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Blind Adventurer Leads Unique Expedition to Remote UK Pinnacle

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A blind British sportsman has successfully completed a unique extreme triathlon, including climbing a sea stack taller than Nelson’s Column, as part of a global challenge to show that disability is no barrier to adventure. 

Red Széll (49) is a Castle Ambassador. He mountain-biked 10 kilometres (6 miles) across rocky terrain, scrambled 60 metres (200 feet) down a cliff face, crossed a 500 metre (third-of-a-mile) stretch of boulders, then swam 30 metres (100 feet) to the base of  Am Buachaille - a 65 metre (213 foot) sea stack that  rises vertically from The Atlantic at the Southern tip of Sandwood Bay, in the far North West of Scotland.

“Being blind, getting to the rockface can be as challenging as climbing it,” said Széll, who has less than 5% vision due to the degenerative eye condition Retinitis Pigmentosa.
 
“This project pushed me to the limit.  The approach is long and strewn with obstacles and even if you time everything right, you’ve only got a couple of hours to complete the climb and abseil back down before the tide cuts you off.’
 
It is not Széll’s first major adventure. In 2013 he became the first blind person to climb The Old Man of Hoy. 
 
But the conquest of Am Buachaille, the most extreme of the ‘big three’ Scottish sea stacks, marked a personal victory. Széll first attempted Am Buachaille in 2015 but was driven back by high wind and waves that made the attempt too dangerous.

Red Szell swimming to the base of Am Buachaille

“Honestly, it was almost a relief.  After hiking blind across 10K of broken, boggy ground I was mentally and physically exhausted.  I needed a better plan.”

Széll came up with a unique solution.  This time he and his sighted climbing partner Matthew Wootliff brought a specialist mountain bike tandem with them to tackle the approach to the cliff.

His epic effort took 12 hours to complete and was funded by the Holman Prize.  Named after the extraordinary British explorer James Holman, known as The Blind Traveller, who despite his disability became the world’s most widely travelled man before the invention of the internal combustion engine.

Launched in 2017 by the San Francisco LightHouse For The Blind charity, the prize funds three individuals to “explore the world and push their limits…to savour the richness of a world that is so often thought of as inaccessible to the blind”. Széll was chosen from scores of applicants from every inhabited continent of The World.  

Széll, Carter, and Wootliff scrambling down the cliff
 
To achieve his goal, Széll reassembled the team that had backed his 2013 climb, including Mountaineering Instructor Nick Carter and the award-winning filmmaker Keith Partridge, whose documentary of the Hoy climb was shown on BBC.
But one key member of that team was missing.  Széll dedicated his climb to leading British mountaineer Martin Moran who died in late May on Nanda Devi in the Indian Himalaya.  “In guiding me up both Hoy and The Old Man of Stoer, Martin helped me achieve heights I had only ever dreamed of,” he said.

The team assembled at the Scottish Mountaineering Club (SMC)’s Naismith Hut, in the far North West of Scotland last week and waited for a break in the prevailing wet and windy weather, which finally came on Saturday. 

“It was our last chance before heading home and still pretty blustery but at least the sea swell had subsided to safer levels’ said Széll.  “The bike ride gave us some hard knocks, but it was definitely the right decision to bring the tandem. The hardest parts were still those I had to do on foot, particularly the scramble down the cliff which was treacherous.  The climb itself was amazing even if I was constantly aware that we were racing the incoming tide.  There wasn’t much time to celebrate and the journey back was just as long and hard but while it was the most exhausting day of my life, it was also the most exhilarating.”

Red Szell on the summit

The 49-year old Londoner, who presents Read On, RNIB Connect Radio’s book programme and podcast, says of his adventures ‘My blindness has taught me to focus on what I can do rather than what I’ve lost. I discovered I was going blind aged 19, then spent two decades feeling sorry for myself. Getting back into climbing again, after my daughter decided to have her 9th birthday party at a climbing wall in 2009, reversed that slide.
 
“The welcome I’ve received from those I climb, swim and cycle with has helped me accept my blindness and explore my boundaries.  It’s an honour to follow the path laid down by James Holman and see others doing the same.”

redszell.com

All photography credit: Keith Partridge