Documentary 'Blindsight' offers inspiring tale of 6 blind teenagers climbing Lhakpa

NEW YORK " Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to reach the 29,035-foot summit of Mount Everest and climb the seven summits of the world, took on a different challenge in 2004: He guided six blind Tibetan teenagers toward the 23,000-foot summit of Lhakpa Ri, the peak next to Everest.

Weihenmayer had received an e-mail from Sabriye Tenberken, a 2005 Nobel Peace Prize nominee and co-founder of Braille Without Borders, a school for the blind in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. The students at her school had been inspired by Weihenmayer and wanted to meet him.

He had a different idea.

"If these kids can climb their own Everest, what a statement that would make in the world," Weihenmayer said.

The resulting three-week journey, its hazards, successes and failures unravel in "Blindsight," a documentary by Lucy Walker playing in limited release around the nation. With the magnificent Himalayas as a backdrop, the film touches on the challenges faced by six blind teens in their daily lives and on this journey. It casts a lens on Tibet, a region now mired in chaos, and invites audiences to see the climbing region now closed to the world as the Beijing Olympics approach.

"We are blind, but our heart is not blind. Normal people's hearts are blind," Tenzin, one of the Tibetan teens, said.

Tenzin, who's 17 years old in the film and whose name means "keeper of Buddha's teachings," made the climb with five other Tibetans from his school: Dachung, Kyila, Sonam Bhumtso, Gyenshen and Tashi.

Sonam Bhumtso called the climb a "golden chance." She, like Kyila, comes from a loving home, but said she worried her family wouldn't take care of her for much longer.

Kyila, on the other hand, had to help take care of her two blind brothers and her blind father after her mother died. Dachung lived only with his father, who has since died.

The 19-year-old Tashi, whose name means "lucky," becomes the unofficial star who faces the most physical and mental adversity on the climb. Born in China, he said his parents sold him to a couple who brought him to Lhasa to beg. When he couldn't collect enough money, he said they beat him, so he ran away. He lived on the streets for years before a Tibetan woman took him to Braille Without Borders.

Tashi is reunited with his father and mother during the film in a wrenching scene. Despite his hardships, Tashi told director Walker: "The best thing about being blind is that I'm forced to look on the brighter side of things."

Gyenshen, 17 years old in the film, became blind at 9 and spent four years locked in his house, since his parents were ashamed of his condition.

"He was the smartest boy around, now he's turned into this," Gyenshen's mother says in the film. "The cleverest child has gone to waste. Without eyes a man in not complete."

Such beliefs are common among Tibetans.

"It's because of bad deeds in my past life that I am this blind one," Tenzin said.

Because of high altitude and exposure to ultraviolet rays, Tibet has high rates of blindness and eye disease. The incidence of cataract blindness in Tibet is about six times that found elsewhere in China, according to UNESCO. Despite this, Buddhist pilgrims and nomads in Tibet believe that blind people are possessed by demons or that they have done something wrong in a past life.

In the film, two blind teens walk through town and someone calls to them, "You deserve to eat your father's corpse."

"These superstitions can be overcome," Tenberken told the Associated Press.

She is living proof, and is slowly changing the face of blindness in Tibet and around the world.

Born in Germany, Tenberken became blind by 13. When she later traveled to Tibet, she was startled by the Tibetans' treatment of their blind. She also found that they had no Braille system, so she created one. She met her partner, Paul Kronenberg, while in Tibet and they opened the school to pass on the techniques she had learned to live successfully as a blind person.

Open for 10 years now, the preparatory school hosts 30 to 35 students who stay for two to three years, Tenberken said. After learning techniques and studying English, Chinese and Tibetan among other subjects, the students integrate themselves into regular schools and return home, often to work and thrive.

"I think the climb was one in many accomplishments for the students," Tenberken said. "It's good to find your own borders and figure out methods to get around them."

During the expedition, the top became an impossibility for at least three of the climbers, who were sent back after suffering headaches and altitude sickness.

"Part of me felt like a failure," Weihenmayer said. "In some ways, having to send those kids down, I wanted to make them feel special and I thought maybe they felt the opposite."

The remaining group stayed below the summit of Lhakpa Ri for five more days, and though they never made it to the top they found a summit of their own.

"Everyone created their own meaning from the trip," Weihenmayer said. "The changes in the kids are mostly all Sabriye's influence, but the climb was extra fuel."

The six young adults have been able to travel for the film's release, and Gyenshen attended the Tokyo premiere alone to head a question-and-answer session. He now runs the only Braille publishing company in Tibet.

Dachung now studies at Braille Without Borders vocational school. Sohnam Bhumtso attends a regular school and is the head of her class.

Tashi and Tenzin opened the largest medical massage clinic in Lhasa. Kyila went to the U.K. to study English and returned to Tibet to help run Braille Without Borders.

And Weihenmayer started a program in Colorado called Global Explorers, in which he climbs with blind children in the U.S.


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