Despite losing his vision, Japan’s Kobayashi is scaling the heights

In Summary

Kobayashi had taken a liking to rare sport at the age of 16 after reading about in a magazine at a book store in Tokyo where he grew up in the late 80s. The sport had just started in the US and was slowly spreading to other parts of the world.

What happens when just at the prime of your life, you are informed that you are losing your sight and that you will eventually go blind?

Many people would consider that as being a death sentence and for others, it heralds a bleak future.

That is exactly how Japanese para climber Koichiro Kobayashi felt when, just as he turned 28 in 1996 and ready to take on the world, he was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa , which would eventually leave him blind.

It all started when he was driving along the streets of Tokyo that his vision developed complications.

“The diagnosis was that it was something that couldn’t be cured.

“Hearing this, whatever image I had had about my future was shattered there and then,” Kobayashi recalls.

“It was a progressive disease so those things that I had been able to do when I could see, increasingly became things that I could no longer do.”

For the next three years after being diagnosed, Kobayashi forgot about free climbing and focused on concerns about his future.

Kobayashi had taken a liking to the rare sport at the age of 16 after reading about in a magazine at a book store in Tokyo where he grew up in the late 80s.

The sport had just started in the US and was slowly spreading to other parts of the world.

“It was quite ironic, when you think about it, as a kid in high school or at home I’d not been one for playing sports or doing exercise. “But in reading that article, I finally found something that I really wanted to do.”

After finishing school, he worked as a canoeing guide at an outdoor sports company and climbed every weekend.

This also saw him complete several major climbs overseas after starting university. It, therefore, hit him very hard when he was told he was losing his sight.

For the next three years after being diagnosed, Kobayashi forgot about free climbing and focused on concerns about his future.

When he was 31, he met a caseworker who encouraged him to take up the sport again, saying “it is important to think what you want to do in the future, not what you can’t.”

Kobayashi thus started climbing this time, however, without his sight and with the aid of a helper.

“It was difficult at first because of now adjusting to the new environment and having someone to guide when you do things.

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, he established a Tokyo-based non-profit organisation called Monkey Magic that promotes free climbing among those with visual impairment in 2005.

He also opened a climbing gym in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, in March this year.

“The realisation that maybe I could combine my climbing and my loss of sight was what got me thinking about doing something like Monkey Magic, spreading the word about climbing to people like myself, and creating a place where this could be done.”

In 2005, Kobayashi met American para climber Erik Weihenmayer and together with six other blind climbers they set out to climb Africa’s highest point, Mount Kilimanjaro, at 16,100 feet (4,900 metres).

Weihenmayer made history in 2001 after he became the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain.

For this feat, he was honoured with a Time magazine cover story.

Among the climbers was Kenyan Douglas Sidialo, who became the first blind African to climb Africa’s highest point.

The occasion turned out to be a memorable one for Kobayashi as he got married to his fiancé, Honoka, after they descended from the mountain.

“Weihenmayer had done the same a couple of years back when he and his girlfriend first climbed the mountain and suggested the idea to me. It turned out to be a very romantic moment for Honoka,” he recalls.

Dressed in Chagga regalia, their union was presided over by a Chagga chief with the rest of the climbers acting as the witnesses for the occasion.

In 2012, Kobayashi won the first of his three gold medals at the first Para Climbing World Championship event in Italy.

He took part in the B1 (Visual Impairment) category before moving to the A1 section in his next international assignments.

He scooped two more gold medals at the 2014 and 2016 events in Spain and France respectively and this to date rank as his memorable events.

“The fact that someone who years back was depressed because of losing their sight was now winning gold medals was quite unbelievable,” he recalls.

He will be defending his title at the biannual event set for Innsbruck, Austria, from September 6 to 16 this year. As part of his endeavours to teach the sport to visually impaired kids, he was able to get a grant from the Japanese government and travelled to Kenya last week to conduct several training sessions.

The training that was organized by in partnership with Kilimanjaro Blind Trust Africa, with the support of Sidialo, was part of the foundation’s 10-year anniversary.

The training sessions were done at Blue Sky Gym in Parklands, the only gym in East and Central Africa with a free-rock climbing wall.

“I am quite impressed that there is such a facility in Kenya and I hope that the country will be able to embrace the sport in the coming years,” Kobayashi, whose rock climbing career is almost three decades, said on Thursday during the interview.

He lists a number of benefits that free climbing has both on those that take up the sport.

“Free climbing helps people grow not only physically, but also builds mental confidence and develops challenge mindset.

“It is a lifetime sport people with disabilities can enjoy throughout their lives which increases exercise opportunities, promotes self-reliance and social participation by empowering, and improves quality of life.”

“Climbing provides valuable opportunities where non-disabled and disabled share the same atmosphere, building a relationship that is not “helper-helpee”, but friends without barriers,” he adds.

Kobayashi was also able to give a public lecture at the Japanese Embassy on Wednesday in an event attended by the Japanese Ambassador to Kenya, Tatsushi Terada, who was moved by his fellow country man’s story.


Away from free-climbing, Kobayashi loves to spend time with his wife, whom she describes as her number one supporter and best friend.

“She believes in me and supports my organization. I owe a lot to her because she has sacrificed a lot to be with me and I totally appreciate her,” he said.

The couple visited the Maasai Mara on their last visit to the country in 2008 and Kobayashi plans to bring her back when he returns to Kenya once again.

His message to those wishing to take up the sport is to develop a never-say-die attitude.

“I think climbing is one of those sports in which you’re going to continue to make mistakes. You’re always going to fall at some point.

“Those times when you make a mistake and fall, you can try to change the way you grip, the order of your hand positioning.

“You can identify where you lack strength and power and work on getting more.

“It’s a sport where you can work on fixing those things that need fixing and clearly see the results of your efforts when you finally reach your goal,” he concludes.

“My future goal is to stand on the top of a 1,000-metre rock in the Yosemite National Park in the United States,” he said.

(source:pocket-novels,please contact us if any infringement)

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