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Seattle photo exhibit explores the renaissance of the afro

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 05:00

One of the first things you notice about someone is the hair. How people wear hair can say a lot about their politics, religion and even their health.

A photo exhibit currently on display in Seattle focuses entirely on individuals who choose to wear their hair in one type of hairstyle: the afro. This halo of high hair has gone from a symbol of black power to a fashion choice that challenges conventional ideas of beauty.

(Courtesy of Michael July)

‘It’s a light, fun exhibit, but it has a deeper meaning’

The first image you see when you walk into the photo exhibit at the Northwest African American Museum is a portrait of a toddler wearing a white onesie. Lelani Lewis, the museum’s marketing director, says this is her favorite picture.

“He’s smiling so big and he has this wonderful grin, and [there's] this lovely kinky, curly hair poking out of his head,” Lewis said. “And I think, ‘Ah, this joy!’ It’s a celebration.”

Visitors are surrounded by more than 30 large portraits of artists, students, kids, mothers and social workers all sporting some version of an afro. Most of the subjects are black, but there are also white people, as well as people from Mexico and even someone from Japan with big, poufy hair.

“It’s a light, fun exhibit, but it has a deeper meaning,” Lewis said. ” It’s celebrating natural beauty — your natural beauty and collectively — and that’s a powerful message.”

Hair as a political statement

Brooklyn-based Michael July is the photographer behind the photos, which are also featured in a hefty coffee table book titled “Afros: A Celebration of Natural Hair.” The title hints at the pressure African Americans and other minorities feel to conform to the standards of white beauty. According to author Ayana Byrd, it’s a message that dates back to slavery.

“African-textured hair was bad, and hair that was closer to European texture was good,” said Byrd, co-author of “Hair Story, Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.”

Plantations gave birth to that perception, says Byrd. Slaves who were multi-racial as a result of plantation rape often had lighter skin and straight hair, and were usually given more opportunities.

“If you were lighter-skinned with straighter hair, you were working in the house as opposed to in the fields, and you might also have had the chance to buy your freedom or buy the freedom of someone in your family,” she said.

Michael July, left, wears his hair in dreadlocks that drape down to his waist. (Courtesy of Michael July)

Straight hair stayed the ideal for decades, and remains favored by many even today. Even Malcolm X straightened his hair until he declared the painful, dangerous process “black self-degradation” in his autobiography.

African Americans started using their hairstyle to speak out against years of oppression in the 1960s when the afro became embraced as a symbol of black power. But there’s earlier evidence of using hair as a political statement. Black women’s magazines in the early 1900s urged women to stop straightening their hair if they didn’t want a colonized mind.

These same feelings are expressed in July’s book, which Byrd calls the first of its kind. Almost every portrait is accompanied by text written by the subject explaining why they choose to wear their hair naturally.

A passage written by Moira Griffin, a film producer in Canada, captures the emotion many express in the 443-page volume: “After a lifetime of braids, relaxers, nightmare hairdressers and one failed attempt to look like Janet Jackson, I went to natural. My hair is my statement to the world that I am free of the constraints that bind so many women to follow a trend.”

‘I didn’t realize how passionate people are about their hair’

July says these thoughtful, personal statements that appeared in his email box after the fun photo shoots inspired him to turn them into a book.

“When I started getting quotes back from people, it was so powerful because I didn’t realize how passionate people are about their hair. People would talk about their relationship with their parents, or about people making fun of them, or just how beautiful they felt once they let their hair grow out after being chemically processed all their lives and how liberating that was for them,” July said.

July’s photos document what is happening with the natural hair movement. It’s more acceptable than ever for people with curly hair that defies gravity to go chemical-free. Today, 60 percent of African-American women relax their hair — an all-time low since relaxers have been available, says Byrd.

“Now all of us — regardless of how we wear out hair and regardless of what race we are or where we live in the country — can now turn on music videos and see someone like Jill Scott or Erykah Badu, and see books like the afro book and recognize what black people’s hair looks like. And it’s just a normal thing to think of as beautiful,” she said.

Byrd thinks it’s a shame it’s taken hundreds of years to start to embrace the beauty of something that is literally just growing out of someone’s head.

The exhibit “Afros: A Celebration Of Natural Hair” will remain in Seattle through Sept. 8.


Seattle’s annual Dead Baby Downhill bike race ‘like ‘Road Warrior’ on steroids’

Sat, 08/02/2014 - 13:02

The Dead Baby Downhill bicycle race only has two rules: “No biting and no eye-gouging,” according to founder Dave Ranstrom. “Outside of that, there are no rules. First one to the party wins.”

That means just about everything else was allowed — running red lights, drinking beer and riding makeshift homebuilt bikes — when hundreds of bicyclists rushed through the streets of Seattle for the 18th annual race on Friday, Aug. 1.

‘Anything can happen’

This year, the Downhill started at The Barrel Tavern, just south of White Center in the Top Hat neighborhood, and ended in Georgetown, as is tradition. A bang of fireworks marked the start of the race, and, as the smoke cleared, riders hurried to gulp down their beers and barrel down hills toward the finish line. The race path was not predetermined, allowing the pack of cyclists to spontaneously choose the route as police officers closed streets and directed traffic around the moving mass.

“Anything can happen. It’s a mass of like-minded, bike-focused individuals,” said Oliver Doriss, a glass blower from Tacoma who has participated in the race for 10 straight years.

“Riding with a large group, taking over the traffic lanes — it’s a fun feeling,” said Zach Lindsey, another rider. “There’s a sense of illegality, but it’s the same sense of community that you get with a legitimate bike club.”

Some are in it for speed and the thrill of reckless abandon while others are in it for the carnivalesque atmosphere.

“The group dynamics of the ride are really what makes it fun,” said Laird Rickard. “I’m usually not competing. Usually I’ll do the race on a funny bike, like a tall bike. The Downhill is an opportunity to see people’s creativity, with the bikes they ride.”

An injured rider was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. (Malcolm Griffes/KPLU)

Accidents are not uncommon — the event was even featured in an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” — and many past participants have crash stories they don’t hesitate to share with excitement and bravado.

“The Dead Baby episode of ‘Grey’s Anatomy was pretty funny,” said one member who goes by the nickname “the Drunkle.” “The whole episode was about injuries at Dead Baby.”

This year, an ambulance carried away a cyclist who went down while rounding a corner. In his absence, a member of the Dead Baby Bikes club, which organizes the event, picked up the injured bicyclist’s discarded bike, slung it over his shoulders and continued riding.

“Really, though, not a lot of people get hurt,” said club member Chris Quigley.

A homemade trophy constructed out of welded bike parts and passed down through the years goes to the race winner. When the award ceremony took place, however, the first-place winner was nowhere to be found, perhaps already lost in the celebration.

‘It’s like ‘Road Warrior’ on steroids’

After the race came what Dead Baby Bikes calls “the greatest party known to mankind.”

“It’s like ‘Road Warrior’ on steroids, the party to end all parties,” said Larry Reid, curator of Fantagraphics books in Georgetown and president of the Georgetown Merchants Association.

The annual party is a raucous bicycle-centric celebration, complete with bicycle-powered carnival rides, burlesque-style dances that incorporate bicycles and bottomless beer refills included in the $25 registration fee. This year, freestyle BMX riders took to the air, showing off their mastery to the crowd’s delight.

But the main event was the “tall-bike jousting” — think Knights of the Round Table except on double-decker bicycles (two bike frames with one welded on top of the other). Anyone can sign up and joust, but having a good health insurance plan is not a bad idea. A jousting competitor once broke both of his arms when he was knocked off of his tall bike.

The club and many of the riders embrace a punk aesthetic; studded vests, tattoos and piercings pepper the crowd. Most are young — between 20 and 30, but all are welcome. Even families, presumably with bike-loving parents, stop by.

“[Attendance] is around 3,000, but seems to grow every year,” said club member Colin Northcraft.

How Dead Baby got its name

Founded in 1995 by Ranstrom, a longtime Seattle bike messenger-turned bike shop owner, Dead Baby Bikes got its name from Ranstrom’s first bicycle shop. The name is derived from a relic left at Ranstrom’s shop by a previous tenant: a doll nailed to the inside of the shop’s door.

“We all just laughed and said, ‘Dead Baby,”’ Ranstrom said. “It’s just tongue-in-cheek. If I thought it would have lasted as long as it has, I probably would have thought of a better name.”

The first year’s race began at the now-defunct Comet Tavern on Capitol Hill and ended at what was then the Dead Baby bike shop in Belltown.

“The very first race, we only had 200 people,” Ranstrom said. But there was plenty of chaos, as it so happened the race coincided with the Torchlight Parade.

“They road right through the parade. They knocked over clowns. They knocked over marching bands. And they knocked over cops on motorcycles,” Ranstrom said. “I had more cops at my little bicycle shop than I ever wanted to see in my life.”

This file photo shows the Dead Baby Bikes patch. (AP Photo/Kevin P. Casey)

The club behind the festivities

Dead Baby Bikes club members wears a three-piece patch, or “colors” — an outlaw style reference to motorcycle clubs. But before club members started wearing the colors, Ranstrom wanted to get approval from the local chapter of the motorcycle gang, the Bandidos.

“We rode our bikes from Seattle all the way down to Tacoma, colors in hand,” said Ranstrom, ”We handed these big old bikers our colors, and they said, ‘Lets get this straight. You guys ride bicycles?’ They all started laughing and said, ‘You guys are OK.’ That’s where it started.”

Since then, the underground club has grown to roughly 150 members; Ranstrom wouldn’t give an exact number. Similarly to motorcycle clubs, Dead Baby chapters have popped up in various cities across the U.S., including Portland and Vancouver, British Columbia.

First year with a permit

A performer wows the crowd. (Tim Durkan/KPLU)

This was the first year event organizers obtained proper city permits in response to a push from the city.

“I think there was a lot of concern over public safety and city resource,” said Larry Reid, curator of Fantagraphics books in Georgetown. “Last year in particular, SPD showed up in force because they had heard reports of gunshots being fired, when, in fact, it was fireworks.”

But, Reid added, because “the neighborhood completely embraces” the event, “it became pretty clear that we were not only endorsing, but helping to facilitate the event.”

“We did everything we could to facilitate them getting their permits. I think it’s going to work to their benefit,” he said. “We like to think of ourselves as outlaws,” said Northcraft, “[However,] once we started looking into the permitting process, we realized it’s stuff we already do, like provide security and toilets.”

‘The island of misfit toys’

Despite the club’s rough edges and grittier side, both the club and the Downhill embody a community-embracing bicycle counterculture with a come-as-you-are mentality.

“Family is a really important aspect for a lot of members,” said club member Jesse James. “This club is very tight-knit.”

(Tim Durkan/KPLU)

“It’s like the island of misfit toys. They’ve done Christmas at my house for the past six years,” Quigley said.

Riding and building tall bikes are both a part of the Dead Baby ethos. Among club members, wheels that look like Rat Fink hot rods are a more common sight than sleek carbon-fiber bikes meant for racing. The club even has in the works a trash can-turned bike  — a metal garbage can turned sideways with two wheels attached, with a rider straddling the can.

“I used to have Dead Babies come in to teach bike stuff to the kids at school back in the day. Those kids were making tall bikes,” said Quigley, who is also an elementary school teacher. “One year I had seven kids who were in my class or had been in my class doing the race.”

For partygoers, the Downhill offers a peek into the club’s culture and a chance to share cycling’s counterculture.

“The bottom line is it’s fun. Once you come out, you keep coming back,” Quigley said. “At the Dead Baby race, you’re free — free to do what you want to do.”

How blind Seattle-area climber Bruce Stobie fared on North America’s tallest peak

Tue, 07/29/2014 - 12:04

Editor’s note: This piece is an update to our previous story on Bruce Stobie, which ran in May. 

When Bruce Stobie arrived at Denali last month, he could feel the presence of the mountain, even if he couldn’t see it.

“I felt like a guest — not a welcome guest,” said the blind climber from Des Moines, Washington. “All there was: rock, ice and snow. And cold and warm temperatures. And that’s it. There’s nothing else.”

But 51-year-old Stobie was prepared for a difficult journey to the top. He’d been training hard for nine months in hopes of summiting North America’s tallest peak. He’d already summited Mount Rainier five years prior with the help of two guides. This time, he wanted to conquer the peak that towers more than 21,000 feet over Alaska.

And so he and two guides set out for what they expected to be a three-week climb to the top.

Bruce Stobie, left, is seen with a fellow climber. (Courtesy of Mark McCcracken.)

A strong start despite the scorching sun

“We started out strong. There was basically three days of hard climbing. The first day, we carry all the gear, basically for six miles, but it’s all flat. From that point on, the loads are broken up and you carry what you need to up the mountain,” Stobie said.

Stobie felt prepared. Even the wild swings in weather from day to night seemed manageable.

“When the sun came out, it came out hard and strong. And then on the other hand, the cold. We weren’t there for the worst of it. I believe it got down to minus 20 [degrees Fahrenheit], to minus 25, and that was chilling, to say the least,” Stobie said.

The crew aimed for alpine starts, setting out at 1, 2, 3 a.m. to gain ground before the sun grew too strong.

At night, a ‘total void of noises’

“I obviously did not see anything of the environment,” said Stobie. But it so happened it was his guide Josh’s first time on the mountain, too, and Josh’s observations helped fill in the blanks. “So I lived vicariously through Josh, because he was, in a way, gobsmacked.”

But one of the most memorable moments didn’t require Josh’s eyes or words: the “total void of noises” at night.

“I would just hang out at night and it would be totally quiet. No noise. Absolutely no noise,” he said. “I cannot experience that down here. Even in the wilderness down here, there’s noise.”

A change in course

The crew had no problem reaching base camp at 14,000 feet, the height of Mount Rainier. But when they switched from snowshoes to crampons, the terrain  — and the journey — took a turn.

Stobie’s feet began slipping on the steep, 55-degree slopes covered in powdered-sugar snow.

“I was taking two steps instead of every one step, and I wasted a lot of energy,” he said. “Basically I was inefficient in my foot movement, and as the terrain got steeper, that inefficiency became more obvious.”

The crew reached 16,200 feet on the ropes during an especially difficult day that stretched 10 long hours. But it soon became clear their journey would end before the summit.

“I was breathing harder than I needed to. You know, with the higher altitudes, there was no room or tolerance for inefficiency,” Stobie said. “That night, I had an anxiety attack in the tent and had trouble breathing … Imagine being just maxed out on just breathing and not getting enough air.”

The following morning, Stobie went to see a doctor at base camp for a precautionary checkup. A clean bill of health left him with a heavy decision: Push on or turn back?

“I kind of struggled back and forth with it, but I think intuitively, I knew it was the right thing to do. I liked to visualize climbing and moving, and seeing the summit. And I was not seeing that happen, especially after that really long day. I knew what I was going into,” he said. “It was just not getting any better. And it was like, ‘OK, I’m done.’”

Bruce Stobie’s wife, Gwyn Stobie, snapped this photo shortly after his descent from Denali. (Courtesy of Gwyn Stobie)

‘Being on the mountain, it definitely exposed things’

Stobie and his guides decided to come down the mountain. It took eight hours to reverse the efforts of their two-week climb.

“Definitely, being on the mountain, it definitely exposed things, like this inefficiency in movement,” he said.” You know, had I been 10,000 feet lower, that would’ve been fun. I would’ve figured it out. There was just not any luxury of doing that [at high elevation].”

Now, three weeks later, Stobie still hasn’t fully processed his experience. He’s disappointed he didn’t summit, but he says he’s not done trying yet. And when he returns, he plans to be better prepared for tackling steep slopes with crampons.

“I would say that it was an adventure that I was looking for, and it was an adventure that I got. It was both an external one and an internal one,” he said. “The important thing is I was up there, doing my best.”

Olympia artist aims to inspire simple actions through intricate paper carvings

Mon, 05/12/2014 - 05:00

Nikki McClure’s bold, black-and-white designs fill popular calendars, posters and journals. They depict scenes from her wholesome life in Olympia, paired with words and phrases like “eat more kale” and “honor.”

What many fans of her art don’t know is that McClure’s pieces aren’t drawings or woodblock prints. She carves them out of paper, using an X-Acto knife.

“[I start with a] black piece of paper, cutting away things and being left with an image behind that’s still the piece of paper, but now it’s all carved up, like lace, and has an image and a story in it,” McClure said.

From performing in front of crowds to cutting paper

(Courtesy: Nikki McClure)

The technique was born out of necessity, says McClure. In the early 1990s, she was a recent graduate of the Evergreen State College at time when self-expression was the norm.

“The air was electrified,” she said. “Expressing yourself and your inner-turmoil by making up a new song every day was just kind of the way you did things around here.”

She got caught up in the riot grrrls music scene and performed solo “sung word” compositions, touring with bands like Kicking Giant and Bikini Kill. But she says it wasn’t sustainable.

“You know, I’d be in these bars, singing without a microphone. And that’s a very raw, emotionally-vulnerable state to be in with a bunch of drunk guys,” McClure said.

That’s when she started making her art.

“Starting to express myself more visually was a lot more safer place to be,” she said, adding the birds and the plants that appear in her work are all versions of herself. “And I could express these ideas and these thoughts, and these feelings I was having in a safe way – much safer than singing in front of a bar.”

Paper-cutting ended up being the perfect solution. It was an affordable way to create graphic images that she could reproduce in many sizes using a copy machine. She first used the technique to create a children’s book, titled “Apple,” then moved on to create her first calendar in 1998.

Scenes from an idyllic life

Nowadays, McClure finds safety and inspiration at her beachfront home, near Priest Point Park in Olympia. Daily walks with her family are part of the routine.

“The thing about a beach is it’s always changing in these subtle ways. Like there’s a winter beach, as opposed to the summer beach. It’s like a different character,” she said.

On a recent day, I found her young son and her husband digging up an old tire that got left in the sand. Nearby, a raft they built floated on the waves — the subject of an upcoming book. McClure says part of what she wants to do as she captures snippets of life here is to remind people to get out and enjoy nature.

“Or if they’re not able to do it, then they can be transported to a moment in their past when they were. And they can have that memory and recall it,” she said.

‘Be inspired and then act upon that throughout the day’

“Mendocino” (Courtesy: Nikki McClure)

McClure’s calendars and posters are full of shorelines and woody outdoor scenes, gardens and the farmers market as well as wholesome vignettes of family life indoors. They include single words and phrases.

“Often the image comes first, and then I then think about words, but I try not to grab the first word that comes first,” McClure said, explaining her process. “So oftentimes, there’s a sort of Alice-in-Wonderland event where I kind of get lost in the dictionary and following word origins and also synonyms of the words, and [I end up] kind of traveling through the book that way.”

Some of McClure’s wording almost sounds like propaganda: “witness,” “take action,” “wake up.” The artist says she’s inspired by the Works Progress Administration campaigns of the 1930s and ‘40s.

McClure illustrates values like self-sustenance, working the land and conservation, and aims to effect positive change within communities. She says she encourages face-to-face communication, and wants to remind people that they have power to get together and make change.

“We’re humans, and humans do a lot of terrible things,” McClure said, adding she aims to emphasize our strengths, ”to reinforce those strengths and to fine-tune them so we’re ready for the work that needs to be done.”

But she purposely projects a softer tone.

“It has to be something people can put up in their kitchen. And it should just not be totally depressing, nor necessarily a call for immediate action or guilt-ridden moment,” she said. You’ve gotta get your coffee, be inspired and then act upon that throughout the day.”

Tiny sculptures

McClure thinks of her works as tiny sculptures. And when you see the originals, you know what she means. She doesn’t always glue everything flat, so you can see the texture of fine details, like a roll of plastic bags at an apple stand coming toward you in the frame.

(Bellamy Pailthorp/KPLU)

“Most people are aware of my work, and what their exposure to it has been is the graphic interpretation, which is a flattened version of it. But the original is very finely sculptural. And most people, when they see an original, still think of it as like a wood cut. Or flat. Like it really takes a close eye and a moment of pause to see that it’s a 3D object,” she said.

Even museum people say at first glance, they assumed McClure’s images were woodblock prints.

“I think the first time that I saw her work, it never occurred to me that it was paper-cutting,” said Nora Atkinson, who curated a solo show of McClure’s work at Bellevue Art Museum in 2012.

Atkinson, who is now with the Smithsonian Institution, says McClure’s pieces are intricate and mesmerizing, especially when you consider how carefully each composition is cut from a single piece of paper. And many of them are portraits of actual people.

“When you consider trying to portray someone with light and shadow in black and white with only positive and negative space, and the kind of images she’s able to capture in that — it’s really outstanding,” she said. “It’s the simplicity of the image and the clarity of her message that’s really the charm of her work.”

A retrospective of the artist

Looking at about 20 years of McClure’s collected works, from her first piece to her recent work, Atkinson says the artist’s growth in techniques and skills is evident. The retrospective is now showing in California at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.

McClure says seeing the exhibition has been eye-opening for her as well.  She says, along with the t

Nikki McClure is seen at home in Olympia, Washington. (Bellamy Pailthorp/KPLU)

echnical aspect, because her work is so autobiographical, it also shows the story of a woman coming into her own, “where there’s this confidence and this growth.”

“And I become a mother, and [there’s] the learning and the love that grows from that. And in a way, it’s a story that you don’t really see much in museums, to see the story of a woman growing up,” she said.

McClure was recently included in a catalogue of contemporary masters of paper cutting. And with two new books just released, it’s a busy and successful time.

McClure, who says she never aimed for this kind of fame, seems surprised by it.

“You know, you’re just making pictures because you have to make the things that are inside you come out,” she said. “And it’s been kind of incredible that it’s been received so well and widely and that also feeds not just my soul but my family. It’s just kind of mind-boggling.”

And McClure is anything but complacent. She says she doesn’t want to squander the audience she’s built.

“What’s my retrospective going to be when I’m 60? That’s what I want to know. And it’d better be good,” she said.


Blind Seattle marathoner to attempt summiting North America’s tallest peak

Fri, 05/09/2014 - 05:00

Bruce Stobie may be blind, but he’s getting ready to do something that most of us with perfect eyesight would never attempt. On June 10, he’s setting out on a three-week round-trip expedition to climb North America’s tallest peak, Denali.

Stobie grew up in Des Moines, Washington, loving to climb. But everything changed 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 smashed, face-first, into the roll bar of the vehicle before being tossed out.

“When it happened, I thought I was going to die,” Stobie said. “[It] detached the retinas in both eyes, and the sight loss was pretty much instantaneous.”

Stobie lay in the hospital recovering, trying to come to terms with what it means to be a blind person. So he decided to set some goals: finish college, run a marathon and climb a mountain.

“[Climbing Mount] Rainier had been something I had always wanted to do, so I put these things in my bucket list to accomplish,” Stobie said.

‘There were all these obstacles’

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

“There were all these obstacles; [I was] stumbling over things, you know. I had the grieving process I was going through,” Stobie said. “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. He got married, had children, worked for Boeing as an information-technology analyst.

But about nine years ago, he found himself ready to try again. He convinced a former Boeing coworker, Ron Fleck, who taught mountaineering classes in his spare time, to take him along. Fleck says he proposed a hike in a place where he usually takes beginners.

“He told me he had already been on that hike years ago when he could see, and that was a hike for wimps. So I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to have my hands full,’” Fleck said.

‘I think if I could see, I’d be wanting to move a lot faster’

Bruce Stobie and his wife, Gwyn, are seen participating in a recent half-marathon. (Tim Chandonnet Photography)

Stobie, needless to say, is no wimp. At age 51, he has run four marathons.

On a recent sunny day, Stobie met up at a trailhead near Issaquah with Fleck and another climbing buddy, Charlie Soncrant. Stobie had gotten up at 2:45 a.m., and had already worked out for two and a half hours. But that wasn’t enough; now he was ready to charge up this mountain. But he can’t do it alone.

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.

As the trio hiked, Fleck called out the terrain every few steps.

“The rocks are closer together, so you probably just want to take a lot more in the way of baby steps, OK, Bruce?” Fleck said.

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

“I like seeing how fast I can go,” Stobie said. “I think if I could see, I’d be wanting to move a lot faster.”

‘He just gained this trust’

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 Mount Rainier when you can’t even see where you’re going. Five years ago, Stobie signed up to climb the mountain and showed up to an orientation session. His guide, Mike Haugen, was looking over his clients’ medical information when he saw the word “blind” on Stobie’s sheet.

“I kind of did a double-take at it, and thought maybe he’s got a really high prescription for his glasses or something like that,” Haugen said. “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.”

Mike Haugen, left, and Bruce Stobie pose at the top of Rainier in 2009. (Courtesy: Bruce Stobie)

But Stobie and Haugen agree that it was serendipitous that they were assigned to each other, because they work so well together.

“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,” Haugen said. “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 – climbing to the top of the 20,322-foot Alaskan peak, Denali. 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.

“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 this was serious stuff,” she said. “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.

One soft-footed step at a time

As Stobie and his friends headed down the trail on a recent day, they traveled a lot slower than hikers usually do. Falling while facing downhill is more dangerous. All the way down, Fleck advised Stobie where to put his feet.

“Alright, so we’re going to step off this root. It’s about a foot down. You might want to go left, sideways,” Fleck said.

It’s almost as if Stobie takes two steps for each one. He first probes with his foot to test whether the spot is solid, then, when he feels comfortable, takes an actual step.

“Yeah, it’s like, is this a safe one? No? Readjust. Yes? Go ahead and put your weight on it,” Stobie said.

That’s just one of the ways Stobie has to approach climbing differently than a seeing person would. And as he prepares for Denali, he’s sought advice from one of the only other blind people who’s ever climbed the mountain, Erik Weihenmayer.

“I’ve had both of my eyes removed, so these are prosthetic eyes,” Stobie said. “Erik has prosthetic eyes, too, so one of the questions I had was, ‘How did you deal with the cold?’”

Stobie was worried his eyelids might freeze to his prosthetic eyes. Now he knows to come prepared with goggles and saline solution.

‘This is who I am’

Stobie is still fundraising for his expedition, which will cost about $45,000. That’s more than it would cost if he could see, because he has to have two guides.

“There are points, you know, definitely, where I was like, ‘I wish I could see. This would be so easy,’” Stobie said. “It’s like, well, that might be true, it may 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.