Health & Wellness

Colorado Health & Wellness | Spring 2016

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Health and Wellness Magazine • 61 Thomas climbed to the summit of Mt. Elbert, Colorado's tallest mountain (elevation 14,400 feet). Pictures left: In 2015, Thomas returned to Colorado and, along with his dog, Tennille, completed a through-hike of the 500-mile Colorado Trail. This was the first self-navigated trek of this trail by a blind person and a first through-hike of the trail by a guide dog. ( That sixth sense is one of many unusual tools Thomas employed this summer to become the first blind person to through-hike the 489-mile Colorado Trail from Littleton's Waterton Canyon to Durango. The 42-day journey across eight mountain ranges and 90,000 feet of elevation gain marked the latest in a series of lengthy treks that have helped the University of Colorado graduate emerge from a dark valley he descended into when he learned he was going blind. Now, he's working to attract more blind adventurers into the wild by lobbying for adaptive trails, raising money to train backcountry-savvy guide dogs, and hosting kids' adventure camps through his new foundation: Team FarSight. "Hiking started off as a way for me to get my own life back," says Thomas, who now lives in Charlotte, N.C. "But it has turned into a crusade for independence for blind people." Into The Darkness A decade ago, Thomas was fresh out of law school and planning to take a year off to travel before taking the bar exam. He downhill skied, mountain biked, skydived and raced Porsches. "If there was a high possibility for injury, I did it," Thomas says with a laugh. Then, he began noticing fuzzy halos in his vision at night, eventually prompting a trip to an eye clinic. A doctor took one look at his retinas and gasped. Soon, expanding black holes slowly chewed into Thomas's field of vision, the result of a condition called atypical central serous chorioretinopathy, which destroys light-sensing cells in the retina. Eight hellish months later, he was blind, scared, and profoundly depressed. "When you go blind, everyone starts telling you all the things blind people shouldn't be doing, and that list was getting really long." A friend urged him to attend a talk by Coloradoan Erik Weihenmayer, who in 2001 became the first blind person to climb Mount Everest. Thomas went, begrudgingly, and walked away with a new sense of what was possible. Eighteen months later, he became the first blind person ever to solo through-hike the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail. Then came the 2,654-mile Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada and the 211-mile John Muir Trail from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney, Calif. The Climb Back Up "When you take vision away, you have to rely on every other sense – touch, smell, hearing – so in a sense I think I get a more robust, multidimensional experience," says Thomas, recalling the pain from falls, the warmth of the sun on his face, and the burn in his lungs as examples. After a failed attempt in 2011, Thomas set out to take on the technically daunting Colorado Trail again on June 19, equipped with an array of high-tech tools to keep him safe. He carried a GPS-embedded Spot Tracker, which monitored his movement and sent updates to friends via text and email, and he brought a satellite phone for emergencies. Friend and volunteer expedition coordinator Laine Walter spent months scouring topo maps and guide books before loading painstakingly detailed, mile-by-mile instructions for Thomas into his talking iPhone. But he says the low-tech tools were equally important. He kept track of his cadence and pace to know when he should expect to arrive at certain milestones – a big boulder, a signpost, a stream crossing. He used echolocation to determine when he was entering a forest (where the sound is more muted) or climbing above timberline (where his voice echoed wide and far). And due to one oddly beneficial side-effect of the disease that took his sight – an inability to regulate pressure in his eyes – he used them to predict the weather. His most critical tool, he stresses, was his 5-year- old guide dog, Tennille, who would warn him of an approaching snow field, low-hanging branch, or treacherous drop-off. On Day 29, when a rogue hail and lightning storm snuck up on him while he traversed a stretch above timberline in the San Juan Mountains, he had no choice but to leave the trail and run for cover in the forest below. Once the clouds parted, his black Labrador led him back to his route. Weihenmayer, who also lost his vision in adulthood, says he remembers Thomas had a familiar darkness about him when they met all those years ago. Today, he sees him as a "pioneer," raising the ceiling on what's possible for blind hikers. "He has pushed the envelope more than anyone else in that category." But Thomas hopes his example will transcend far beyond the trail, influencing what happens in the workplace and in schools for the blind, whose unemployment rate still hovers around 80 percent. Thomas blames people's outdated expectations of what the blind can do for the bleak rate, citing a recent compliment for going grocery- shopping by himself from a fellow shopper. "The reality is, blindness is not the life-ending injury or illness people think it is," he says. "I hike to give people hope." For more information, visit "When you take vision away, you have to rely on every other sense – touch, smell, hearing – so in a sense I think I get a more robust, multidimensional experience."

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