Portrait of Red Szell

Meet Red Szell, braving Scotland’s most extreme triathlon with the Holman Prize

Holman Prize LogoSince 2017, LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired has presented the Holman Prize, which funds the ambitions of three blind individuals. One of the 2018 prizewinners is Red Szell, from London, United Kingdom. With the Holman Prize, Red will train for an extreme triathlon to include a 10-mile off-road tandem ride, an ocean swim and a 200-foot climb up one of Scotland’s most dramatic oceanic rock formations, Am Buachaille. 

It was 2013, and at 46 years old, Red Szell was on top of the world. Or it must have felt that way – pulling himself up the last craggy expanses of rock to become the first blind person to climb the Old Man of Hoy, a narrow, jutting 449-foot sea stack off the north coast of Scotland. About 10 meters from the top, he reached a plateau – a quiet place just below the summit where the layers of red sandstone part just enough to expose a wide swath of the North Sea. As the sun shone in and the wind whipped his face, that’s when Red had an epiphany: “I realized I never would have done this if I wasn’t blind.”

Red wasn’t always blind, but he was always a climber. Raised in rural Southeast England, Red led the childhood one would imagine in the idyllic British countryside – climbing trees, riding bikes, hoofing it to the nearest village a mile away and always looking out for his siblings, six and seven years younger than him. At the age of 12, Red saw a TV interview with Chris Bonington, the beloved mountaineer, telling the tale of his climb to the top of the Old Man of Hoy. “It just clicked,” says Red. “I’d always loved climbing; but I knew right there that my life just wouldn’t be complete until I had climbed one of these sea stacks.”

Soon, Red was spending his teenage summers climbing in the Welsh mountains with the army cadets, learning from some of the best climbing instructors on offer. He was accepted into Cambridge University and his dreams danced before him. Then, at age 20, something odd happened. Strolling down the street with his parents one afternoon, Red ran smack dab into a pole. “Once I’d convinced my parents I wasn’t on drugs,” he jokes, “I went to the doctor.” The doctor looked at his eyes and said he had a progressive condition with no cure. He would become blind and there was no way to stop it.

At first, Red tried denial. He kept climbing. On the weekends, he and his college buddies would continue what Red calls the “rich tradition” of climbing the old college buildings on the historic, flat old Cambridge campus, celebrating in the way that college students do when they reached the top. One night shortly after his diagnosis, descending after one such illicit climb (and likely relying on his undependable vision for guidance), he made an error. Red lost his footing and plummeted 20 meters down the Fitzwilliam Museum’s concrete facade. That likely would be the end of the story, had he not landed in a fortuitously-situated Rhododendron bush.

“At that point I thought, this is just stupid. I’m either gonna kill myself or just stop.” So he hung up his harness and gave up hopes of being a climber. He had no idea that blind people had developed non-visual ways of scaling some of the world’s most challenging peaks.

Toppling his fear of blindness, though, took many more years. “I calmed down a bit,” he says, “but I didn’t come to terms with it. I was angry. I worked a bit harder, focused on my English degree, but really, I went into a sulk for about 20 years.”

More than two decades later, Red had trained to use a cane, read non-visually, cook, clean, and, for the most part, life life as a well-adjusted blind person. An accomplished journalist, author and eventually a father of two, Red raised two children simultaneously while he learned to work with his ever-changing vision – an accomplishment some might consider greater than climbing a mountain. He was still nagged, though, by his continuing passion for stretching his body, summiting real peaks and thus showing respect and care for his physicality.

In 2009, for his daughter’s ninth birthday party, he found himself at an indoor climbing gym. With just enough vision to ogle the courses set out on the multi-tiered, multi-colored walls, Red was transfixed. An instructor, noticing his interest, offered to belay him, if he wanted to try. And like that, Red was back in the harness. To his surprise, he found, like other elements of life – blindness was not the obstacle he imagined it to be. With his return to climbing, so returned the spirit of that 12-year-old mountaineer.

Four years of rigorous training later, Red became the first blind man to summit the Old Man of Hoy. Realizing that it was his blindness that led him there, he said, allowed him to embrace a new identity. “Whilst I’d kind of come to terms with losing my sight, and come to terms with using a white cane to get around and be identified as a blind person, I’d never embraced it. I’d never let it be part of me, it always felt like some kind of alien in me.” But by maintaining healthy exercise routines, Red finds it much easier to see blindness as part of his core identity. “As I’ve gotten more blind, you can start to feel less equal to the world around you,” he says, “and by maintaining my core fitness and my balance through pilates, yoga and swimming, that has helped me tremendously.”

In June 2019, for his Holman Prize project Red will return to sea stack climbing – but with slightly higher stakes. His “Extreme Triathlon” includes a 10-mile ride through a notably hazardous bog-land, a 200-foot abseil followed by a swim through open ocean, and a climb up the 213-foot ocean spire called Am Buachaille. But more than just a triathlon, Red has a plan to document the whole endeavor, working closely with action-sports adventure videographer Keith Partridge to turn the project into more than just a feat of strength, but a message to other blind people not to give up their passions because of a change in vision: “The Holman Prize gives me the platform to stand up in front of the world and say: ‘This is doable.’ Don’t think that because you can’t see you can’t push life to its extremes.”

When confronted with the potential risks, Red says he doesn’t tempt fate, but is confident in his ability to train and prepare for the utmost safety. “It’s a controlled risk. I always say I’m more likely to get run over crossing a busy road in London than I am on a rock face. The thing that scares the willies out of me is walking up a crowded pavement with smartphone zombies not looking where they’re going, pushing me into traffic. That scares the heck out of me. I’m much more in control when I’m swimming and when I’m climbing.”

Red makes a good point: for most of us, the insurmountable peaks are more like finding a good job, walking with confidence, staying fit and healthy or – in his case – making the commitment to fatherhood even when it’s scary. But whatever the goal, it’s better than a the decades-long slump. “I spent some really depressing times sitting on my sofa, drinking too much beer and saying ‘life is shit’ — and I look at that as kind of wasted time now. I wish I knew what was possible back then.”

“Accelerating the self-confidence and self-respect of blind people is key to what we do every day,” said  Bryan Bashin, CEO of the LightHouse for the Blind in San Francisco, “Exposing newly-blind people to a world of accomplishment and skills early can save years or decades spent needlessly in self-doubt.”

Get to know the other two prizewinners, Conchita Hernández and Stacy Cervenka.

Meet the blind judges who picked the winners.

Support The Holman Prize

The LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, is actively seeking sponsorships and support for the 2019 Holman Prize, including donations of equipment for the winner’s projects. To offer your support, contact holman@lighthouse-sf.org. Individuals may donate any amount using LightHouse’s secure form. For sponsorship inquiries, email us or call (415) 694-7333.

For press inquiries, contact press@lighthouse-sf.org.


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