Veterans with sight loss learn the ropes at climbing event supported by Scottish War Blinded and Blind Veterans UK

Press Release | 24/06/2019

A group of veterans are proving their sight loss is no barrier to sporting achievement after mastering climbing in a week-long event supported by charities Scottish War Blinded and Blind Veterans UK.


The 12-strong troop, including a 95-year-old World War Two veteran, all live with a vision impairment and were taught the sport by international paraclimber Garry Cowan, who is himself completely blind.


The ‘Combined Veterans Climbing Week’, based at Edinburgh International Climbing Arena (EICA) in Ratho, West Lothian, from June 17 to June 20, was funded by Scottish War Blinded and Blind Veterans UK.


The veterans, who came from across Scotland, Wales and England, and all receive support from either Scottish War Blinded, Blind Veterans UK, or both charities, demonstrated their incredible determination and comradeship to learn the ropes and scale the arena’s huge heights.


For many of the group, this event marked the first time they had tried their hand at climbing. 


Former soldier David Martin, 36, of Barrhead, was inspired by Garry Cowan, who lost his sight completely after contracting chicken pox in 2015, when they met at a Scottish War Blinded event last year.


The veteran, who has sight in only one eye, says he was “over the moon” to progress from being a complete beginner in climbing to reaching the top of 50-foot walls.


David said: “When Garry had told me about how he managed to climb I thought, ‘wow’, so when the opportunity came up to give it a try at this event, I thought I’d sign up. I had never even climbed before.


“It’s just all about feel and touch. I was quite nervous but Garry really helped me and told me I don’t need to see to be able to climb.


“Even at the start of the sessions looking up at the walls I thought it was something I wouldn’t do – I never imagined I would be up there. It’s been great, and it’s been great getting to know everybody too.”


Age was no object for World War Two veteran, Jim Thomson, from Avoch, as he regained his love of climbing at the event.


An avid hiker and rock climber throughout his life, he says he was “very satisfied” to find he could still tackle a climbing wall at the grand age of 95.


Jim, who has the sight condition macular degeneration, explained: “Rock climbing was my interest for a number of decades and I was interested to find out if I still had the ability to do at least some climbing once more.


“I was apprehensive coming here having not done this for many years. But I’ve managed to get to the top of one of the walls, so I felt that was my success. It was what I was hoping to do.


“It’s very hard, but sight loss doesn’t come into it too much as you’re using a lot of touch.


“Most of the others in the group are quite a lot younger than me, but I’ve still been able to do something that they are doing, so I feel I’m contributing something.


“The satisfaction is great. I will go home and will say to myself I’ve done something that is worthwhile. I feel I’ve accomplished something and met some good guys.”


The event’s organiser and lead coach, blind paraclimber and RAF veteran Garry Cowan, 37, of St Andrews, regularly competes in paraclimbing nationally and internationally, with his training supported by Scottish War Blinded and Blind Veterans UK.


Garry said: “I simply wanted to show others in the same situation that life goes on in many ways, despite sight loss. I’ve found that climbing does wonders for me on a physical and mental level and my initial thoughts were that this would be nice to pass onto others.


“In the autumn last year I met with a Scottish War Blinded member, who I started coaching with the help of the Scottish Paraclimbing Club at the EICA, and this fuelled me to make this event work.


“Meeting these enthusiastic veterans has been such a motivating experience for myself and my climbing partner Andy Keith – whose support has been above and beyond.


“I have had a fantastic amount of support within the sport, all provided by Scottish War Blinded and Blind Veterans UK. Without this, I would not be where I am today.


“Climbing has shown first hand that it settles us veterans on the wall, as life switches off and all that matters is reaching the top!


“Every single participant has shown determination and willing to learn. I know that following this event each of the veterans will continue to participate in the sport, even if it’s just as a hobby or to relieve stress.”


Mark O’Donnell, Chief Executive of Scottish War Blinded and Royal Blind, commented: “The veterans who participated have shown unbelievable determination, and the way the group supported each other throughout the week is inspirational.


“At Scottish War Blinded, we are pleased to be able to support this group of strong willed veterans to achieve their personal goals and build strong bonds as a team. We will continue to work with them to build their confidence and conquer new heights.”


Chief Executive of Blind Veterans UK, Major General (Rtd) Nick Caplin CB, said: “Garry’s achievements since losing his sight have been astounding. It is fantastic that he is using his expertise and knowledge to pass on his passion for climbing to a new group of veterans.


“We are delighted to continue to work with Scottish War Blinded in support of Garry. He is a perfect example of the fact that sight loss, or any disability, need not limit you from doing what you love or achieving your goals.”