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One woman’s quest to stand on top of the world
In 2009, EMT and Army veteran Shawn Cheshire got knocked down while attending to a combative patient. Over the next two years, the resulting brain injury left her completely blind. She tried to kill herself twice in those first dark years. Now she’s trying to climb Everest and Lhotse back to back.
If she succeeds, she will be the first blind woman to climb Everest, and the first blind person to summit Everest and Lhotse back to back. Cheshire has never held an ice axe or been above 14,000 feet, but her climbing partner Remy Kloos isn’t worried. “Everest and Lhotse are easier than some of the adventures she’s done,” explains Kloos.
But why would a blind woman want to stand on top of the world? For Cheshire, it’s all about mental health and self-care. “Every morning when I wake up I’m sad,” she admits. “I don’t like not being able to see, it makes life harder. It’s really lonely. But if I push myself and continue to do things I didn’t know I could do, that holds the sadness at bay and keeps it from being so soul-sucking.”
At first, the sadness was soul-sucking; once she accepted losing her eyesight, she didn’t leave the house for six weeks. “In the beginning I couldn’t fathom ever being OK with being blind,” Cheshire explains. “My whole quality of life, any chance of happiness, joy, or new experiences, all left with my vision. I was pretty much hopeless.”
“I had a choice to make,” she continues after a long pause. “I could either choose to see the possibilities, make the possibilities, discover the possibilities or I was going to kill myself.”
Physical exercise and a dedicated crew helped her through those first difficult months. “When I didn’t believe in myself, I was surrounded by people who did at the VA,” Cheshire recalls. “They kept pushing me to try different activities.”
First she tried running. Her mobility teacher, Katie, brought her to an event sponsored by Team Red, White and Blue, a non-profit dedicated to improving veterans’ health as they re-enter civilian life. “She literally walked up to the group, introduced me and asked who wanted to be my guide.” A woman named Chrissy Quijano stepped up and they ran four miles together. A month later Cheshire completed the hilly ten-mile Mountain Goat race.
Folks from team Red, White and Blue convinced her to go to the VA Palo Alto Polytrauma and Blind Rehabilitation Center. At 174,000 square feet, it’s the largest rehab center administered by the federal government, and offers wraparound services ranging from occupational and physical therapy to life skills. “There are a lot of VA rehab clinics around the country, but Palo Alto is the only place where they have a unit specific to vision loss from TBI [traumatic brain injury],” explains Cheshire.
“Most people lose their vision from birth or a degenerative eye disease. I’m part of a small percentage of people who lose their vision from TBI,” says Cheshire. “It felt really good to be some place where I didn’t feel like a freak of nature. They created a safe space, and allowed me to be who I am. My time there was transformative.”
Specifically, it transformed her into a world-class adventure athlete. A recreational therapist noticed she was spending hours every day on a treadmill and reached out to someone from the US Association for Blind Athletes. “On graduation day I stood up in front of the whole class and said ‘One day I’m going to be a Paralympic athlete,’” Cheshire says with a laugh. “Less than a year after graduation I was racing in a World Cup and won a bronze medal in a road race!”
“I started cycling competitively all because a boy told me I couldn’t do it,” Cheshire laughs. Though she’d never ridden a bike as a sighted person, she attended a cycling camp in Colorado Springs where staff for the US Paralympic team came to scope out new talent. “When I learned that the Rio games were less than four years away, I was like ‘Oh, I can do this,’” Cheshire explains.
One of the coaches told her it takes five years and 10,000 hours of practice to get ready for the Paralympics. “I refused to believe him that I couldn’t do it. When people say I can’t do something I become even more determined,” Cheshire recalls. “Within three months of first riding a tandem bike I was racing with Team USA. It gave me something to work towards. I found my competitive spirit.”
When she wanted to ride her own bike people told her it wasn’t possible. She rode 3,600 miles from Oregon to Virginia to prove them wrong. Last summer she mountain biked the Tour Divide, a 2,700 mile long singletrack race that follows the spine of the Rockies from Canada to Mexico.
“If I was a sighted person I would have trained by bikepacking a bunch. But I probably went on four mountain bike rides before I did the Tour Divide, and each of those rides was ten miles or less. Then I got on a bike and did one of the hardest rides in the country,” Cheshire explains. “I feel like this is where we limit ourselves, people say if I don’t train this much and do this particular thing I’m never going to be successful. I just go and say we’re going to do it. We’ll figure it out as we go.”
“I just got really tired of people telling me what I can and can’t do because I’m blind,” she says with a sigh. “Now when I hear that I think ‘How can I do this thing?’ That makes my life about rising to challenges instead of accepting limitations.”
“Biking the Tour Divide is the most incredible, epic, challenging thing a blind person has ever done,” explains Lonnie Bedwell, the first blind person to kayak 226 miles through the Grand Canyon and a National Geographic’s 2015 Adventurer of the Year. “It’s so physically demanding and then you add not being able to see it, Shawn is incredible.”
Which helps explain why she’s got such an incredible climbing partner. Kloos is the first South African to climb Everest and Lhotse back to back. She climbed Kilimanjaro in 2016 to bring herself out of a debilitating depression, and is steadily ticking off the Seven Summits. She’s excited to help Cheshire reach new heights. “My goal is to communicate the beauty of what we are seeing. There’s a higher power up there and I want Shawn to experience that,” explains Kloos. “I believe the summit is for the ego, but the journey is for the soul. Soul food creates meaning in our lives.”
Cheshire finds meaning in her life not only from pushing herself but from serving others. Her nonprofit, Choosing To See, raises money for the blind and visually impaired community. “I want people to be able to do things, even if they can’t see. Blind people don’t make a lot of money, but our quality of life depends on being able to do things, and that requires money. I don’t ever charge anyone to tell my story, I ask them to donate to my nonprofit or another nonprofit that helps others,” she explains. “If I ever get so busy that I can’t make time to talk to another blind person and help them out, I tell my friends to please kick me in the crotch.”
You can help Cheshire make history through donations to Choosing to See at choosingtosee.org, and follow her story on Instagram @shawn_cheshire.
Main image: Cheshire bikes past the Grand Tetons on her trans America ride. Photo: Gina LeVay
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 9-8-8. The lifeline is free, confidential and always available.
Read other articles by Leonie Sherman here.