What does it take to climb Mount Kilimanjaro when you’re blind?
Nick Claudio stood on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in January with a surreal feeling in the pit of his stomach. The cold air smelled like ash, and after seven days of climbing, his legs were numb. A thick fog surrounded the tip of the Tanzanian giant 19,340 feet up, blocking the incredible view from sight.
It didn’t make a difference to Claudio — the 18-year-old Marion resident has been blind since he was 9 years old.
Claudio suddenly lost his sight in 2010 when a previously undiagnosed brain cancer crushed his optic nerve. The orange-sized tumor was surgically removed. Claudio learned braille quickly and stayed relatively involved in school and activities.
Two years later, three additional tumors were found in Claudio’s brain. He was referred to Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center for aggressive treatment, including seven rounds of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation.
While he was hospitalized, Claudio and his family met Jason Sissel, CEO of Endure to Cure . The nonprofit provides support services and financial assistance to children undergoing cancer treatment and their families. Sissel, who founded the organization after growing weary of his career on Wall Street, was impressed by Claudio’s attitude.
“He’s blind, and he still does all this amazing stuff, like water skiing and rock climbing,” Sissel said. “I asked him ‘What drives you?’ and he said ‘Well, I don’t want cancer to rule my life.’ ”
Sissel, an adventurer himself, brought Claudio a piece of volcanic rock from the first time he scaled Mount Kilimanjaro. He promised that if Claudio beat cancer, they would climb the mountain together.
Claudio kept the lava rock on the headboard behind his bed for years, where it served as a reminder of a hopeful future. When he was declared cancer-free in 2017, Sissel and Claudio reconnected and began to plan their odyssey.
Claudio — now a freshman at Boston College — trained sporadically for the climb, but his workout schedule picked up momentum in the few months before the trip. He and Sissel were accompanied by three other climbers on the trek up Kilimanjaro, including Zech Mooney, Claudio’s longtime best friend. Expert climbers from Tusker Trail led the group up the mountain.
The outfitters estimated 35,000 start out each year, but only 40 percent actually make it to the top. Although Claudio was determined and in good shape, he and his group knew they would have to be creative to get to the peak successfully.
They began by dragging a hiking pole behind them, the sound of which Claudio would follow. Depending on how the stick sounded along the ground, he could tell whether the landscape was rocky or flat. Once the terrain got rougher, they realized the best strategy was to have Claudio hold on to the side of someone else’s pack and walk with them.
“He could tell where they were stepping. We would supplement that with verbal cues,” Sissel said. “‘Hey, there are two big rocks here with a small gap in between, you have to walk one foot in front of the other.’”
Claudio takes pride in his physical abilities, describing himself as quick on his feet and vigilant, but there were still hurdles to overcome on the mountain. On the fourth day, the trail sloped down before switching back up. The terrain was steep, rocky, narrow, and icy.
“For a good portion of that climb, some of the Tusker guys had me ride on their backs, piggyback style,” Claudio said. “I understood, but I didn’t like it because it made me feel like I wasn’t doing it. It made me feel kind of alienated.”
Sissel and Claudio agreed the next day was the one that would make or break the climb. They had reached the Barranco Wall, a looming cliff that takes about an hour or two to scale. Claudio described it as the portion of the hike most similar to actual rock climbing.
As they approached the wall, Claudio was holding on to the pack of one of the best climbers in the group. He said they were “literally running up the collection of rocks.” That was the day he finally felt like the guides began to take his physical skills seriously. Up until that point, he thought they were overprotective because of his lack of sight.
“For him to conquer the next day with so much strength, it’s almost like a flower that has experienced so much bad weather, hasn’t gotten water, but then blooms,” Sissel said.
The magnitude of his achievement didn’t hit Claudio until he lay down the first night after reaching the peak. His best friend, Mooney, was nearby in his own sleeping bag, enthralled with his Game Boy.
“I rolled over, and I looked at Zech. I said ‘Oh my God, we made it to the top,’ ” Claudio said. “He just said ‘Yep,’ and then he fell asleep.”