Each year, the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition, funded by LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco, provides three blind people up to $25,000 each to carry out an ambitious idea. On June 22, 2019, Holman Prize winner Red Szell successfully completed his extreme blind triathlon, which included a 10-mile off-road tandem bike ride, an open-water swim and a 213-foot climb up Am Buachaille, a vertical rock formation off the coast of Scotland. We interviewed Red shortly after his successful climb to get his reflections on training for his Holman Prize adventure.
Red’s triathlon training began in earnest last October. “I had a pretty high level of fitness from climbing and swimming,” Red, age 49, says, “but I had to ramp it up because I would be outside for twelve hours.” Red began incorporating running on a treadmill into his training regimen but injured his right Achilles tendon in January. With the help of twice-weekly physiotherapy sessions and some modifications to his training techniques, Red was able to continue preparing to climb Am Buachaille. Despite the ordeal, Red’s injury ultimately provided some benefits. “It actually helped my climbing because we worked on ankle stability and stretching,” he explained.
Besides the physical training required to successfully complete his Holman Prize goal, Red also had to navigate logistics, such as planning a practice climbing trip to Sardinia, finding a videographer to film the triathlon, getting the tandem bike from London to Scotland and more. “Being the CEO of my own project is something that I never really expected to do,” he admits. “That is a very difficult challenge but also immensely enjoyable and character-building. I feel a genuine sense of achievement and personal growth that has resulted from being awarded a Holman Prize.”
Red has always loved climbing, spending his teenage years climbing in the Welsh mountains in Wales. When he was 20, he was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a progressive condition that eventually causes blindness. As Red’s vision continued changing, he became depressed and stopped climbing. More than twenty years later, Red, now a father and journalist, had learned blindness skills. His passion for climbing was reignited at a birthday party for his daughter at a climbing gym. He decided it was time to learn to climb as a blind man.
In 2013, Red became the first blind man to climb the Old Man of Hoy, another sea stack in Scotland. Red declares that was “a personal achievement.” Successfully climbing Am Buachaille was different, however, because of the scope of the Holman Prize as a worldwide competition. Red remarks that the Holman Prize demonstrates to everyone “what blind people can achieve with the right support and determination.”
Going forward, Red will include his Holman Prize experience in the presentations he gives about being a blind climber, but more importantly, he will encourage other blind people to apply for the Holman Prize. From applying for the prize, to winning it, to carrying it out, Red views the Holman Prize as “a journey of self-discovery.” Listen to Red talk about his harrowing adventure here. Red’s experience will be documented in a forthcoming audio-described documentary of his “Extreme Triathlon” full of Red’s humor and outrageous Scottish scenery, called Shared Vision.
Do you have Holman Prize aspirations? Holman Prize submissions open in January 2020. For more information about the Holman Prize, visit HolmanPrize.org.
Being successful as a blind person is not about being a superhero. We often see images of people with disabilities atop mountains, creating beautiful things or connecting their community in big ways. But often the narrative is over-simplified to the exclusion of the real factors that got those people to where they are: research, planning, collaboration, humility and a whole host of other skills that maybe aren’t as glamorous as the idea of scaling a craggy peak on your own. But these are the real stories we want to hear.
Truly, every blind person has a dream and a set of proclivities, and the Holman Prize is about nurturing those passions and goals at every level. The prize does not reward superheroes; it rewards everyday people who can demonstrate a commitment to a project that is meaningful to them. That’s why, we believe, every blind person in the world should apply.
The Holman Prize is named for 19th century explorer James Holman (“the blind traveler”), who was the first blind person to circumnavigate the globe, and the most prolific traveler of any person before the era of modern transportation.
The 2018 winners, Stacy Cervenka, Conchita Hernandez and Red Szell are just starting their Holman journeys. Each has already accomplished a great deal in the nascent days of their projects.
Stacy Cervenka: The Blind Travelers Network
Stacy is busy working with a website developer, web designer and business analyst on creating The Blind Travelers Network, an online community for blind people to crowdsource information about the accessibility of places they travel. Besides reviews, the website will allow people to communicate with each other and share their travel tips and stories through message boards and blogs. Stacy has been conducting focus groups with blind people to learn what features they would find useful on The Blind Travelers Network. She will be seeking people to test a beta version of the website towards the end of winter. The public rollout of the website will be in the spring.
Conchita Hernández: Changing lives in Mexico
Conchita will convene the first-ever blindness conference in Mexico run by blind people and registration is now open for “Cambiando Vidas” or Changing Lives, which takes place in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico from July 26-28, 2019. Conchita is currently contracting with teachers and exhibitors. The conference will have workshops for blind people, parents of blind children, and professionals in the blindness field. Conchita explains that in Mexico, sixty percent of blind children don’t have access to an education. With Cambiando Vidas, Conchita hopes to begin a systematic change by creating a community of people and more resources to help improve prospects for blind people in Mexico.
Red Szell: An extreme triathlon in Scotland
Red is training to complete an extreme triathlon that includes off-road biking, an ocean swim and climbing a 200-foot sea stack called Am Buachaille. Recently, Red and his climbing partner Matthew traveled to Sardinia where they began climbing Le Grand Mammut, a challenging, but less difficult rock climb that would help him train for Am Buachaille. Le Grand Mammut is about 500 feet high, but at 200 feet, Red, dehydrated and with a case of sunstroke, was forced to execute an emergency rappel down the cliff with Matthew. Red reflected on the failure to summit in his blog entry, “I needed a reminder that the sport I love is more than just a physical challenge. It’s about risk analysis, problem solving and above all, partnership.”
The six Holman Prizewinners come from varied experiences and backgrounds with projects that are vastly different. From academia, to art to athleticism, the Holman Prize welcomes pitches of all kinds. Starting January 15, it’s your turn to upload a 90-second video to YouTube and fill out the official Holman Prize application.
Since 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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Individuals may donate any amount using LightHouse’s secure form. For sponsorship inquiries, email us or call (415) 694-7333.