Rachael Storey climb Ben Nevis
Photography Paul Miller
I’m Rachael and I’m a blind pole dancer and aerialist.
Ten years ago I woke up to find that I had lost my sight. It was very surreal at the age of 15 to find out that you are going to spend the rest of your life with no vision. I remember feeling very numb and confused and wondering why is this happening? I remember charity workers and social workers specifically telling me what I was able to do with my new limitations - like getting into writing or playing blind football/cricket. I felt like I was being squished into tick boxes that I didn’t fit into. I rebelled against it, I wanted to do normal adventurous things not adapted-for-me things. From that day I chose to live my life as wildly as I possibly could, I’ve done a lot of wild things over the past decade as a blind person, but taking up pole dancing and aerial circus two years ago has been a game changer for me and it lead me to climbing the tallest mountain in the UK-Ben Nevis in Fort William, Scotland.
The climb up Ben Nevis on 6 April 2019 was a fundraiser organised by the British Pole Sport Federation to raise enough money to be able to host a UK National Championship for the first time since 2014. This event is special to me and I chose to take part in the event because it is the only competition in the UK to include a Para Pole category-meaning pole dancers with various disabilities can compete for gold at the International World Pole Dancing Championships. There are so many misconceptions about being blind, even more so with a blind pole dancer so this was my chance to show people that pole dancing on top of the tallest mountain in the UK wasn’t as difficult to understand as people initially thought. I’ve climbed mountains before with my partner but this was definitely the hardest and longest hike that I’ve done.
I’m not usually an anxious person because I think everybody has their own pace which is comfortable for them. But I was really aware of the fact that I could slow people down, be a burden and just generally get in the way, not only had that team members never had the opportunity to guide me before providing someone with sighted guidance around the city is very different compared to guiding someone up and down a mountain full of boulders, loose rocks and snow. During the climb I was massively thankful for their patience, understanding and positive attitudes of every team member that supported me up the mountain. Every single person that went up with us was supportive, comfortable and not overly sensitive, and very relaxed about my disability which took away a lot of my anxiety. Considering how uneven the track was in some parts, I managed to find my footing quite well until we started to hit the snow line. I struggled when I got into the snow as it was very powdery and compact and therefore extremely slippery. There were also some loose rocks that were still rolling under the snow which made it extra difficult for me not to twist my feet and ankles when I placed my foot on the ground. I was so tense about slipping over and putting my foot in the wrong place that when I actually did fall over I kept hurting my legs landing in weird splitting positions. Which you think I would be used to right? Because of the falls I found the last half an hour of the walk really mentally challenging and had to keep stopping every couple of steps.
Drink fresh water from the river stream. The water run from top of Ben Navis where snow lay melting or from rain fall.
WE DID IT!!
We finally reached the top at 2.00pm. We did it! It was absolutely mind blowing at what it felt like at the top of Ben Nevis. It was a complete wipe-out we were in the clouds and high up in the gods. You don’t need to see that to appreciate what it was actually like. You can feel the density of the clouds, the sound changes and grows opaque, the breeze becomes damp and fresh but quite sharp at the same time, you can feel them brushing and misting your face. It’s magical. I felt really content when I reached the top because I honestly didn’t think I could do it. Although it was exciting and freezing cold, I was overwhelmed by the fact that it would be even harder to climb down, so my nerves hadn’t fully disappeared when I reach the top as I hoped they would. It was so cold up there that we only had time to throw the pole together, do one move heavily supported because we were fully clothed and then threw it back down and started to descend.
Despite the dreadful weather and my worries about descending Ben Nevis we managed to make it back down after 11 hours of starting that day. I was exhausted but I felt so proud and content. Another dream completed another step towards a new prospective. Always do what you can’t.
Photography of the landscape
Rachael and I recently started a collaboration creating a Personal Photography Portfolio of her everyday life. As part of the portfolio Rachael invited me to join the Ben Nevis climb to photograph her journey. Having never climbed it before I jumped at the opportunity.
My experience of climbing Ben Nevis for the first time and being the photographer was not easy. As you may know I’m deaf and no-one else on the trip used Sign Language. There was no communication support but we got along just fine - luckily I can lip-read a little and the team had great awareness. They knew to tap me on the shoulder if they wanted my attention, and to talk to me face-to-face. We mostly managed through gestures (which created some good laughs) or we used our phones to write messages.
On the photography side I quickly realised there was no way for me to direct the team or ask them to hold their positions. There was also definitely no time for me to set up the camera and balance it on a tripod. We had to keep pushing forward as I was told it would take 6 hours to climb and 6 hours to descend - 12 hours in total! (although we did manage it in 11). Therefore I spent my time trying to keep an eye out for a good shot of Rachael, but also to try and climb the mountain safely myself. I find I have an issue with my balance (especially in the dark) and the uneven rocky steps all the way up to the summit was difficult - but then to try and take accurate, clear and sharp photos, that was challenge.
The views while climbing were beautiful, seeing the mountain, the lake and the misty clouds forming. I loved watching the clouds creeping and rolling over the mountain. I managed to take some shoots but again I didn’t have time to set up the tripod and take good sharp photos. I had to take them quickly, by hand, and on the move. There were also some areas that were impossible to capture because of the rainy/snowy/windy weather. After the half way point it was mostly snow and very slippy. I can’t count how many times I fell on my butt, so I was forced to put the camera away safely in its bag.
As we made it to the summit it was windy and so cold we didn’t hang around long. It was also completely white with fog we could not see much at all. The team set up the pole and Rachael somehow managed to do her part, allowing me to quickly take some photos before I needed to put my gloves back on. It was a shame I wasn’t able to get much from the shoot but I was glad to have made it to the top.
On the way back down it was almost impossible to take any photos it was still white with fog, wet and misty - I was also still constantly falling over, god knows how many times. My body was feeling fatigued and along with aches and pains, I decided to put the camera away again and focus on walking back down the mountain. I really struggled near the end my legs had turned to jelly and I really had to motivate myself to keep going. It was a huge relief once we finally arrived at the bottom. We ate tea together before departing our separate ways for the night.
I am so thankful for the opportunity of such a great experience. I would love to do this again. It was hard work but completely worth it in the end especially working with a great team of people who were very supportive. We all looked out for each other and saw some incredible views in all types of weathers.
I believe we are all very proud of that day!
© All Right Reserved Paul Miller 2019