Photograph by Klemens Bichler
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Blind climber Andy Holzer descends from the summit of Mount Everest.

Photograph by Klemens Bichler

Banned From Everest, Blind Climber Is As Determined As Ever

The second blind climber to summit Mount Everest doesn't want to be the last.

The government of Nepal’s recent decision to ban solo climbers, blind people, and double amputees from ascending Mount Everest—which representatives say will reduce deaths on the mountain—has led to strong criticism from members of the climbing community, with some claiming the rule is not grounded in legitimate safety concerns.

The new guidelines were implemented at the end of December 2017 and came after many solo and disabled climbers had already announced 2018 climbs. Hari Budha Magar, a former member of the British Brigade of Gurkhas who lost his legs in conflict, had planned to become the first above-the-knee double amputee to climb Mount Everest. He’s organizing an expedition with fellow veterans and has asserted his belief that the ban is discriminatory.

The news of ban has also irked blind Austrian climber Andy Holzer, who became the second blind man to successfully summit Mount Everest and the first to tackle the North Col route on May 21, 2017. Blind since birth, Holzer has reached the top of all Seven Summits and had plans to return to Everest in 2019.

In an interview at his home in the Austrian Dolomites, Andy shares his view on the new regulations and the effect it has on disabled climbers.

Saransh Sehgal: What do you think of the government of Nepal’s recent ban imposed on disabled and solo climbers from climbing Mount Everest?

Andy Holzer: Statistically, very few disabled climbers have died climbing Everest, and only two of the 15 disabled climbers who have reached the summit are blind. I cannot take what the government of Nepal is doing seriously, because I still have a five-year permit that ends in 2019. Just two days ago, I asked my agency in Kathmandu if I may prepare [for a trip], as my permit is still valid and I might like to climb in 2019.

I think disabled and solo climbers will still be able to climb on the Tibet side (roughly two-thirds of the 7,646 successful Everest summits since 1953 have been from the southern side in Nepal). I doubt they will impose the same regulations.

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Snow and ice gather on climber Andy Holzer's beard while climbing Mount Vinson in Antarctica.

Do you think the recent restrictions from Nepal are fair, as the government says they were created in an attempt to reduce accidents on Everest?

I think the Nepalese government is not really interested in saving Western climbers or thinking about their safety. I think, in the case of solo climbers, they think they bring less money, and they have small rucksacks and need no support from Sherpas. That's the point. If they were serious, they would analyze the accidents of the last 25 years. And when you analyze the data, you can quickly understand that this has nothing to do with solo or disabled climbers.

Many accidents come from big agencies who take a lot of people without even asking if they’ve ever seen a crampon. They just take everybody with them. This is a big problem. The 1996 deaths are an example of this, [which many believe were exacerbated by] the competition between [expedition leaders] Rob Hall and Scott Fischer.

To this point, I think in the last ten years they’ve done a lot of work. They created two fixed ropes, one fixed rope up and the other down. And when you see the accident statistics from the last ten years, I think they have dropped a lot. This is the way to minimize accidents, not to say that solo climbers and blind climbers are the cause. That's completely wrong.

How does this affect you or new climbers with disabilities who wish to climb Mount Everest?

I think there are two aspects to this question. First, of course, is the current problem of new rules being imposed on climbers by the government of Nepal, but the other problem, which I believe is much bigger, is the Khumbu Icefall.

With the government, one can try to negotiate somehow, but with the Khumbu Icefall, no matter how much one tries, there is no chance [to negotiate]. And this is the reason I changed my route after my first attempt in 2014. Then, there was no discussion about blind or not blind. They even said I could return next year and there will be no problem. But I said to my friends I would never go through the Khumbu Icefall again because of what has happened there with avalanches—and from what I have heard and read, I feel it's like Russian roulette.

This is a much bigger challenge than the government. I changed to the north side because [success] depends much more on your own fitness. The north side is much more difficult. It’s steeper, with quick descents and many opportunities to fall.

The Nepal side is much easier, really. It’s the Khumbu Icefall which remains a big challenge, and that becomes the deciding factor for [many] disabled people. Mark Inglis, the first double amputee to reach Mount Everest’s summit, also climbed from the north side. I talked about this issue with him, and he said he preferred taking the risk into his own hands rather than leaving the risk to the Russian roulette [of the Icefall].

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Andy Holzer and his team celebrate after reaching the summit of Antarctica's Mount Vinson.

You are the second blind man after Erik Weihenmayer to climb the mountain and the first to summit from the north side. If the rule stays, you could be the last blind man ever to climb Mount Everest. How do you feel about this?

I hadn’t thought about it, but now people are stopping me and to ask this question. They are saying, “You are so lucky. You were the first blind person on the north side and the second blind person ever on Everest. And now [the government of Nepal] might help you, because they’ve [made this rule]. Now you will be the only person besides Erik.”

And I laugh. That's a funny idea. Thank you, government of Nepal. But this is not my intention. For me, I have the opposite thoughts. I have friends who have only one arm or other issues. My real wish is to bring them to the top of Everest to share what Erik and I share. Others should, too.

Saransh Sehgal is a journalist based in Vienna, Austria. Follow him on Instagram @saranshsehgalphotography.