The Pole PositionA lot of people hike with hiking poles. Mike Armstrong can't hike without them. Having lost his sight at age 27, that's the only way he can hit the trail. But don't feel sorry for him; his disability has empowered him to tackle feats most sighted athletes only talk about — like hiking the 800-mile Arizona Trail.
By Kathy Ritchie
A slightly hunched Mike Armstrong cautiously plants his right foot on the rocky trail that leads to the summit of Piestewa Peak (right). With his foot set and secure, he carefully steps down with the other foot, using his two trekking poles to gauge the mountainous terrain. Directly ahead of Armstrong is another hiker with a bear bell attached to his backpack. The bell rings and, at the same time, the man guides Armstrong in the right direction: "Step left, big step, steep drop on the right."
To unsuspecting hikers, Armstrong is just another climber with trekking poles — and bad posture — and the man in front of him, obviously terrified of bears, is a guy who likes to talk to himself.
Finally, someone says something: "Why are you wearing a bell? There are no bears around here."
Both men stop. "Dude, I'm blind," Armstrong says matter-of-factly. "The bell tells me which way to go."
First comes the profuse apology, then the praise: "Oh, man, you're an inspiration."
At 42, Armstrong has overcome tragedy and adversity, and his disability has empowered him to tackle feats most sighted athletes only talk about — like hiking the 800-mile Arizona Trail.
But that's another story.
Born legally blind, Armstrong wore corrective lenses to compensate for his poor vision, the result of nondiabetic retinopathy, a disease that damages the blood vessels in the retina. By age 22, he was blind in his right eye. Four years later, Armstrong's doctor found a tear in his left eye and told him that surgery was his only option.
The night before the operation, Armstrong, sensing something might go wrong, watched his last sunset. "It was surreal," he says. "Seeing the majesty of the different colors — orange, red, gold, purple — fading into the black. It was amazing."
Despite a 90-percent surgical success rate, Armstrong's gut was right. "I woke up and the doctor was suturing my eye," he explains. "The painkiller was starting to come off and he said, 'Sorry, Mike.' I thought he was saying sorry about suturing my eye."
His retina was destroyed beyond repair. It was a fork-in-the-road moment for the 27-year-old.
"I registered in vocational rehab and started figuring out how to be a blind guy." Turns out, figuring out how to be a blind guy meant relearning everything — even putting toothpaste on a toothbrush was a lesson in living. "Every time I picked up another skill, I felt like I got more of my freedom back."
Freedom also meant getting a job. Almost five years after losing his sight, he opened a karate dojo in Phoenix (he holds multiple black belts). Business was good. Life was good. And then his partner quit, leaving Armstrong to figure out the business side on his own. Knowing that he needed to refresh his computer skills, he enrolled in vocational rehab at the Foundation for Blind Children (FBC) in Phoenix. The move was serendipitous. "After one of my workshops, I was talking to the director of adult services and she said, 'Did you hear about the Mount Kilimanjaro climb?' I said, 'No.' She looked at me and said, 'Do you want to climb the biggest mountain in Africa?' " Armstrong was in. "I just had to clear it with my wife," he laughs.
Armstrong and a team of seven other blind hikers reached Kilimanjaro's summit on June 29, 2009, setting a world record. Inspired, he went on to compete in a two-day adventure race in Colorado. And by 2010, Armstrong, wanting to raise money for FBC, decided to hike the Arizona Trail. "It sounded like an amazing accomplishment, walking 800 miles through the state," he says. Armstrong spent the rest of the year preparing for what would be a physically and mentally grueling hike.
On April 2, 2011, Armstrong, along with his sighted guide, set off from the Arizona side of the U.S.-Mexico border. For the first three days, he was determined to hike with a full pack — or about 40 pounds of gear. But after reaching Patagonia, he reduced his load to around 25 to 30 pounds. A car carrying the rest of their equipment was never far behind. Still, days were punishing. Armstrong would start hiking as early as 5 a.m. and make camp around midnight. "When I thought about how many miles I had to go, it would defeat my ambition," he says. When Armstrong started focusing on just the day at hand, it made his trek less arduous. "I learned a lot about myself on that trip — I had so much time to think. Nonetheless, there were many days where I was seriously frustrated because I'd fall so many times," he says.
Coming down the Rincon Mountains, Armstrong fell 20 times. "I was ready to quit," he confesses. Bruised and bloodied, but uninjured, he pushed on — until he reached Mount Peeley in the Mazatzal Mountains. Days earlier, Armstrong hyperextended his ankle and took some serious cactus in his leg, which caused soft-tissue damage. In severe pain, he was forced to leave the trail. "I couldn't do anything but lie in bed and force myself to heal."
Nine days later, he was back at it, but the delay caused another problem: His guides had to return to work. Fortunately, friends, family and FBC members stepped up to guide Armstrong to the finish line. "The last day was amazing," he says. "We came through this little valley with a view of the Vermilion Cliffs, and my guides stopped because it was so impressive. I could feel the energy of the area. I was choking up the last 3 miles. I can't believe I hiked across Arizona."