Print Edition - 2015-04-11  |  On Saturday

Raging against the dying of light

  • When the doctor let the hammer fall and announced that there was no cure, Sorgato did what hopeless people do: look for a miracle. To avoid losing his mind, to appreciate the difference between sight and vision, Sorgato then turned to his old passion of t
- Malati
Raging against the dying of light

Apr 10, 2015-

Before he was diagnosed with retinitus pigmentosa, a genetic disorder that makes a person go slowly blind, Dario Sorgato thought that his stumbling around was just clumsy, not that he was losing his peripheral vision. He was fresh into university when the doctor said that he had a degenerative disease that would not allow him to become an industrial designer. Sorgato was horrified. He had already lost his sense of hearing when he was a toddler and now he was going blind as well.

When the doctor let the hammer fall and announced that there was no cure, Sorgato did what hopeless people do: look for a miracle. He was so desperate he allowed a doctor in Italy to insert needles into his eye balls. The needles carried oxygen to stop the photoreceptors from dying, but the experimental therapy did not work. Photoreceptors are like neurons; once they are dead, they cannot be replaced. To avoid losing his mind, to appreciate the difference between sight and vision, Sorgato then turned to his old passion of travelling.

Now 36 years old, Sorgato describes his blindness as walking with two rolls of toilet paper in front of his eyes. When and if there is light, he has a limited field of vision, called tunnel vision, in which the sharpness is not affected, but depth perception is. When the night falls or if an area or a room is poorly lit, it’s as if he has closed his eyes. He has to then rely on his spatial memory to navigate the world around him. That’s how he travelled around the sea as a deckhand for two years, before deciding to trek to the Everest Base Camp in mid-March.

Like most travel fanatics, Sorgato succumbed to the stories of the high mountains in the Himalayas. A friend who had trekked in Nepal five times transferred the love of Everest in him. If he could not scale Mount Everest, he had to now see it while he could; it would be an achievement in itself. Sorgato started to prepare for the trek, by joining a fitness centre, by talking to a doctor about his illness and the risks the high altitude posed, and by giving up cigarettes.

What Sorgato could not prepare for were the hallmarks of the trekking routes in Nepal, the low-altitude mountains with trees, and the cobble-stoned stairs. Up until Namche Bazaar, trees are a delight to walk past, but the shadows they cast alongside the light they let in confused Sorgato. It takes him longer to adjust to different kinds of light and thus every time he emerged from a shadow, he had to wait before carrying on. With the cobbled stairs, Sorgato could not discern where one stair ended and the other began. Walking downhill, especially, was a constant process of falling and catching himself. And at daybreak, when there would not be enough light for him to see, he had to turn on a flashlight tied around his head and follow his guide’s footsteps, literally. He also could not walk and enjoy the scenery at the same time. But when he reached Everest Base Camp, he says he cried.

Sortago admits that travelling has been his escape. If it were not seeing new places, it would have been drugs, he says, but what made him admit it this time and let it go is unclear to him.

It could have been the sight of Everest, the sheer exhaustion, or it could have just been a turning point in the long battle he had been waging against himself since he was diagnosed with the genetic disease. But Sortago feels that life is no longer just about sight.

His guide, Dilman Ghale, understands the drive the noticeably disabled feel while trekking around the Everest region. If they see a ‘normal’ person up a certain hill, they ask to be taken there as well, he says. It’s their desire to feel ‘normal’, to show people that they too can accomplish what ‘able’ people can. And for a lot of people, Everest is the height of adventure, the ultimate test of ability. Once, Ghale guided a man with a short-term memory loss. The man would time and again get startled at the sight of the guide. At one point he even called the trekking agency and told them that a man he had never seen before—Ghale—was trying to rob him.

But what’s normal? Who wouldn’t, if they could, trek to the Everest region or scale the mountain itself? Photographs littered on the Internet falsely suggest that trekking is all about the view, but the trekkers know that there is more to it than meets the eye.

Published: 11-04-2015 08:53

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