This amazing documentary was set against the breathtaking backdrop of the Himalayas, and the equally breathtaking adventure that six blind Tibetan teenagers undertook; to climb the 23,000 foot Lhakpa Ri which is on the north side of Everest.
It was a story of achieving the seemingly impossible against all the odds, and the film was made especially poignant when we learned that in Tibet, blind people are considered to be possessed by demons or to have been sinners in a previous life. Therefore, the children featured had been through all kinds of torment with many having been shunned by their parents, scorned by their villages and rejected by Tibetan society in general.
Their lives were dark in every sense until Sabriye Tenberken – pictured above in the orange jacket – a blind educator and adventurer established the first school for the blind in Lhasa and effectively rescued these children…
A horrible example of how these kids are treated in Tibet came when a woman shouted out to two blind boys who were just walking along the street, “Look out morons! You deserve to eat your father’s corpse.”
Personally, when I think of Tibet, I think of kindly monks and Buddhist principles, but that kind of cruelty belied that concept. However, as I said, Sabriye Tenberken took these children in and constantly strives to show them love, kindness and to prove to them that being blind doesn’t mean you’re useless. To this end, she and her students invited the famous blind mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer to visit their school after learning about his conquest of Everest.
The opening shots of the film were of Erik during his 2001 climb and showed him scarily crossing a massive and very deep gorge on a sagging ladder… it would’ve been frightening enough for a sighted person to do but blind? It had my palms sweating within seconds, and that set the pace for a good deal of this moving and inspirational film.
But there many calmer moments and Erik talked extensively about his experiences of being a blind teenager and how his wonderfully supportive family had always encouraged him to do everything that his sighted siblings could do. There was some lovely home movie footage of Erik and his family showing how they helped but sometimes hindered – through concern for his safety – his love of hiking and climbing.
So when Erik arrived in Lhasa, he convinced Sabriye and her students Kyila, Sonam Bhumtso, Tashi, Gyenshen, Dachung and Tenzin, to believe that they could replicate his astonishing success and the resulting three-week journey was beyond anything they could’ve predicted…
Erik went blind when he was 15 and he revealed how it wasn’t the loss of his sight that worried him most, it was being marginalised and forgotten, and he wanted to be sure that these Tibetan kids – who had some horrifying stories to tell of abandonment and prejudice – weren’t going to be left out either. He wanted to show them that being blind didn’t mean you couldn’t achieve something truly remarkable, and so, their perilous journey began, but it wasn’t long before things started to go awry, and in such inhospitable and perilous, albeit beautiful, terrain, Sabriye wasn’t in the least bit happy to be risking the kids’ necks.
Some of the children did incredibly well and had a determination and enthusiasm that was extremely touching, but others struggled from the get go. For Erik, it was all about achieving the goal but for Sabriye, it was more about getting the kids to try and not to worry about it if they failed.
She wanted them to experience togetherness and teamwork but Erik wanted everyone to make it to the top. Failing that, he wanted to take the three kids who showed most promise to the summit but Sabriye was insistent that the whole group should abandon the climb and go back down the mountain.
I could empathise with the frustration for both… Erik wanted those who could to achieve their goal but Sabriye was of the “all or nobody” mind set, and given the segregation and hideous detachments these kids had already suffered, I can well understand her point but it was sad that some of the kids ‘missed out’ on a potential victory.
However, Sabriye won out and everyone went back down, and as I said, while I can well understand her point and ethos, the disappointment for some of the children, not to mention Erik, was palpable, even though in the end he accepted her decision with grace and backed her entirely.
And despite the fact that they didn’t make it to the top, the kids all seemed to have taken something very positive away from their experiences and this was a truly moving and, in places, heart breaking film.
If you missed it, you can watch it on BBC’s iPlayer here, and I’d really recommend you do. It’s one of those films that makes you count your blessings and feel rather ashamed of your daily moans when you see what these kids have been through and come out the other side of, and all with some of the most charming, readily available smiles and understated bravery that I’ve ever seen.