“I loved climbing trees as a kid,” says Nancy Stevens, who was 6 when she first clambered up a tree in her childhood yard.
“I was climbing on a fence and sort of said, 'Oh, what's this?'” she recalls. Above the fence, the young Stevens felt a nearby tree limb, grabbed hold and began pulling herself up — and up.
“I said, 'Oh, wow, this is cool!' I just kept going up, and all of a sudden I was like, 'I don't know how to get down,'” says Stevens, of Bend.
None of that is unusual for a child. But Stevens has been blind since she was born three months prematurely in Michigan, where hospital staff gave her too much oxygen — succeeding in their efforts to save her, but damaging her retinas in the process.
Stevens, 51, a retired claims representative for the Social Security Administration who now does speaking engagements, is still reaching up and hoisting herself into unfamiliar places: In August, Stevens, already an accomplished skier and runner, became the first blind woman to scale the 13,770-foot Grand Teton.
Back when she was 6 and stuck in a tree, her older brother offered to show her the way back down. Stevens began climbing trees whenever she could.
When she was older, she tried rock climbing at a camp for the blind. And in college in 1979, she went on a trip to northern Canada, where she spent three weeks backpacking, rock climbing, sailing and canoeing.
That time, she found climbing to be a little more difficult — and she's never been fond of the frightful feeling she gets rappelling back down.
A long way down
Whether or not you're a climber, perhaps you can intuit how scary climbing down from a summit several thousand feet high might be. Now imagine not being able to see the ground far below, yet knowing — intimately, because you've already climbed up — that it's a long, long way down.
Several years would pass before she would do more climbing, but Stevens has always been active. She is a cyclist, runner and swimmer. As a competitive skier, she raced in the 1998 Winter Paralympics, which enabled her to take part in the Sept. 23 parade for Ashton Eaton and other area Olympians.
“With downhill skiing, any sports like that, you have to have a guide to do it,” says Stevens, who says it can sometimes be frustrating when she wants to get up and ride her bike but has no one to guide her.
In the mid-'80s, she took part in a new climbing class in Colorado. As her coach pointed out to her, with rock climbing, the lead climber — and, in Stevens' case, guide — requires a second climber to perform belay duties, in which the second climber trails below, clenching the rope affixed to the climber above and preventing little falls from becoming big ones.
She and two other students in the class learned knot tying and other climbing skills that had been glossed over during her Canada climbs in '79. She also began pitch climbing, “where the lead climber goes up and waits for you on one ledge, and you climb up to them,” Stevens explains. A climb can be multipitch, with belay stops once each ledge is reached.
“It was really neat to see: 'Oh yeah, they really do need me to be there.'”
She and friend Anne Dal Vera began making pitch climbs and scaling “14ers,” or peaks at least 14,000 feet high, in Colorado, where Stevens lived until moving to Bend in 2008. But the last time she and Dal Vera, who would later join her on the Grand Teton ascent, did any rock climbing together, Stevens was still in her early 30s.
Over the years, she'd scaled a few indoor climbing walls, but “I didn't really look into climbing with anybody else. Because of cross-country racing, whatever, I just had other things going on, so I didn't really think about it much.”
Ever climbed rocks?
During summer 2011, Stevens took a trip to Jackson Hole, Wyo., to visit her father, Ron.
“I like to be really active when I go on vacation,” she says. Looking for a guide to run with her or a tandem bike to ride, she contacted an organization called Teton Adaptive Sports, a nonprofit that supports sports and recreation activities for people with disabilities.
Ryan Burke, summer program manager of the organization, was her running guide. He's also a rock climber who has climbed Grand Teton, the tallest of the area's peaks, numerous times.
“I don't know why, (but) he just said, 'Have you ever done any rock climbing?'” Stevens says.
The two arranged to do a single-pitch climb at a place in Jackson Hole that “had a little bit of everything” climbers enjoy, Stevens says. “It had this crack to climb up, and there was a little overhang you had to reach up. I said, 'Man, how did you find a rock that has everything?'”
She asked him how “the Grand,” as many call Grand Teton, compared to 14ers in Colorado.
“He said, 'Why don't you come and climb it and check it out?'” she says.
“She was such a go-getter, excited about everything,” Burke told The Bulletin. “She did so good on that (first climb), I told her, 'Well, why don't you go up the Grand?'”
They considered the logistics during a run the next morning, knowing they'd need to bring along at least one other person to help guide Stevens. She thought immediately of Dal Vera.
“I can't even tell you the last time we had a cool adventure,” Stevens says. Dal Vera immediately said yes. “She said, 'I've always wanted to do that.'”
Dal Vera knew someone who worked for Exum Mountain Guides, a renowned climbing service in Jackson Hole.
Stevens made a reservation with Exum, which agreed to have Burke come along on the climb, and over the winter, plans were solidified and the permit necessary for the popular climb acquired. Another old friend, Ginny Deal, also arranged to join the group.
Deal climbed Grand Teton with guides from Exum when she was 19, and wondered what it would be like to climb it again 43 years later, she told The Bulletin by email from Australia, where she's living and working. She also knew the climb would be inherently different with Stevens.
“I knew it would be a valuable, uplifting life experience,” Deal said.
The steep climb would be challenging for anyone, and Exum's clients usually do the trip in two days, hiking to the Lower Saddle, the space where Middle Teton meets the Grand, with an elevation over 11,000 feet. They camp overnight, departing for the climb to the summit in the early pre-dawn hours and make it back to the parking lot — all in a day, explains Stevens.
“I get up things fine. It's climbing down that takes me longer. It's scarier. I was saying, 'Gosh, I don't know if climbing to the summit and getting all the way back to the parking lot in a day is doable for me.'”
Burke and Brenton Reagan of Exum convinced her she could.
Stevens didn't get around to doing any climbing locally in order to train for Grand Teton, but in July, aware that getting to the Lower Saddle would require a seven-mile hike — not to mention traversing a boulder field — she joined a women's hiking group through the Bend Park& Recreation District. On twice-weekly hikes up to 12 miles in length and, depending on the hike, as much as a 2,500-foot elevation gain, Stevens carried a 25-pound pack.
She used hiking poles, focusing on the quickest, most efficient way to hike in preparation for the Grand, knowing time would be of the essence. Those guiding her on hikes used the same terms Stevens uses in running. “They don't have to say there's a crack, or a branch, or a curb; they just say, 'Toes up,' and I just know — it doesn't matter what it is — I just know I have to be mindful and keep my feet up.”
When there were rocks to negotiate on the path, Stevens would sometimes lag behind on the hikes, but caught up by running once she could.
“There were definitely some days this summer with my pack where I was just going, 'Oh my God. This is really hard,'” she says.
Going to Wyoming
She felt well-prepared by the time she left for Jackson Hole on Aug. 16, where she and her climbing partners began two days of training with Exum, including crossing a boulder field and progressively more difficult rock climbs.
“They had everything you were going to encounter on the Grand,” she says.
When an Exum guide wasn't quite sure how to describe a boulder field to Stevens, Burke, more experienced working with disabilities, would step in, Stevens says.
“'Just put her hand on the rock and tell her which way to go!'” she says, laughing as she recalls the moment.
Stevens says that approach is “so empowering” for her. But for the 120-foot rappel, also part of the training, it would be her, “hanging in the air, with (my) feet just out there,” as she describes it. Reagan rappelled down beside her.
“They wanted to make sure everybody was comfortable with it,” Stevens says.
After her rappel, Exum guide Jessica Baker told Stevens, “You looked terrified.”
So Baker suggested they rappel from the ledge again.
“I kept telling myself, 'You better look more confident,'” Stevens says.
Says Deal, “The two days of climbing instruction were fun and cemented us together as a team, which made us feel very prepared for the climb of the Grand itself.”
Climbing Grand Teton
On the first day of climbing on Aug. 18, Stevens was told she was going faster than people usually hike in to the Lower Saddle.
“She was going as fast as anyone that I've ever seen. I was very impressed,” says Burke.
It was important to Stevens that friends Deal and Dal Vera got to enjoy the climb rather than have to guide her, so Burke and three guides led Stevens, switching off every hour in order to keep their eyes and minds fresh; Stevens says that the tactile way she climbs often left her unsure whether she's more physically or mentally fatigued.
At the Lower Saddle, she camped in a tent with Dal Vera and Deal. “I was so excited, I don't think I slept hardly at all,” Stevens says.
She didn't have long to try. They were up at 3:30 a.m. and on their way by 4:30 a.m. The terrain became increasingly challenging as they hiked across scree and large rocks.
It was a cold morning, and when it was time to begin the technical portion of the climb, Stevens, for whom the feel of the rock at hand is so important, had a dilemma: to wear the gloves she'd brought along or not?
“If you think about it, I'm blind with gloves on,” she says. “Am I going to be able to feel the handholds as well?” she wondered, but once she felt the chilly face of rock, she opted to wear them.
Once everyone was roped in, they began to climb. Stevens recalls plenty of “chimneys,” gaps between rocks large enough for someone to climb inside, rather than just reach into as with a smaller crack.
Some of the climb is a blur for her. “I wish I could have sat down after each pitch and written a description or something, because I knew I wouldn't be able to remember all of it,” she says. “It was just overall the neatest feeling,” as Baker showed her where to sit on the ledge to belay Deal, while others ahead were on their way to the next pitch.
“It's such a neat feeling of working together,” Stevens says. There were other groups and guides climbing the Grand that day, and all they encountered expressed support for Stevens.
“We got about 15 feet from the top and Ryan says, 'Just one more little pitch to go,'” says Stevens.
When she peeked her head above the last rock, Stevens felt the sun on her face, and thought, “Wow, we really are up here!” In all, it took five hours to reach the top.
Once safely at the summit, Stevens' guides told her, “'Now we can tell you, you're the first totally blind woman who's climbed the Grand,'” she says. “I was like, 'Wow.' That wasn't the reason I did it. I didn't do any research to find that out; I just wanted to do it.”
She didn't have long to celebrate. After a half hour of pictures and a snack break, it was time to start back down.
“You get to the summit, and they say, 'You're only halfway there,'” Stevens says laughing. “I said, 'It doesn't count if I don't make it back.'
“All I could think, honestly, was, 'Can I have some more M&Ms?'”
Rather than be lowered by belay, Stevens preferred climbing back down through chimneys and made it safely through a 120-foot-long rappel.
She was tired and aching, but thinking of the trip down in segments helped her, she says. Back at the campsite, she was able to sneak a short nap.
She longed for more lunch, and soon the group began talking about pizza and all the foods they would eat that night. “We all stayed together.” To pass time, they began singing songs from the musical “Oliver!” including, of course, “Food, Glorious Food.”
They got back to the parking lot at 10:30 p.m., earlier than some groups make it back. Her father was waiting for them.
One of Stevens' favorite things during the Teton trip was when guides would describe the terrain to her as they hiked and climbed. “It's the journey,” she says. “People often say to me, 'Why do you do this stuff? You don't have the reward of getting to the top and being able to see it.' But to me, the cool thing about it was just the teamwork and hearing everybody describe it. Everybody's perspective is just a little bit different.”
“I think she realizes the realities of (blindness), but doesn't really think of them as an impediment,” Burke says. “She doesn't see the obstacles. She just sees the potential.”
Stevens says that she was amazed to learn she was the first blind woman to climb the Grand. “I've done a lot of firsts in my life, and it's kind of fun to do that, but just to show people it can be done.”