There are adventurers and there are elite athletes. Steve Bate is both. But his eyesight is so poor that he’s not allowed to drive. Rather than slowing him down, his condition has made him more determined than ever to conquer some of the toughest challenges out there.
From rock bottom to the top of El Cap…
A Kiwi man living in Scotland, Steve Bate left behind his carpentry career when he was 29 to pursue his passion for climbing. “I wanted a rich life, not money,” Steve says. But a few years later, he was diagnosed with retinosa pigmentosa. Put simply, he was – and had been for some while – losing his sight. “I’d be up the mountains with friends, walking at dusk and I’d start tripping over things. In the dark, I was pretty much blind.” Steve was registered visually impaired and his driving licence was taken away from him. For a fiercely independent person, it was devastating news: “I hit rock bottom. I was told I could go blind in five years. It was a huge blow. I thought my life was over.”
'After my diagnosis, I hit rock bottom. I was told I could go blind in five years. It was a huge blow. I thought my life was over.'
It was Steve’s great friend Karen Darke – who had been paralysed from the chest down after falling off a cliff – who gave him confidence that his life of adventure wasn’t over. A British Para-cyclist herself, her reaction to his condition was unexpected: “Great! You can ride on the back of a tandem and ride for GB. Come and train with us in Mallorca.” In Steve’s words, “she gave me a kick in the pants.”
Steve’s condition affects his peripheral vision. Whereas a person with good eyesight has a field of vision like a basketball, Steve’s is closer to a golf ball. But within that golf ball it’s very clear – like tunnel vision. Steve says, “I just thought: I am still capable and just cracked on.”
'I have this condition, but I am still me and I can still push boundaries. For anyone to solo El Cap is an amazing achievement… to be the first visually impaired person to climb it – I am super proud of that.'
But before he took on trialling for Rio, Steve became the first visually impaired person to solo El Capitan in Yosemite. He says, “I went to prove something to myself and to my friends. Yes, I have this condition, but I am still me and I can still push boundaries. For anyone to solo El Cap is an amazing achievement. It’s so intense. You can’t make a mistake or relax. And to be the first visually impaired person to climb it – I am super proud of that.”
The power of adventure…
Steve’s climbing achievements are indeed awe-inspiring, but it’s his outdoor charity work in Scotland with disadvantaged kids that he’s also hugely proud of: “A group of lads would rock up – all alcohol abusers, drug abusers, probably bunking off school. All had big, macho egos. Yet you take them into the outdoors in hostile environments, into rivers, hanging off cliffs, and you’d see the layers peel back. You see these aggressive people be 13-14-year-old kids again. It was amazing to see them open up.”
Steve quickly learnt that the power of adventure could be a force for good for troubled adolescents. He says, “I learnt how powerful taking people into the outdoors could be. When I found out some of the stuff these kids went through, I’m not surprised they were angry. But out climbing, they could be vulnerable and act their age.”
The road to Rio…
He has spent years helping others, but then it was time for Steve to focus on himself – or rather, training to be accepted as a Para-cyclist for Rio. It was his love of climbing and then soloing El Cap that made Steve aware of what he could accomplish physically if he put his mind to it. But it wasn’t an easy decision to leave climbing behind: “Hanging onto rock faces is my true passion. I had everything I wanted in climbing. But then there’s the allure of the Olympic Games. That doesn’t come around for most people – I’d be mad to have passed that up.” As a then 35-year-old man, who wasn’t an elite athlete, Steve grabbed hold of his biggest adventure yet and started training for the ultimate physical challenge.
'Hanging onto rock faces is my true passion. But then there’s the allure of the Olympic Games…it’s the ultimate test.'
In September, Steve will be part of GB’s cycling team at the Rio Paralympics in the 4km Pursuit, the Time Trial and Road Race. Describing himself as naturally “skinny and weak”Steve’s preparation for Rio is exhausting: he’s burning off 4,500-6,000 calories a day, and training 20-30 hours on a bike each week – including rigorous gym sessions. Of course, he’s hoping for a place on the podium. But, not satisfied with that, Steve is planning an adventure cycle tour of the dirt highway, the ‘Carretera Austral,’ in Patagonia later this year. And there’s also talk of a 150km Arctic back race in Finland next year.
For further information on Steve Bate, please visit: http://kiwistevebate.com/blog