The Blind Man of Hoy: A True Story by Red Szell

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The Blind Man of Hoy: A True Story by Red Szell

Category: Autobiography
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: Red Széll started losing his sight at age 19. In 2013 he became the first blind person to climb the Old Man of Hoy, off the Orkney Islands. An inspirational rock-climbing adventure.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: April 2015
Publisher: Sandstone Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781910124222

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Redmond Széll was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) at age 19. It's now 26 years since he got the life-changing news. Although not completely sightless – he sees shadows and shapes – he is registered blind and walks with the stereotypical white stick. This hasn't stopped him from pursuing his hobby of rock-climbing, though, both indoors on climbing walls and on Britain's cliffs. The culmination of his climbing obsession came in 2013, when he became the first blind person to climb the Old Man of Hoy, the 449-foot cliff off the Orkney Islands of Scotland.

He first had the idea in the 1980s, when he watched Chris Bonington (who wrote the foreword) and his team make the first-ever ascent of the Old Man in 1967, as recorded in the BBC documentary The Big Climb. 'For months I'd glibly told people that I was going to climb this sea stack roughly the shape and size of the Gherkin,' Széll writes, but it wasn't until he started a tailored training programme that he realised just how much work it would be. Case in point: 'I doubt if anything acts as a sharper spur to weight loss than having to do repeated pull-ups.'

Széll did most of his practice at Climb London, Swiss Cottage, with trial runs in the Peak District and Scottish Highlands. It's fascinating to learn how he makes rock-climbing work despite his limited vision. He always climbs with someone either above or below him. This partner calls out instructions, telling him where his next hand- and footholds are coming up, based on their own experience of a few seconds ago or what they see from the ground. Inevitably there's plenty of 'No, your other left' snafus, but it mostly works. Still, Széll is frustrated by the limitations others placed on him, especially at climbing walls. 'Just the Health & Safety nanny state protecting the disabled from themselves,' he grumbles about the officious staff at one sport club.

The details of his training, especially all the climbing terms, can get a bit tedious for the layman. Luckily, there is a helpful glossary at the back to explain the sometimes unintentionally funny vocabulary. For example, 'Disco leg – the uncontrollable shaking you get in one or both legs when the muscles are tired and you are on very tenuous footholds. Also known as 'sewing machine leg' or 'doing an Elvis'.' All the same, this is not as accessible an adventure memoir as Aron Ralston's Between a Rock and a Hard Place (the basis for the film 127 Hours).

Unsurprisingly, the highlight of the book is the Old Man of Hoy. Watching a film of the climb of an even taller Orkney cliff, he gets a taste of what awaits him: 'Close-ups of crumbling rock, projectile-vomiting fulmars and vast overhangs left all three of us feeling queasy and glad we are attacking its little brother.' The climb itself did not go entirely smoothly, either: his two long-time climbing partners, Matthew and Andres, were sidelined in favour of a different helper; and the team had an equipment failure and did not manage to film his first ascent of the Old Man, so he had to repeat it the following day. What counts is that he made it (twice), and raised thousands of pounds for RP research through the climb and the publicity opportunities that followed it.

An interest in sport, especially rock-climbing, would be an asset to anyone who decides to read this book. I didn't always find it as fascinating as I wanted to, and on occasion I thought the author resorted to obvious symbolism, as in 'When, inevitably, falls and setbacks do occur, far better to be relaxed and in a state to resume the climb out of the shadows. Repeated blind frustration invariably results either in self-loathing or resentment of others.' Also, the proofreading is not at the standard I've come to expect from a traditionally published book; the punctuation, especially, struck me as iffy throughout.

Nonetheless, I found the book worthwhile for its account of obsession and the determination to reach a goal. The passage Széll quotes from George Mallory as a chapter epigraph puts it perfectly: 'there is something in man which responds to the challenge of the mountain and goes out to meet it…the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward…What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life.'

Further reading suggestion: If you like sport memoirs, you might try Taking on the World by Ellen MacArthur or Enabled: One Disabled Woman's Incredible Story of Tackling Her Disability in Pursuit of a Lifelong Dream by Ruth Merry and Steve Emecz.

Buy The Blind Man of Hoy: A True Story by Red Szell at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Blind Man of Hoy: A True Story by Red Szell at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Blind Man of Hoy: A True Story by Red Szell at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Blind Man of Hoy: A True Story by Red Szell at Amazon.com.


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