China’s Blind Mountaineer Zhang Hong

Zhang Hong climbing mountain“I cannot see Mt. Qomolangma with my eyes, but I can stand upon it”

Zhang Hong was born in Chongqing in 1975 and went blind due to glaucoma at age 21. Currently he works as a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) physical therapist at Fokind Hospital, a medical institution affiliated with the University of Tibet. He found his passion for mountaineering in 2015 and has conquered peaks of great height ranging from 5,800 meters to 7546 meters above sea level. He became Asia’s first blind man to summit Mt. Qomolangma from its south col (dip between peaks) on May 24, 2021.

Since late May, Zhang Hong has submitted to self-quarantine in a Nepalese hotel. In the middle of the COVID-19 epidemic, he is waiting for the news that he can return to his home country.

Away from all the hustle and bustle of city life, he should have enjoyed these quiet moments alone. But his mind still clings to the flashbacks of his recent adventure. May 24th was the day when, atop Mt. Qomolangma, the world’s highest peak, he became the first blind man from Asia to ever take the challenge, making history in the Chinese blind community.

The hardest year for Mt. Qomolangma climbers

Mt. Qomolangma straddles China and Nepal. For mountaineers, the gentler south col on the Nepal side offers a better chance of climbing to the top. The peak witnessed no more than 5,000 successful mountaineers in the past 67 years from 1953, when New Zealander Edmund Hillary first set foot atop, to the end of 2020.

To prepare for the ascent, all climbers, including Zhang Hong, believe that “man proposes and God disposes”. This year, the weather on Mt. Qomolangma remained frustratingly bad, with more snowy days than in previous years as a result of two hurricanes that swept across the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. Even in the best climbing season, few climbers had succeeded. Before Zhang Hong’s departure, the base camp suffered another COVID-19 outbreak. Although he had been vaccinated in China, no one could tell how things might go.

Hong had spent more than two years preparing for the climb. Earlier, he had successfully summited the 5800-meter Xogula Peak, the 6010-meter Lodroi Peak, the 7050-meter Chomolhari Kang and the 7546-meter Muztagh Ata.

When the news of his success went viral, Hong was repeatedly put on a par with Xia Boyu, China’s legless mountaineer who conquered Mt. Qomolangma on his fifth attempt in 2018. Hong “succeeded at one go” – media people often use typical language to address atypical climbs somewhat in an undertone of all those twists and turns Hong really experienced up there. In those terrifying moments, every wrong choice could have killed him and his entire team, and now because of this, not a single day passes that he does not feel lucky.

A cajoling business

Zhang Hong holding guide rope on mountain topWhen Hong and his team started their climb from camp No. 4, there was a strong wind up in the mountain. “Normally, climbing in this weather condition is highly risky. Strong winds slow you down. In this case, climbers need more supplemental oxygen.” On May 24, at 8700 meters, his guide Qiangzi detached his accessory cords from Hong so the latter could have more oxygen left for the rest of the journey.

Introduced by Xia Boyu, Qiangzi is a professional mountaineering guide with more than 10 years of experience, including ascents to Mt. Qomolangma, but never with a blind person. He had also helped Hong make mountaineering plans.

On their way to the top, Qiangzi was Zhang Hong’s eyes. He would follow Hong closely and tell him which foot to move left and which to move right, and each step must be “accurate to centimeters”. Now Qiangzi decided not to go further up. The first thought that came to Hong’s mind was “no way” because later he had to climb all the way down. “He gave me all the remaining oxygen so that I could safely make my way to the top and then back down.”

Hong understood this, but he pointedly refused to leave his partner behind. “This year I don’t go up, but I can still go next year or the year after,” desperate, Qiangzi yelled. “If you don’t go up this time, you may never get a second chance.” With that Hong was shoved into the care of other three Sherpa guides.

“High up there,” Hong recalls, “we did not have any time for arguing.” Qiangzi pushed him one last time and said, “You go up there quickly, no more wasting time.” Groggily, Hong continued to climb with the rest of his team.

For generations, the Sherpa people have been dwelling on both sides of the Himalayas, unruffled by alpine climate, and they move about as if on flat ground. They often work as guides, developing routes and supplying daily commodities to the base camp up in the mountain. They also work with the team to tie safety ropes.

But Hong faced one problem: the Sherpas spoke no Chinese and only very limited English, with zero experience of leading the way for blind climbers. How on earth could he work with them seamlessly to finish the last 100 meters and reach the top of the world safe and sound?

Between them were very few spoken exchanges primarily because speaking would consume oxygen. It was also because there was not much to say. “Left” and “Right” were repeated instructions from the Sherpa guides, and Hong listened carefully. Dangerous under his feet was not only the snow, but also ice cracks that would cause terrible losses with one misstep.

Saying goodbye to Qiangzi, they moved on around 5 AM. At first, Hong kept asking how much further it was ahead. The guides kept saying “one and a half hours”, but as he felt that in all honesty triple as much time had passed, he simply shut up, pricked up his ears, and cheered up, because “it was useless to ask anyway.” The Sherpa guides later told Qiangzi that they were also very tired and could only “cajole” Hong like that.

All the way up, Hong tried to balance himself against countless fissures, some of which only accommodated half his foot. “The rocks were very hard and bad for the crampons that I wore. It was hard to find the right spot and put my weight on it without slipping.” This is a disadvantage for blind people. For a while, Hong groped ahead entirely on his own. “The guides only said ‘up up’, but I had no way to know whether they meant 30 cm or 20 cm up. I didn’t know what surface I would step onto next – tilt or flat. And sometimes he also said things like ‘first up and then down’.” Heart in his throat, Hong found himself dangerously burning out.

After what seemed like an eternity, Hong felt that he had arrived at a gentle, snow-covered clearing. “Actually I knew it was now not so far away. Based on my past experiences, there is usually a gentle slope on the top.” Right at this point, quite unexpectedly, he was hugged by the Sherpas. They must also be tired, he thought, but then he heard them say in broken English, “You! Come to the top! This is the top!”

A tearful descent

The first time Hong partnered with Qiangzi was in 2019, when they climbed the 7546-meter Muztagh Ata. There were unpleasant frictions between the two, but Qiangzi best understood Hong’s difficulties – at least theoretically: Because he could not see where he was going, he would not be able to use his energy wisely, avoid risks, or take reference points as morale boosters. But a deeper demonstration of empathy was a different matter.

During his practice in the Lobuche Mountain, Hong sustained so many falls that he started to complain to Qiangzi, reasoning that the whole plan would be ruined if he was unnecessarily injured practicing in such a dangerous place. It was not until he trekked down from the top of Mt. Qomolangma that he finally realized how different that trail was. It demanded high skills of a climber – ascending, descending, judging wind directions, and everything else Qiangzi had tried to warn him about. “I think many people with disabilities, including blind people, have a common weakness, and that is the lack of a sense of security, which makes you doubtful and close-minded.”

From departing with his partner to reaching the top, it had taken Hong four hours. Atop the mountain, he felt dazed. Earlier he had visualized this moment in his mind, imagining what he would do and say at the apex. “But in fact, I did not feel excited or thrilled.”

It was sunny, but he felt the cold wind hurting his face. He only stayed atop for three to five minutes before preparing to climb down. “I knew very well that I had only accomplished half the mission. The greatest challenge was about to begin.” Of all the fatal accidents, more than half had happened on the way down the trail. Hong just wanted to get down alive!

His reunion with Qiangzi down at camp #4 was quiet and unceremonious. They had to retreat as fast as possible due to weather conditions. Starting from the peak, Hong descended all the way to camps #4, #3, #2 and finally getting closer to the base camp. For seven days and nights, Hong had only slept a few hours. “Physically and mentally I was at the end of my tether. My intuition had me hold onto the ropes.” At the end of those ropes, Qiangzi remained alert and focused. He must watch both the way down and Hong’s feet. He issued instructions every step of the way. “You have to stay acutely attentive every minute and second. You never know what you might step into when you can’t see.”

As the base camp drew nearer and nearer, Hong’s mind worked no less furiously. The tiredness, panic, and tensions he had felt earlier gradually ebbed away; in their place came thrill and excitement. “I felt all the emotions rushing through me as I recalled moments in my life from when I went blind and wanted to commit suicide to when my soul was awakened, urging me to find a goal.”

Hong’s eyesight was normal when he was young, but both his father and his uncle had come down with glaucoma. To walk on the rugged ridges of their farmland, they needed to hold a bamboo stick with one end attached to the child. The villagers, young and old, pointed and talked behind their backs. Hong grew up with such misfortune and dismay. At age 18 he flunked the College Entrance Exams, known as gaokao in China. It was then that he decided to leave home and make his way in the world with a few hundred yuan from his father.

Before he came to Lhasa, Hong tried to run a massage clinic in Shanghai and his home city Chengdu, but his goal was to hold a regular hospital job and “live like normal.” But most normal hospital jobs were not readily accessible to him, until he met the president of Tibet’s Fokind Hospital in Chengdu. With his referral, Hong stumbled onto a train to Lhasa and became one of the hospital’s regular therapists when he was almost 40.

It was then that he started to do amateur mountaineering. At first, he just wanted to set a good example for his child, but he found his dream when he learned how American blind mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer had scaled Mt. Qomolangma in 2001. He wanted to be like him. “It’s not bad to have dreams, not bad at all, especially if you are lucky enough to make one become true.” With this dry humor, Hong set off. Before he worked with Qiangzi to climb the 7546-meter Muztagh Ata, he had already scaled the 6010-meter Lodroi and the 7050-meter Chomolhari Kang with the help of other mountaineers.

While climbing the Muztagh Ata, Hong held one end of a trekking pole and Qiangzi held the other end, using it to signal up, down, right and left moves. This reminded Hong of how he led his father and uncle to walk across farmland back in the old days. “It’s vivid, but hard to describe.”

Further down Mt. Qomolangma, the wind was subsiding, and the terrain was leveling out. Suddenly, Hong burst out in tears. He was crying all the way down to the base camp. Everyone, including Qiangzi, let him be, understanding how tough it must have been for him all along.

Let Me Be Seen

At the base camp, Hong talked with his wife on the phone. “Her reactions were not extraordinary, but I could sense the complex emotions behind her voice. She has been quite concerned over the past two months.”

At age 21, Hong met his wife Xia Qiong. It was a time when the hereditary disease struck and crushed him. Depressed, he tried to end his life several times, and each time Qiong came to his rescue. Not only did she refuse to give him up, she also resolved to marry him despite the warnings from her entire family. All these years she helped him go about his business and supported him for whatever he set out to do, even though she had her own concerns.

Before his departure to Nepal, Hong took her to see the long-anticipated sea beaches, waves, and sailboats in Shenzhen. “When she decided to marry me, all her family and friends gave her a lot of pressure, but she did not give me up. I’ve been thinking about ways to let her know that she made a right choice.” From looking for a decent job to mountaineering, he was mostly driven by an idea of “having my wife’s family see me differently” – and by the sheer will of a man.

“In the first few years I was lost, distant, hopeless and full of fear.” As a result, Hong developed a hot temper and increasingly took it out on his wife. He was at once self-abasing and wanting to be loved.

Zhang Hong and his guide Qiangzi
Zhang Hong and his guide Qiangzi

Blind since early adulthood, he had had his fair share of emotional struggle, which might have dragged him further down had he not found an outlet: mountaineering. Upon those almighty mountains, he found freedom as well as the depth and breadth of his life. “It dawned on me that I need to be nicer to those around, especially people who love me.” Hong is changing a popular Chinese impression that blind people can only work as massage therapists. His documentary film, “Let Me Be Seen”, will be released at the end of this year.

After Mt. Qomolangma, Hong wants to do more. He plans to challenge himself to scale the highest peaks of all seven continents and visit Earth’s poles. When he returns to his job at Fokind Hospital, he will help more disabled people both as a physician and a volunteer. “I believe that many disabled people have dreams. They only need an inspiration or an opportunity to get going. The hardest of all is to go from 0 to 1. After the first step, things will become easier.”

Erik Weihenmayer was among those who congratulated Hong for his accomplishment with Mt. Qomolangma. He went further to suggest building an international team of blind mountaineers. In the great outdoors, all able-bodied individuals are equal. All the amazing mountains, rivers and places they have reached are also approachable, if not first, by someone different.

Indeed, Hong has become a “star” that people look up to, and it is those forever unspeaking, sky-poking mountains that have transformed him. His story does not end with any formidable summits, cliffs or trails, but rather a road to freedom, which is accessible to everyone.

by in-house reporter Bai Fan
photos by Inhope Pictures

This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People with Disabilities & Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine

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