Hampstead man seeking to be first blind person to climb famous 450ft rock pillar the Old Man of Hoy
PUBLISHED: 09:00 14 June 2013 | UPDATED: 10:11 17 June 2013
A Hampstead writer is hoping to become the first blind person to scale Britain’s most iconic climb.
Crime author Red Szell is preparing to tackle the Old Man of Hoy – a 450ft-high pillar of rock in the Orkneys – to raise cash for research into the condition that robbed him of his sight.
The challenging climb became famous in the 1960s when millions watched mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington, who grew up in Hampstead, lead the first ascent in a BBC television broadcast.
Now Mr Szell, of Gayton Street, is hoping to fulfil a lifelong dream by emulating that achievement – despite suffering from the degenerative eye condition retinitis pigmentosa (RP).
He said: “I probably have about 5 per cent of the eyesight that a normal person would have. It’s like looking through a pin prick in a piece of black paper.
“So it’s really just a matter of groping for the holes and hoping I find something.”
Mr Szell watched a documentary about Sir Chris’s exploits as a boy in the 1980s and has harboured an ambition to climb the Old Man of Hoy ever since.
The 43-year-old will be aided by a sighted climber who will follow at his feet to help guide him up the rock, which he describes as “a storm-lashed version of The Gherkin”.
He hopes to complete the feat in about seven hours and, while he admits success is by no means a “foregone conclusion”, he says his lack of eyesight does have its advantages.
“I’m fortunate not being able to see much,” he said. “I don’t suffer from vertigo as other people do. In my mind, I’m always five yards from the ground.”
The writer, who in 2011 published his first novel Blind Trust about a visually-impaired amateur sleuth in Hampstead, trains at Climb London at Swiss Cottage Leisure Centre.
The staff there helped him regain confidence in a sport he gave up in his late teens, fearing he would become a danger to others as his sight deteriorated.
“The people at Swiss Cottage have been so encouraging, they’ve told me it makes no difference to them,” he said.
He has so far raised more than £8,000 for RP Fighting Blindness, a charity that funds gene therapy trials at Moorfields Eye Hospital aimed at wiping out RP, one of the most common causes of blindness.
“I began losing my sight at 19,” he said. “I have lost a bit more every week since then. Your field of vision slowly closes in on you.
“It’s an inherited condition that is carried by women but affects men. I have two daughters, aged 10 and 13, and any sons they have will have a 50 per cent chance of suffering from it.
“Anything that could be done to slow the rate or eradicate the condition, I just think I’m almost duty-bound to do anything I can to help.”
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