Rachael Storey climb Ben Nevis
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.
"Sighted guidance around the city is very different compared to guiding someone up and down a mountain"
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!
‘Don’t Look Down’
Pole had always intrigued me from the moment I discovered it. I’m always curious to try and learn new things, and I always wondered why Pole was seen as such a risky, kinda “trashy” activity, when to me it seemed simple and fun, what’s wrong with trash?
The fact that I can’t see made me want to try it all the more, thinking it would be something that people didn’t think I could do but I actually could. That feeling drives me to try a lot of new things in my life. I contacted a few studios, I was unsure whether or not I should mention my visual impairment initially, I wanted to start as I meant to go on. I was sick of having to hide it. However, I did think it was best to soften the blow by saying I had more sight then I actually did — twisted I know.
I was full of anxiety of not being allowed to do something because the lack of sight put people off. Saying I had more sight than I do in reality provided me with personal protection, confidence, provided the instructor with more confidence in me as a stranger. It made that hurdle smaller for me to jump over at the start. Sadly it was always easier for people to make judgements on my capability by seeing me in person which sucks.
Contacting via email I could write what I want but people imagine this hypothetical generic blind person in their head and it creates their unrealistic expectations, or lack of. Unfortunately that’s just how it is. Some studios replied, saying they didn’t have the resources or training to facilitate my “needs”, others just didn’t bother replying. Luckily, I emailed Tempest Dance Studio and because of my knock backs I was careful with my wording. Admittedly, this is how most blind and partially sighted people, even other disabilities physical or mental have to approach situations like this.
Originally I think I asked her if it was possible to try a 1-2-1 class with my disability, even if it was just one class, and honestly Mandy’s reply meant everything to me. I think Mandy said something along the lines of ‘you can always just come in and try and see how it goes’. I don’t think anyone will understand unless they have gone through physical/mental trauma and the pushbacks that often come with that - how important that sentence was to me.
At first we were unsure of each other, not socially, just unsure how it was going to go e.g. How fast I was able to pick up movements? How I was going to learn the movements? How Mandy should execute her teaching methods? We started off small working each other out, testing abilities, strengths, speeds of teaching and learning movements. I felt comfortable, comfortable enough to go back and build up that confidence with my instructor, just as I suspect she did as well.
As a worrier, I thought Mandy might have seen how rubbish I was and decided it was too risky to take me on as a student, when she asked if she could proudly post our first day of progress on her business page I was so shocked. I was so happy that she had taken the chance and was willing to progress, adapt her teaching style and wanted to share that with everyone else. As the weeks went on and we shared our progression with the rest of team Tempest our confidence as teacher and student were growing and I started to wonder why this couldn’t happen for other instructors and students. Why I was full of anxiety when I first started initially, I could use what Mandy and I had learned and experienced and put it to good use. We had broken down barriers and were the perfect example of unlimited expectation and I wanted that to set the precedent for anyone else as curious and as adventurous as myself going forward. From that, ‘Don’t Look Down’ was created.
Paul and aerial is my safe haven! I don’t have to lie about who I am, it’s made me socially confident and body confident which are two things I never thought I would ever truly achieve. It gives me the opportunity, the confidence and the space to explore what I can do, the limits I can push my body to, creativeness of performing and creating characters for routines. This might be hard for me to describe and for someone to understand but, Pole - really has filled and emptiness that blindness helped create, I don’t get hung up on not being able to see myself in the mirror, I can move my body and feel it that way. Rather than being bothered about its superficial appearance.
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