in the South Shetland Islands and Graham Land in Antarctica, while traveling the region aboard a ship.

His latest exploit, his longest and perhaps most satisfying, was somewhat bittersweet. Stoup had hoped to return to base camp, alone and unassisted, on a customized ice bike, but delays caused by weather--winds in excess of 100 mph--and the rescue of Hilton-Barber prompted him to postpone his trip.

It was probably a good thing because, with all the weight loss, those winds might have literally blown him away.

"I didn't have 30 pounds to lose," Stoup acknowledged. "After two months of oatmeal and freeze-dry, your body would rather eat itself."


Although Hilton-Barber was unable to complete his quest, blind mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer of Golden, Colo., last month took another step toward completing his by reaching the summit of Vinson Massif.

Weihenmayer, 32, is attempting to climb the highest point on each of the seven continents--a feat accomplished by fewer than 100 climbers. A noted rock and ice climber, he has also scaled the 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley in North America (Alaska), Kilimanjaro in Africa (19,340), and Aconcagua in South America (22,834).

His next attempt, as part of an expedition sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind, will be the world's tallest peak, Asia's Mt. Everest at 29,035 feet.

Expedition leader Pasquale Scaturro, who has climbed with Weihenmayer, says he has no qualms about having a blind man along for the 2001 NFB Everest expedition. "He's more qualified than 90% of the people who have climbed Everest," Scaturro said, explaining that Weihenmayer has acute hearing for communication and uses long poles to feel his way up and down the snowy terrain.

"He has all the fundamentals of a regular mountain climber, except of course his sight, but he's right there with us, step by step," Scaturro added. "The Sherpas [Himalayan guides] don't even believe he's blind. Every once in a while they'll swing their arms in front of his face and try to get him to flinch. It's pretty hilarious to watch."

After Everest, Weihenmayer will try to conquer Mt. Elbrus in Europe (18,510) and Carstenz Pyramid in Indonesia (16,000).

(Some climbers regard Australia's 7,310-foot Mt. Kosciusko as one of the "seven summits," but most incorporate the region including New Zealand and Indonesia as the continent of "Australasia.")


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