Sabriye Tenberken is used to accomplishing the impossible. Blind since the age of 12, she attended a special boarding school where she learned to ride horses, swim and do whitewater rafting. As a student of Central Asian studies at the University of Bonn in Germany, Tenberken created a Braille reading system for the Tibetan language and devised a computerized method for translating Tibetan books. When she was 26, she set off to found the first school for the blind in Tibet, which she named Braille Without Borders. In the documentary film "Blindsight," which is being released nationally in theatres this month, Tenberken attempts her most audacious journey yet. She accompanies six of her blind Tibetan students on a dangerous trek up the 23,000-foot Himalayan peak on the north side of Mount Everest known as Lhakpa Ri. "Blindsight" not only depicts how the blind students fared on their Himalayan adventure, but also seeks to answer the more important question of why they feel compelled to embark on such a journey.
At times, even Tenberken questions whether the Lhakpa Ri expedition will end in disaster. Indeed, about a dozen climbers die each year in the upper reaches of the Himalayas. In addition to the hazards of crevasses and avalanches, cold temperatures and low oxygen levels can make high altitude treks deadly even for elite athletes with full vision. But the man leading the blind students' expedition, Erik Weihenmayer, is not someone easily daunted by high altitudes, the elements or even blindness. In 2001, he became the first blind man to reach the summit of Mount Everest, and he is also the first blind man to climb the highest peak on all seven continents. Tenberken was so inspired by Weihenmayer's best-selling memoir that she invited him to Tibet to speak to her students, and thus the Lhakpa Ri plan was hatched.
In May 2004, Weihenmayer arrived in Tibet with six experienced climbers to serve as guides for the blind students. Footage of the preliminary training of the climbing team is somewhat disconcerting. Although the students are excited about the challenge ahead of them, they appear frail and naive to the dangers that await them on the mountain. When teaching a frightened student how to descend on the rope after a rock climb, one of Weihenmayer's team members remarks glumly, "I thought they were going to have some experience."
As a prerequisite for the expedition, the documentary crew accompanies each of the six students on a visit to their parents' homes to secure permission for the dangerous trip. In this context, the courage and resilience of the soft-spoken students begins to emerge. Many Tibetans believe blindness is a punishment for bad deeds in a past life, and blind children are often neglected or abused by their own parents. One of the students, Tashi, had been sold by his father to a couple who forced him to beg for them. He was regularly beaten and eventually forced to survive alone in the streets before being brought to Braille Without Borders. Another student, Gyenshen, was hidden by his parents in a back room for several years because they were ashamed of him. A combination of too little health care and too much sun exposure has left Tibet with double the world's average rate of blindness. Before Tenberken started Braille Without Borders, blind children in Tibet had no access to education and little chance of leading a productive life.
The three-week Himalayan trek up began in October 2004. The students were elated and sang as they walked through the rocky terrain at the lower altitude. But a week into the expedition, the temperature had dropped, the terrain became frozen, and two of the climbers became too sick to continue the journey. "I am no good," said Tashi, in tears, after he was forced to abandon his ascent to the summit. Director Lucy Walker boldly chose to include scenes of Tenberken sharply disagreeing with Weihenmayer's guides regarding the blind climbers' ability to reach the summit. Tenberken felt that the point was solidarity and fun, not putting lives at risk. Weihenmayer's climbers were not used to accepting anything less than a victorious outcome.
In the end, the climbers had both a victorious outcome and a safe trip. Rather than trek through dangerous conditions to reach the top of Lhakpa Ri, Weihenmayer led the team to an alternative destination which they called the "blind summit." The Rombuk Glacier on the north side of Mount Everest is covered by unusual ice formations, making it a tactile paradise for blind climbers. At 21,500 feet, the six blind Tibetan teens climbed higher than any other team of blind climbers. In the Himalayas and in life, Tashi, Gyenshen, Dachung, Kyila, Tenzin and Sonam went further than anyone expected them to. The result is an irresistibly uplifting documentary.