Blind Burnaby man to summit Mount Kilimanjaro

A blind Burnaby man plans to climb Africa’s tallest peak this fall to motivate people to grab a hold of life and not wait for a future that may never happen.

On Sept. 10, Bill Der – who was diagnosed with glaucoma in 1975 and was legally blind by ’86 – will begin an eight-day trek to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro with his son Spencer.

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The challenge shouldn’t come as a surprise for those who know him. With the help of one or two guides, Der has completed Vancouver’s Grouse Grind every weekend since 2009.

On one such occasion in 2014, he met a fellow grinder who was carrying a 30-pound backpack. She was training to climb seven mountains in Asia and suggested that Der try conquering Kilimanjaro first. He originally hoped to climb Mount Everest after hearing about Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to reach the top.

“I’ve had friends who said I’m crazy, I’m an idiot, you’re putting yourself in danger, where’s your responsibility to your son? What happens if you get into trouble? On and on it goes,” Der told the NOW. “I say well, ‘One has only one life to live; one has to figure out what you want to do in this life and go tackle it.’”

His decision to take on “Kili,” which stands at more than 19,000 feet, is a very personal one. On Feb. 1, 2015, Lana, his wife of 35 years, unexpectedly passed away of stomach cancer.

“(We) thought it was food poisoning,” Der said. “It was a total shock to everybody because colonoscopies, CT scans, nothing showed the cancer existed. It just came out of the blue.”

“I did not expect to have that kind of news at all,” Spencer added.

Der said he and his wife had made lots of plans for when he retired, including a trip to Europe. These plans never became a reality because they got “hip-checked by life.”  

“(It’s) a tribute to my wife. To sort of say to myself, my son, others, hey, it was phenomenal what she did for Spencer and myself, to remember her at the very top, that she helped us, to thank her.”

For the father-son duo, the Kili climb also represents the beginning of a different future where they drive life, rather than being driven by life.

“We just get so busy that we do the routine day in, day out, just to keep things going. When that happens, we forget that hey, we do have a choice,” said Der, adding Lana’s name will be carved into a special staff he’ll carry up and down the mountain.

Another reason to take on the South African adventure is Der’s blindness. Right now, his vision is between one and two per cent.

“I want to be able to look back at the Kili climb and say, ‘If I can climb Kilimanjaro, total blindness will be a cakewalk.’ Especially when I’m feeling and experiencing the difficulties of the total blind world and can’t seem to find a way out of a predicament.”

But the climb won’t be without its challenges, Spencer noted. The group, which includes two others, will hike roughly five to eight hours each day. On the last day, the hike will range between 10 and 13 hours.

“I’ve done maybe two hikes in row, but not eight, and especially at that length or duration. My legs might burn out, but they might not, who knows,” the recent UBC graduate, who just returned from a six-week backpacking trip across Asia, told the NOW.

The Der family will be accompanied by certified guides who can handle medical emergencies, as well as porters carrying food and water.

Their biggest concern, according to Spencer, is altitude acclimatization and dealing with less oxygen past the 2,000-metre mark, which can cause symptoms like headaches and nausea.

“We cannot do that kind of altitude training here. They say if you really want to do that, you have to go to Denver, Colorado, and then maybe a week after, head right to Kili,” explained Der, noting each climber’s condition will be assessed on a daily basis.

Bad weather could also impede things.

“We recently hiked in the rain. It was terrible. If it’s anything like that, it’s going to be more difficult, especially not having a shower and being really warm at night in your bed,” said Spencer.

Asked if quitting is an option, Der said he hadn’t thought that far ahead and that it’ll depend on their medical situation at the time.  

To prepare for the rigorous climb, the Ders do cardio and muscle training three times a week for up to two hours, and they will be increasing that as they go. As September approaches, they plan to do more back-to-back hikes, including trails along Cypress and Mount Seymour.

People can follow their journey by reading their blog, mysummitchallenge.blogspot.ca, or following the Twitter hashtag, #BlindvsKilimanjaro. Through their climb, the family is also looking to raise $15,000 for the Down Syndrome Research Foundation and another $15,000 for the Alzheimer Society of B.C.

Despite his dad’s disability, Spencer is very confident his father will reach the top.

“It’s definitely one of the bigger things he’s done. It’s definitely going to be a good experience for both of us to do it together, just to grow together and learn together as much as possible, especially since mom has passed away.”

The Ders are hosting a charity event called Answering the Call on Aug. 21 at 6:30 p.m. at Vancouver’s Pink Pearl Restaurant. Tickets cost $50 and include dinner, music, karaoke and a dance. To buy, visit tinyurl.com/h8usys3. Proceeds will support the two charities.

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