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Climbing while blind: How this 79-year-old rock climber sees nature through her fingertips

Myra Rodrigues lost her sight as a young child. But that hasn't stopped her from taking up rock-climbing in her 70s, and encouraging other people with vision loss to do the same.

Myra Rodrigues' hands are how she sees the world

Myra Rodrigues wears an orange helmet and is attached to a rope as she scales a large rock wall. Another climber above her assists her in climbing.
Myra Rodrigues lost her vision as a child, but that hasn't stopped her from taking up rock-climbing in her 70s. (Myra Rodrigues)

This segement originally aired in February 2022. 

Myra Rodrigues' hands are how she sees the world. "My hands are my eyes. I rely on touch to do everything, really."

Diagnosed with infant glaucoma at the age of three, Rodrigues has been almost completely blind since she was a young child. 

Now 79, Rodrigues navigates her life, living alone in her Toronto home, with little vision. 

"I can see brightness in windows," she says. "I see a shadow. [But] I don't see colours anymore and I don't have any detailed vision, that's for sure." 

Rodrigues' trust in her touch ability led her to the sport of rock climbing.

Myra Rodrigues, in a yellow helmet and gray sweater, talks to two other women in climbing gear nearby. Around them are ropes and other climbing equipment.
Myra is so hooked on climbing, she started a club to encourage other people with vision loss to take up the sport. (Myra Rodrigues)

In 2018, she was invited to join an outdoor climb held by the Canadian Adaptive Climbing Societya non-profit organization that makes rock climbing accessible for individuals living with sensory and physical barriers. 

That first climb at Metcalfe Rock, outside of Collingwood, Ontario was an experience Rodrigues will never forget. 

"I was so excited because I found that climbing can be very tactile," she says. "You're feeling the rock with your hands, with your fingers. You're finding those little crevices where you can put your fingers in to hold on."

The first thing I experienced by touch is the coolness of the rock face...and that always gives me a thrill. Oh, how can I climb this? Where are there little crevices where I can get my fingers into? To lift myself up, climb up. So that's how it starts.- Myra Rodrigues

Rock climbing, for Rodrigues, opens up another way to experience nature. Her highly developed sense of touch, which she has strengthened over a lifetime of reading braille and navigating day-to-day life, helps her be in nature in a new way. 

"You have a way of enjoying the landscape without seeing it," she says. "So you can feel the air currents are different. The sounds of birds and so on are different. And it's such a feeling of gratitude when you, when you reach, you say, oh, I'm at the top."

Creating community through climbing

Myra Rodrigues, on right, holds hands with another rock climber, on left. Myra smiles as they talk about rock climbing. Both are wearing harnesses, helmets and climbing gloves.
Rodrigues says rock climbing gives her an opportunity to bring people together - many of whom have never tried rock climbing before. (Myra Rodrigues)

Rodrigues is so hooked on climbing, she decided to start a club to encourage people with vision loss to take up the sport.  In 2019, she started CCB Rocks, as a new club within the Canadian Council of the Blind. Their mission is to introduce members to climbing, regardless of experience or fitness levels. The club meets for indoor climbs and were starting to plan outdoor climbs before COVID derailed those plans. 

The club is currently fundraising for a climbing trip to a new climbing wall at CNIB Lake Joseph Vacation Centre, and an outdoor adventure in warmer temperatures once pandemic restrictions ease. 

"Rock climbing has really meant a lot to me," she says. Not only has it given her a new opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, it's helped build confidence and create a community. 

"Many of them have never tried it. And it's a thrill just to have a group there that says, 'Oh, I don't know if I can do that.' And then they try a little bit, and they might try again, [it] might take them two or three times before they get up off the floor. And some of them reach the top. The success, the enthusiasm of the people who have joined CCB Rocks...that's a great joy to me."

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