Taking on the tallest mountain in the world

Mar 29, 2023 | Front Page

Lori Semeniuk, Hugh Bialecki and Jeff Rigney are about to set off on the adventure of a lifetime. (Photo: Mary-Justine Lanyon)
By Mary-Justine Lanyon

On April 2, mountain residents Jeff Rigney, Lori Semeniuk and Hugh Bialecki will set off on the adventure of a lifetime.

They are flying first to Kathmandu in Nepal, where they will check their gear and pack for the trek from Lukla to the Everest base camp. After flying to Lukla, they will join the group from Sightless Summits and begin the nearly 40-mile trek that goes from 9,200 feet to an elevation of 17,500 feet. That journey will begin on April 6.

What is Sightless Summits? It is a nonprofit organization with the mission “to inspire and serve disabled veterans through project-based adventures.”

In 2022, Sightless Summits took Lonnie Bedwell – a blind U.S. veteran – to the top of Mt. Denali with a six-man climbing team.

Bedwell will be at the center of the Everest trek. After the group of 15 reaches base camp, Bedwell – accompanied by guides Michael Neal and Bryan Hill – will begin the climb to the top of the world’s tallest mountain at 29,031 feet. The rest of the group will retrace their steps to Lukla.

As for how the three mountain residents became involved, Rigney said he has known Hill for a couple of years as his daughter, Seanie, is dating Hill.

“I had no choice but to go,” Rigney said. “Seanie is in nursing school and couldn’t go. She said, ‘Dad, you have to go.’ Bryan’s parents are going as well.”

Bialecki said going to Mt. Everest has been on his bucket list for years. He and Rigney have been friends for years so it was only natural for Rigney to invite Bialecki and Semeniuk to join him.

“When Hugh was younger,” Semeniuk, his wife, noted, “he wanted to go up Everest. At least he’s not doing that!”

Rigney said the trek from Lukla to the Everest base camp should take nine days. Along the way they will be staying in tea houses, little guest inns. The trek back should only take three days as it will be downhill. “We’ll walk about nine miles a day with 12 miles the last day,” he said.

“Base camp is like a city,” Semeniuk said, “with tents, excellent food, a movie theater. They have to fly in and construct it every year.”

“This trip is really about Lonnie,” Rigney said. “They have to get a permit to summit and wait for the weather window. They may not summit until June.”

nepal lonnie bedwell

Lonnie Bedwell – a blind athlete – will attempt to summit both Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, and Mt. Lhotse, the fourth tallest. (Contributed photo)


Lonnie Bedwell, who lives in Indiana, is a retired Navy petty officer. He was made instantly blind in a hunting accident in 1997.

“He was depressed after the accident,” Semeniuk said. “His then 5-year-old daughter took him by the hand and took him outside to mow the lawn. Then he started doing other things.”

Those other things have included kayaking some of the most challenging whitewater in the world. He has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and summited some of North America’s highest mountains, including Mt. Denali. He is an avid downhill skier and a motivational speaker.

Bedwell’s mission is “to motivate and inspire others to embrace life with confidence and courage, no matter what challenges they face.” He is dedicated to helping veterans and others enjoy full lives.

nepal lonnie bedwell 2

Lonnie Bedwell has already climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and summited Denali. (Contributed photo)

Bialecki and Semeniuk had the opportunity to meet Bedwell at a climbing gym in Santa Cruz, where they also have a home and where Hill lives. “He was talking about the trip and his background,” Semeniuk said.

Hill and Neal are both avid outdoor enthusiasts, both having climbed major peaks around the world.

Summiting Everest is not a big enough goal for Bedwell and his guides. If he is successful, Bedwell with be the fourth blind person to summit Everest. But the team then plans to summit Mt. Lhotse, the world’s fourth-highest mountain. If Bedwell accomplishes that, he will be the first blind person to climb both mountains.

Neal told a Portland TV station that he and Bedwell met after Neal heard about a blind man who planned to climb a mountain in Argentina. “I thought, ‘It’s impossible for a blind man to do this.’” That led to the two men becoming best friends and forming Sightless Summits with Bryan Hill. “Together we just try to do fun stuff,” Neal said.

“He’s just an amazing individual, but what’s most amazing about Lonnie is he spends the bulk of his time helping and assisting directly other blind veterans. And it is, for me, super meaningful to be a small part of his impact in that community,” Neal said.

Bedwell was named the 2015 Adventurer of the Year by National Geographic.

Bedwell told The Alpine Mountaineer, when asked if he was getting excited about the Everest trip, that he is trying to stay neutral, to not get “too hyped up.”

He does get some verbal commands from his guides as they climb, Bedwell said, but at other times he gets no commands. “I listen to their footsteps and follow the sound,” he said. There are times when he’ll be stepping over a crevasse. The guides will talk him through it. He sticks his trekking pole into the crevasse, feeling for the edge and sliding the pole a little more forward.

Sometimes Bedwell and his guide will wear headsets so he can better hear any directions when it’s windy.

“They really let me do an awful lot of it on my own,” Bedwell said. “I feel with my hands and feet and trekking poles. A big part of the guide’s job is to encourage me to keep going – to say, ‘You’ve got this!’ It’s definitely challenging.”

Bedwell noted he breaks a massive mountain down into small bits. “I’ll say climb to that rock, that bend, that point. Once I get there, then I go on to the next point.”

As the air gets thinner, Bedwell said, and the climb gets steeper, it’s harder to sleep and harder to force yourself to eat and drink, which you need to do. “You have to tell yourself to get some fuel. It’s hard to do even when you know you have to.”

On his Denali climb, Bedwell said, his feet broke through an ice bridge that went across a crevasse. The leader of a team coming down the mountain reached out and grabbed his arms to help Bedwell pull himself up. “When he realized I was blind,” Bedwell said, “he told me I should go back down.”

A climb like summiting Everest is as mentally exhausting for Bedwell as it is physically. “A sighted person can see where to put his foot or hand. I can’t so I’m trying to decide if it’s a good foot hold, if I can commit to it. I’m listening to everything that’s being said. Mountaineering is a mentally challenging thing anyway. I can seldom just relax and take a step.”

The Sightless Summits team is giving itself a 50-day window to summit Everest. The shortest amount of time, with perfect conditions, would be 35 days. From base camp, they will do a series of acclimation climbs, taking gear up, then dropping back down. They will start wearing oxygen at 24,000 feet.

“I never thought I would do this,” Bedwell said. “It wasn’t on my radar.” He got a call from Neal when he summited Everest a couple of years ago. “He asked me about climbing it with him.” Then Bedwell got a call from the Blind Veterans Association, asking to join him the next time he did something big.

“I said to myself, ‘OK, it’s meant for me to go do this.’”

nepal lonnie bedwell 3

Extreme athlete Lonnie Bedwell has kayaked some of the most challenging whitewater in the world. He completed the first blind descent of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. (Contributed photo)

Whether he is whitewater kayaking, vertical rock climbing or summiting a massive mountain, Bedwell said he pushes himself in all these things. “I want to encourage other disabled veterans,” he said. “We can overcome things, get past it, do much more than we think we can do or what others think we can do. We should all live the best life we can.”

The accident that left him blind ended his military career, Bedwell noted, “but I consider this my next duty assignment. I want to create opportunities for other disabled veterans. I have been blessed with opportunities beyond belief.”

Follow the Everest adventure on the Sightless Summits website, www.sightlesssummits.com.


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