TSUKUBA, IBARAKI PREF. – Unlike many free climbers, Koichiro Kobayashi does not consider the view from the top to be the highlight of scaling a cliff.
Unable to enjoy such vistas due to a severe visual impairment, Kobayashi, 46, feels a sense of achievement from completing a task that would be challenging even to those with perfect vision.
An enthusiastic climber from the age of 16, Kobayashi completed several major climbs overseas after starting university.
After finishing school, he worked as a canoeing guide at an outdoor sports company and climbed every weekend.
But his future suddenly looked hopeless when a doctor informed him he was suffering from an inherited, degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa which would eventually leave him blind.
That was at age 28. Since then, Kobayashi has been losing his eyesight little by little and now can only sense light.
For the next three years after being diagnosed, Kobayashi forgot about free climbing and focused on concerns about his future.
When he was 31, however, he met a caseworker who encouraged him to take the sport up again, saying, “It is important to think what you want to do in the future, not what you can’t.”
Kobayashi said one thing he realized, suffering from the eye disease, is that “people first look at my white cane and talk to my helper, not me.”
That recurring experience left him feeling like he was being isolated from society, tormented by a sense of humiliation and loneliness.
“I want people to look straight at handicapped people and turn their attention to our potential,” he said.
With the hope of creating a society where various groups of people can live actively without being worried about their handicaps, in 2005 he established a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization called Monkey Magic that promotes free climbing among those with visual impairment.
He also opened a climbing gym in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, in March.
But he has kept chasing his dream as a climber, and won a world championship in an event for visually impaired climbers in 2011.
“My future goal is to stand on the top of a 1,000-meter rock in the Yosemite National Park in the United States,” he said.