Blind Seattle Marathoner to Attempt Summiting North America’s Tallest Peak

May 15, 2014

Bruce Stobie is seen on a recent climb to Camp Muir on Mount Rainier.
Credit Dave Marcy

Next month, Boeing I-T analyst Bruce Stobie  is going to attempt an incredible feat. He aims to get to the top of North America’s tallest peak – Denali. That alone is impressive, but Stobie  faces an additional challenge. He’s blind.

Everything changed for Bruce Stobie on Nov. 5, 1983. He was one of nine college kids, packed into a truck, driving through the Cascades, when the driver lost control. The last thing Stobie ever saw was the truck flying into the air. He thought he was going to die. Stobie smashed face-first into the roll bar of the vehicle before being tossed out.

STOBIE: Detached both the retinas in both eyes and the sight loss was pretty much instantaneous.

He lay in the hospital recovering. He was trying to come to terms with what it means to be a blind person. So he decided to set some goals. He wanted to finish college. He wanted to run a marathon. And he wanted to climb a mountain.

STOBIE: Rainier had been something I had always wanted to do, so I put these things in my bucket list to accomplish.

But he says the first time he went hiking after losing his eyesight was terrible.

STOBIE: You know, there were all these obstacles, stumbling over things, you know, I had the grieving process, I was going through. I loved being in the mountains when I could see just to look at stuff, and I couldn’t do that. So it was just like, why would I want to do this? This is not fun.

He gave up his climbing dreams for a long time. But about nine years ago, he was ready to try again. He convinced a former Boeing coworker, Ron Fleck, who taught mountaineering classes in his spare time to take him along. They’ve been climbing together ever since.

RON FLECK: So you exercised today?
FLECK: Good.

On a recent sunny day Stobie meets up at a trailhead near Issaquah with Fleck and another climbing buddy, Charlie Soncrant. On this day Stobie got up at 2:45 in the morning and has already worked out for two and a half hours. Now he’s ready to charge up this mountain, but he can’t do it alone.

FLECK: There’s a root on your left sticking up by your left foot. Up a couple, there, that’s it.

Fleck and Soncrant are Stobie’s eyes when they’re on the trail. Fleck leads, and Stobie follows him, holding on to a rope attached to Fleck’s backpack in one hand and a cane in the other. Soncrant follows behind making sure Stobie doesn’t go off the edge.

FLECK: The rocks are closer together, so you probably just want to take a lot more in the way of baby steps, okay, Bruce?

Stobie says he has a good mental memory and can picture the views. But the joy he gets from this comes from physical exertion and pushing himself.

STOBIE: I like seeing how fast I can go. I think if I could see, I’d be wanting to move a lot faster.

Still, it’s one thing to hike in the Issaquah Alps and another to navigate around crevasses and ice falls to get to the top of Rainier. Five years ago, Stobie signed up to climb the mountain. His guide, Mike Haugen, was looking over his clients’ medical information, when he saw the word blind on Stobie’s sheet.

HAUGEN: I kind of did a doubletake at it, and thought maybe he’s got a really high prescription for his glasses or something like that. I went and talked to one of the owners, and they said, oh, we forgot to tell you, he’s blind blind. I kind of went into panic mode. I had never guided a blind climber before.

STOBIE: I’m not sure what selection process the guiding company went through to match him with me, but it was a serendipitous choice.

HAUGEN: He just gained this trust, and I trusted him in terms of following my directions, and we got to the point where he would walk up to an edge of a crevasse and I would say, take a small right step and a big left step and he would step right over the crevasse and it was pretty amazing.

They made it to the top, and now they’re teaming up again, with one other guide, for an even more challenging task. It takes three weeks to get to the top of Denali and back. They’ll be carrying 70-pound packs, and pulling sleds loaded with gear and food for much of the way. Stobie’s wife, Gwyn, is trying not to think about the dangers.

GWYN STOBIE: I thought that climbing for him was like a fancy hike, and it wasn’t until I started seeing some of the pictures that I realized that was serious stuff. I’m more than a little nervous.

There are a few other blind mountaineers who have gotten to the top of Denali, but the mountain can be deadly even for people with perfect eyesight.

Back on the trail near Issaquah, Stobie and his friends are now heading down.

FLECK: Alright, so we’re going to step off this root, it’s about a foot down, you might want to go left sideways.

Falling facing downhill is more dangerous. So Stobie walks with extra care.

GROSS: And it’s like you’re doing two steps almost, you’re kind of pushing your foot down and then pushing it all the way down.
STOBIE: Exactly. Yeah, yeah, it’s like, is this a safe one? No. Readjust. Yes? Go ahead and put your weight on it.

Stobie’s still fundraising for his expedition – it will cost about 45-thousand dollars, more than it would if he could see, because he has to have two guides.

STOBIE: There’s points, you know, definitely, I was like, I wish I could see, this would be so easy. It’s like, well, that might be true, it might not. But you know, this is who I am, this is what I have to deal with, it’s like, live with it.

Stobie hopes that in a month and a half, he’ll stand at the top of Denali and feel and hear the wind and the calls of triumph from his climbing partners. Then he’ll come down, carefully, and most likely, set another goal to reach.

Copyright 2014 KPLU