Team Sight Unseen scores award!

I am very excited for a friend of mine, Kyle Coon, who recently won $10,000 from the Gore-Tex Experience More Challenge to climb Aconcagua, the tallest peak in the Western Hemisphere, with his friends, Justin Grant (who is visually impaired), Brad Jaffke, Peter Green, Joseph Mayfield, and Ben Meyer. The name of their expedition is Team Sight Unseen. An additional $5,000 was donated in their name to The Access Fund, a non-profit that works to preserve our Nation's great climbing areas, which I also support.

Kyle is now 18 and a freshman at the University of Central Florida. But I first met him when he was only seven years old and he had just lost both eyes to cancer (Bilateral Sporadic Retinoblastoma). As you can imagine, Kyle was devastated at that point. His father had arranged a time for us to speak when I was visiting their home town for a talk. During our conversation, I told Kyle about all the things a blind person can do. Each time I'd explain to him how I do a sport or activity, he'd respond with, “You can do that?” By the end of that meeting, he was actually smiling.

Within a year of our meeting, Kyle started rock climbing and playing the drums. He started tandem cycling when we was 11, learned to ski when he was 12, joined the wrestling team as freshman, began playing the guitar at 15, and was voted class president. A couple years after our first meeting, Oprah had us both on her television show. In a classic Oprah moment, Kyle read a Braille note to me on the air about how much that first meeting meant to him—I cried when I heard it.

Kyle and Erik on the Oprah show.

Most parents of blind children have no experience with blindness, no road map and no role models. Kyle's father has said that exposing his son to what is possible changed his life.

Justin is now 22 and a senior at the University of North Texas. In 1998, at age 10, he was diagnosed with a rare form of macular degeneration called Stargardtz. Though not totally blind, like Kyle, he needs the help of his other teammates for route finding.

Four years ago, in June 2006, I led Kyle, Justin, and Brad on their first international expedition when we hiked a rarely visited area near the famed Inca Trail in the Peruvian Andes. This six-day trip on the Ankascocha Trail was part of a program that I helped found called Leading the Way, which is run by a nonprofit organization, Global Explorers.

Erik and Kyle on the Super Inca Trail.

Leading The Way combines blind and visually-impaired teens with sighted peers for outdoor adventures. For an entire school year, the participants study the history and culture of a country and then travel there to undergo a big adventure...always a stretch and arduous adventure requiring very cohesive teamwork.

After the Inca Trail, Kyle, Justin, Brad, and several other team members decided they wanted to do something bigger. Together they climbed Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. The trip was led by my friend and Everest teammate, Eric Alexander, and was also sponsored by Global Explorers.

Kyle and teammates on the Roof of Africa, Kilimanjaro.

Since then, the core group has bonded into Team Sight Unseen. Over the last few years they have climbed on Mount Hood, Mount Saint Helens, Mount Adams, and this past summer, Mount Rainier.

Kyle has come a long way since our first meeting a decade ago, and I'm very proud of him. Aconcagua was among the toughest of my Seven Summits climbs; it took two tries. I can say firsthand it's a cold hard mountain, but Kyle's ready for the challenge.

We can follow them on http://teamsightunseen.blogspot.com/and check out more about their team on http://teamsightunseen.com. Their climb of Aconcagua will likely take place in late December or early January.