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Heidi’s Story: Mountain Climbing

by Heidi Zimmer

I am a third-generation Californian, born in San Diego in 1951. My parents, who were scholars, didn’t have any specific expectations of what their children might become; my mother wanted healthy babies, and my father hoped we would use our minds to make worthwhile contributions to the world. They gave each of their children names from different countries in the hopes that we would have a worldly vision; they named me Heidi, after Johanna Spyri’s classic novel, and the name matches my mountain lifestyle perfectly.

My parents first suspected my deafness when I was several months old; when all the other children my age were babbling I hadn’t even made a first sound. Hoping to find answers, they took me to Dr. Goodhill, a world famous ear specialist, to find out for sure whether or not I was deaf. When the staff came in to deliver the news, a nurse was ready with smelling salts for my mother who already suspected the truth; as the doctor said, I had profound congenital deafness for which nothing could be done. Dr. Goodhill told my parents very simply that they could either run from doctor to doctor trying to find some easy cure, or accept my deafness and start doing their best to educate me and help me live a useful life. They took his advice and set out to encourage and educate me. Determined that I would not be pampered and babied, but that I would become even greater because of my handicap, they wrote this letter to me:

Tempe, Arizona

October 15, 1953

Dear Heidi,

At first it was a real shock for your mother and me to find out what we had feared for several weeks—that you are deaf. One’s beginning thoughts go everywhere except where they ought. The conventional questions always come to mind: Why did this happen to us? Isn’t there something we can do? Surely this is a dream out of which we will awaken. But later on we began to see how real it is and find that we have to adjust to new experiences, some of which we do not really like.

So this letter, Heidi—you have a handicap, but you must not let it stop you from being the kind of person you really ought to be. Almost everybody of real worth has a handicap of some kind or other. Indeed, many truly great people have been deaf. Sure, it makes life more difficult. But don’t ever pity yourself or let other people pity you. Of course your parents’ hearts break for you, but we are not half as broken as are those whose children choose to do what is wrong.

Remember this—it’s not what you face, but how you face it that counts.

With all our love,

Your parents, Dixie Gene and John

Dr. Goodhill recommended that I be taught at home instead of sent away to school. The leading method at the time was oral philosophy, which doesn’t work for all children who are severely-to-profoundly deaf. I was often frustrated in my efforts to communicate. It was only with the strength of character that my parents instilled in me, that I would eventually find the key to my personal growth in sports and eventually in mountaineering.

As a little girl, I was fascinated by the articles in National Geographic about Mount Everest and other mountain cultures, and I fell in love with hiking when my father took me backpacking. This passion only grew as I got older. Later, I attended the School for the Deaf and throughout junior high, high school, and college I played a variety of sports, including volleyball and track and field. I competed in the women’s high jump at the Deaf Olympics in 1969 and 1973, and won the bronze medal in that event at the Yugoslavia Olympics of 1969.

I didn’t have any problems with communication while I was playing sports at the School for the Deaf, but I often bumped into people or poles. My family thought I was a more aggressive player than I really was. It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with Usher syndrome in 1996 that we understood those collisions.

As an adult, I moved to Colorado, adopted a mountain lifestyle, and began training as a mountaineer. As a person with deafblindness, I face plenty of barriers when I’m climbing mountains. One of the toughest challenges for me is talus, the piles of rock fragments at the base of crags or cliffs. Navigating talus makes balance very difficult, especially in the dark. I am also a Telemark skier, which requires much more balance than downhill skiing. Both are deeply challenging, but I love climbing mountains and I love Telemark skiing, so I practice with balance, and I improve a little every time.

With hard work and determination, I became the first person who is deaf and the first person with Usher Syndrome to reach the top of three of the Seven Summits. The Seven Summits are the highest mountains in each of the seven continents. I conquered Denali (also known as Mount McKinley) in Alaska, Mount Elbrus in the Republic of Russia, and Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. My goal is to become the oldest woman ever to climb Mount Everest and the first woman with disabilities to complete all Seven Summits. I also plan to be the first woman with disabilities, the first person who is deaf, and the first climber with Usher Syndrome to climb Mount Everest.

I have a vision that people who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, and deafblind will learn they can do anything that they dream, as my parents taught me. I’m passionate about sharing my experiences, particularly with children and those who are deaf and deafblind, because an active lifestyle is so fulfilling. Young athletes who are deafblind get to celebrate their strengths right when self-esteem is both so vital and so hard to come by. Through my discovery of sports and mountain life, I developed self-esteem and my own identity, which has given me strong mental and physical health throughout my life.

Note: This is an excerpt from the book Possibilities: Recreational Experiences of Individuals who are Deafblind, edited by Lieberman, Haegele, and Marquez.

Table of Contents

Credits, Introduction, and Preface
Rachel Weeks- Triathlon
Maricar Marquez- Running
Kristine D’Arbelles- SSP—Swimming Triathlon
Heidi Zimmer- Mountain Climbing
Cody Colchado- Power Lifting
Corrina Veesart- Ballet, Cheerleading, Rock Climbing, and Yoga
Emily Desfor- SSP—Outdoor Adventures
Kevin Frost- Speed Skating
Ryan Ollis- Running
Faye Frez-Albrecht- Soccer
Quinn Burch- Dance, Horseback Riding, and Running
Nicholas Abrahamson- Hiking the Appalachian Trail
Bruce Visser- Traveling
Jason Corning- Running
Sarah K. McMillen- Ice Hockey and Taekwondo
Angela Theriault- Running
Scott Keeler Bass- Biking
Maria Marquez Dykman- Wind Chimes
Conclusion & References

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