Blind adventurer refuses to accept limits

Man who is an inspiration to others says he's just an ordinary guy


Blind adventurer Miles Hilton-Barber has climbed both Mount Kilimanjaro and Mont Blanc, completed an 11-day marathon across China and crossed Qatar’s desert on foot without any sleep — all within the last seven years.

The 58-year-old Zimbabwe native, who began losing his sight due to a hereditary disease when he was 21, has also completed a half marathon in snow-covered Siberia and holds the world record for being the first blind person to fly across the English Channel in a microlight aircraft.

“I’m just an ordinary man,” Hilton-Barber, who was in Japan earlier this month to promote Seeing is Believing, a campaign to aid curable blindness, said in humbly describing himself.

But despite being completely blind for nearly 30 years, the adventurer has led a life that epitomizes many of his firm beliefs — that one’s fate is defined not by circumstances but by one’s response to them, and that “one’s attitude to life is what ultimately determines its altitude.”

“I am happier and more successful than when I could see,” he said, reporting cheerfully that he expects the campaign to have soon raised $10 million, or about ¥1.14 billion.

Hilton-Barber, who went completely blind when he was 30, had aspired while growing up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to become an air force pilot. But after being diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa he gave up his dream and took a job in the pharmaceutical business.

As his loss of sight became severe, he moved to England to become an employment consultant for the blind.

He felt a victim.

“Until about 12 years ago, I was afraid of walking 400 meters to a local supermarket to buy a loaf of bread,” he said.

But it was his older brother, Geoff, who compelled him to change his attitude.

His brother, who had lost his sight to the same disease, had succeeded in sailing solo on a yacht from South Africa to Australia in 1998. He hinted to Hilton-Barber that one should not become the victim of his circumstances and pursue one’s dreams despite the obstacles.

Hilton-Barber was quick to respond to the advice. After learning that pilots often trained to fly blind, only relying on instruments, he searched the Internet for a speech output system for airplanes. Sales of blind apparatus for blind pilots was a niche market, he joked, but he soon came across the required equipment and a copilot to assist him on his voyage.

Once in flight in the open-air cockpit, he claims he enjoyed the scenery even without sight — because he could smell what was growing in the fields below.

The adventurer has also gone on a variety of expeditions, including diving at the coral reefs of the Red Sea in Egypt, and setting the lap record for a blind driver at the Malaysian Grand Prix Circuit. One of the most unique experiences, he said, was trekking over 400 km across Antarctica.

“When the wind stops blowing, there is absolute silence. The only thing you hear is the sound of your blood pumping, the sound of your heart. It’s like being on an ice planet at another part of the universe,” he explained. Whether behind the wheel, running marathons or trekking over vast sheets of ice, Hilton-Barber is accompanied by sighted helpers who sometimes offer visual guidance.

Most recently, between March and May, the adventurer completed a bold, 250-hour flight from London to Sydney in a microlight aircraft, accompanied by copilots. The project was an effort to raise awareness for the Seeing is Believing charity program that aims to alleviate curable blindness worldwide.

“It only takes about ¥2,800 to ¥3,400 to help a child born with a cataract to have it removed,” the adventurer said, adding that the condition of 75 percent of the 37 million people worldwide without sight can be cured.

The charity program, organized by Standard and Chartered Bank, of the U.K., has been a success, Christopher Domitter of the bank’s Tokyo branch added. The community investment program, which began in 2003, is well ahead of its schedule — the bank set a goal to raise $10 million, or ¥1.14 billion, by 2010, and that mark is already close to being achieved.

“A part of the success is that Miles helped the program a lot,” said Domitter, acknowledging the effect the adventurer’s expeditions had on raising awareness of the issue. “Because of Miles, we can do this.”

Today, Hilton-Barber works as a motivational speaker around the world when he is not at home training for his next adventure. He has visited over 30 countries this year alone as a motivational speaker, helping to inspire others to overcome their problems in life.

Ironically, he believes that if he hadn’t gone totally blind, he probably would have stuck with his job in pharmaceuticals or sales for the rest of his life — never learning that the only limits are the ones he chose to accept.

“The wind doesn’t determine where a boat goes,” he said. “It’s the sail that does.”