'Blindsight': The Heart Shows Climbers the Way

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 14, 2008

What can you see from the top of Mount Everest when you're blind?

That's one of many paradoxes swirling like mountain mist around "Blindsight," Lucy Walker's moving, thought-provoking documentary, which follows six Tibetan boys and girls on a three-week trek to Lhakpa Ri, the north peak of Everest.

Accompanied by a team of professional climbers, as well as their schoolteacher/den mother, these blind boys and girls -- with names that translate to "Lucky," "One Hundred Thousand Beautiful Lakes" and "Little Moon" -- hardly seem ready for the arduous climb.

"Blindsight," however, is more than a feel-good movie about "special people" built around the kind of tear-jerking finale we'd normally associate with a Disney drama. The issues enter the realm of the transcendental. Born in a culture that believes the blind are possessed by demons or paying for sins of a previous existence, these teenagers are seeking something more powerful than flag-waving victory. They are discovering -- and demonstrating -- their own spiritual value.

"We are blind," says one of the children in halting English. "But our hearts are not blind."

What amounts to a moral journey for the children is an all-out, philosophical debate for their chaperons, blind professional mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer and educator Sabriye Tenberken, who is also blind. No sooner has the expedition struck its first base camp than the two begin a running, occasionally heated debate about the true merits of the expedition. As patience and tempers shorten in the increasingly rarefied atmosphere, they think about climbing in ways neither has considered.

So do we.

Weihenmayer, the embodiment of macho spirit, was the first blind person to reach the Everest summit. He has climbed the highest peaks on every continent. For him, this is about giving the kids confidence that they can do the impossible. And that they can, on a dare or a whim, traverse crevasses with deadly drops that they can only imagine.

Tenberken, a 40-ish German, founded the children's school for the blind at Lhasa, and she has a different perspective. If the kids do reach Lhakpa Ri's 23,000-foot summit, she says, that would be wonderful. But it's not everything. Fulfillment amounts to group unity and finding pleasure in smaller things -- the ringing bells of the yaks that carry their bags, for instance.

Weihenmayer and Tenberken are both right but she clearly has the edge. We see the joy of companionship during a day's climb when the youthful mountaineers burst into a rendition of the Turtles' "Happy Together," as if they were part of a Tibetan, real-life version of "The Sound of Music." And we witness the way they process reality, too, as they relive the day's events at the campsite, full of spirit, jokes and laughter. For them, experience is measured in the memories shared with friends. And that, we understand, is a clue to the meaning of "blindsight" -- the telling difference between sight and vision.

Blindsight (104 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG and contains mild profanity.

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