Visually challenged trekking

I realised that I haven’t posted at all on this blog about the issues of trekking up mountains when you cna’t see where you’re going. In some ways, this is much more challenging than the medical problems I have to deal with, as it really affects me mentally as well as physically, and it’s hard for others to understand.

I’ve done a fair bit of trekking since I lost my sight 15 years ago, but I don’t think even my closest friends really can appreciate what it’s like for me. People often say they’d never guess I was partially sighted, but once you know, it does become more obvious. It affects my trekking in a number of ways: some serious, some just frustrating. And while I’m used to not being able to see properly, and indeed often forget that others can see more than me, there are some things that will always remain challenging.

How does it affect me on a practical note?

My sight condition has a number of different aspects:

  • I have 3/60 vision. This means that I see at 3 metres away what most people can see at 60m away. And what I can see at 60m away isn’t really worth seeing. So, it means I can’t see much in the distance, only things that are very close to me, which means that I have great difficulty route finding as I have little to get my bearings from, and I often can’t see what happens to the path more than a few feet away, or indeed, if it really is the path or not. And even what I see at 3 feet is pretty blurry. Imagine wearing your glasses or sunglasses and then smearing butter on them.
  • I have 2D vision, i.e. I have pretty much no depth or distance perception. This means that everything looks flat and I have no sense of perspective (like looking at a photo where it looks as if there’s a tree on someone’s head, for example). This seems to enable me to take good photos at times, since I see htings the same way they come out in the photo. But it’s not always helpful for figuring out what the path looks like, where there are steps, slopes, rocks and so on, and how big they are. Close one eye and try negotiating steps, kerbs and touching a piece of string held in front of you, for example.
  • I have a distorted sense of colour. This means that similar colours look the same to me (dark blue, dark brown, black, grey etc are virtually indistinguishable, as are similar light oclours). This makes identifying things hard, as sometimes things blend into one. But it’s more of an issue socially.
  • I have a very reduced field of peripheral vision. Since I have virtually no usable sight in my left eye, I see nothing to my left side unless I turn my head, and I have a reduced field of vision to the right also. This is mainly a problem for avoiding obstacles (and especially, avoiding bumping into people walking beside me, especially on my left side). Try walking around simulating a pair of horse blinkers with your hands, and you’ll see what I mean.
  • I have a very limited ability to adjust to different light levels, which means that going from dark to light conditions and vice versa suddenly is very problematic. But worse, I see almost nothing at night – even with a really good torch I can only see a couple of feet away – and I have limited sight in bright sunshine, even with sunglasses, although they help immenely in almost all conditions by increasing the contrast. Try turning your TV set to minimum contrast, and you’ll get the idea.

Combine all these issues together, and you get an interesting picture…Of course, I’ve learnt to deal with some of these aspects, and I have to train my brain to ignore what it thinks it’s seeing, and go with what I know I should be seeing. For instance, if I know there are steps, even though my brain interprets them as being flat, I have to remind myself to ignore that little voice. Sometimes, especially in the dark, my brain invents things that aren’t there (this isn’t me going senile, don’t worry, it’s a recognised phenomenon). For example, sometimes I’ll suddenly stop dead because my brain has gone into impish mode and will be trying to convince me there’s a cliff edge right in front of me. If you’ve ever been half asleep and had that feeling of suddenly falling off a cliff  or down a big hole (allegedly the result of your heart momentarily skipping a beat, though I’m not sure that’s true), you’ll know (sort of) what I mean.

So, in terms of trekking, in practical terms it means that I can’t see far ahead of me, I can’t easily find my way if I’m not following someone, I can’t always tell what kind of terrain I’m walking on, or how big rocks are that I’m about to stand on, how far below me the step down is when descending, and of course I often can’t see the incredible views others can. On the other hand, it makes looking down from high places slightly less scary, though I’m still not great with heights, because I can’t really tell how far down it is. I get around some of the issues with walking poles (when I use them), which help a lot with feeling the terrain and depth of descents, and of course when walking with other people I don’t have to worry about route finding unless I’m in front. Of course, people often forget this, and sometimes I like to walk in front, but this means that I often have problems figuring out which way to go, on what look like obvious paths to others. Trekking at night is of course another story, and perhaps it makes more sense now as to why the summit attempt was so hard for me.

But it’s often the other aspects of a trek that are more problematic for me in terms of sight – and it’s the mental aspects that are the most challenging. People tend to forget easily about my sight problems, and juts moving around the campsite is highly challenging. Even in daylight, I can’t always figure out how to get from my tent to the mess tent, or where the toilet tent is. In the dark, it’s even worse, and I frequently get completely lost walking around even a very small campsite at night, as I have nothing to guide me. One evening I got hopelessly lost trying to get from the mess tent to the loo, and was wandering aimlessly in the wrong direction for a while, getting more and more nervous by the minute. Luckily on the Kili trek, there were always plenty of people around – watu, guides and porters – and on that occasion, someone (I have no idea who) found me lost and brought me safely back. Getting to the loo in the middle of the night (and getting back safely) is always a bit challenging, and on several occasions I’ve tried to get into the wrong tent on the way back. Luckily those involved have always managed to laugh about it, and I’ve realised in time, but it could be potentially a lot more awkward. Imagine if it was one of the guides or porters, or if I didn’t realise until I had actally got into the tent? Even worse would be to trip on a rock or even fall off a cliff in the night – easily done, though I try to take note of any obstacles or difficulties while it’s still light, if I can.

What always gets me the most is my lack of recognition of people, however. I’ll never get used to this in everyday life, let alone in these kind of situations, and I find it quite upsetting, especially as so many people forget. I have terrible difficulty telling apart porters and guides, which can be embarrassing, and awkward for them too. For instance, I started explaining to one of the porters who asked how I was one morning all about my various medical symptoms, only for him to retreat rather puzzled. I had thought he was one of the guides. Similarly, I can’t always tell the guides apart, unless I can remember what they happened to be wearing that day (which of course is problematic first thing in the morning, or when they put a hat on, for example). This makes it awkward socially, partly if I want to ask specific questions of e.g. the head guide, or if I want to carry on a conversation I’ve had previously. Even worse, if I want to ask one of them something specific, for example, if I want to speak to the cook, I often have to ask someone which one they are. Those who know me are very good at “taking me over” to the appropriate person, but most people don’t really get it, and just point in the general direction, which doesn’t help much, or worse, laugh at me. This is pretty much the ultimate humiliation for me.

I try not to let it get me down, but it is frustating. It’s perhaps my own fault for not mkaing it clearer to people when I need help, but I like to try to manage on my own if I can. And I enjoy travelling with strangers rather than travelling with someone I know just so they can constantly help me with all these things, although it’s nice when people offer. It’s a very fine line between trying to deal with things yourself, and not make too much of an issue of it, and asking for help when you need it. I’m getting better at it, but it’s far from easy. All I ask for is a bit of understanding, so that when I make mistakes due to my sight, or when I have problems and ask for help, people can help as best they can.

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