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Living on the edge.

AN adventurous couple climbed the highest mountain in the Alps on a charitable trek despite one of them having no depth perception as a result of losing the sight in one eye and the other suffering from a fear of heights.

Expat Brit Lizzie Banks and her American husband John Tinetti were determined to reach the 4,808m peak of Mont Blanc to raise funds for research into Alzheimer's disease to support a close friend who had given up her job in Bahrain to return to the UK to help care for her father who had been struck down with the brain disorder.

Despite having to climb in the dark and getting hit by falling ice Lizzie, 49, head of psychology at St Christopher's School, and John, 50, a US Navy commander, who live in Saar, are celebrating another adventurous achievement.

"I am always up to something adventurous," said Lizzie, who comes from Canterbury. She has lived in Bahrain for seven years and has a daughter, Bethany, 20, who attended St Christopher's for four years and is now studying at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

"I have been getting all the 'praise' from family and friends because it is my friend that we were doing this for, but I would like to say how proud I am of John. He is absolutely petrified of heights and was out of his comfort zone on more than one occasion.

"I wanted to do something that people would have heard about - everyone knows Mont Blanc - so that it would bring awareness to the cause.

"My friend had to leave Bahrain to look after her dad and I always admired that so much. We were talking one day and she was expressing her sadness that Alzheimer's didn't seem to have the same representation as some of the other charities.

"She had lost her mum to breast cancer when she was 16 and understands how important all the research is but said that people seem to be overlooking Alzheimer's in her view. I wanted to do it for her to let her know how important she is to me and that I admire the sacrifice she made for her dad."

Lizzie Bank's mountain climb was particularly remarkable as she only has sight in one eye because she inhaled a parasite whilst on safari at the Kenyan Masai Mara game reserve in 1993.

The damage was the result of the blood-borne carriage of a micro-organism to the eye. She was not aware at the time so did not seek help early enough to prevent the damage. And, as a result, she has no depth perception which can be particularly 'problematic' from time-to-time on mountain ledges.

"It is difficult for people with monocular vision to assess the relative position of objects in the visual field," she explained. "So, it is difficult for me to assess how close or far away something is - the same issues with how deep something is.

"When climbing or walking on ridges, it is quite scary when your eyes might not be giving you complete information on how far away from an edge you are or how deep the next step you take is going to be.

"It feels a bit like missing a step on the stairs. Does that make sense? You have to trust your rope partner a lot. When there are shadows you cannot determine easily what is shadow and what is object - almost like seeing things that aren't there.

"Also, due to the scar tissue left by the parasite, I have what might be like 'floaters' in my field of vision during daylight hours if in direct sunlight."

Lizzie is a keen runner and to prepare for the mountain assault she also walked on a revolving staircase in her boots carrying a 14kg rucksack. The couple had also previously hiked the 175km GR20 trail that traverses Corsica, an island in the Mediterranean Sea, diagonally from north to south, in 13 days. Of all the long-distance footpaths in Europe it has a reputation for being the toughest.

But climbing the 11th highest mountain in the world was a totally different proposition.

Phase 1 was the acclimatisation stage with a Tour de Mont Blanc - 170km - with 10km of ascent and descent over six days, passing through France, Switzerland and Italy.

Phase 2 consisted of tackling the Gran Paradiso, at 4,061m, the highest mountain entirely within Italy.

Phase 3 was Mont Blanc with equipment consisting of a rucksack, mountain boots, crampons, helmet, harness, ice axe, gaiters, head torch and water bottles.

Lizzie said: "Most of the time I felt exhilarated. I had trained well and was reaping the rewards of the hard work. The 13-hour days around the tour were invaluable in terms of acclimatising for Mont Blanc and Gran Paradiso prepared us for severe weather conditions.

"One of the men we were hiking with fell down a crevasse on Gran Paradiso, so putting the training into practice was interesting. When I saw what we had to climb up to reach one of the ridges, my stomach did a little turn but once up, although it was tough, nothing was going to stop me.

"Our food had frozen, I couldn't eat anything except our gel packs and was frozen to the bone. But there wasn't one moment when I thought that physically or mentally I wouldn't be able to make it.

"My biggest fear by far was the weather closing in or falling snow and ice preventing us from reaching the summit and knowing my friend was waiting for news that we had been successful so that she could send out messages to everyone who had been supporting us. I couldn't bear the thought of not reaching it."

But after a two-and-half hour climb in the dark, being hit by falling ice within the first 20 minutes, facing weather conditions that almost meant they were facing having to turn back on three separate occasions, they became two of only a dozen people to reach the summit that day.

"It is a really strange feeling," she said. "We were so exhausted, and it was so cold, that we didn't spend long there.

"The camera batteries were frozen and it was too cold to keep taking your hand out of your glove to take photos. So, the few we have taken, were with John's nose pressing the button!

"I was extremely emotional, as was everyone-else but we couldn't explain why at that time. It was only a few days afterwards looking back that we felt how we had expected to feel at the top, if that makes sense.

"The whole climb you have it in the back of your head that you have to make it to this point by this time or you cannot continue. You have to be back down and crossing the couloir by this time otherwise it is too dangerous to cross.

"We set out at 2am as it is so cold that all the rocks are held into place by the ice. If you come down too late during that same day, the snow is softening and the rocks are loose. People stand at one side of the couloir keeping watch for falling rocks and ice for other climbers to try to maintain safety on the mountain.

"I was hit by falling ice within the first 20 minutes in that couloir. Our guide was really concerned about this as it should not have been falling at that time. He was concerned that if we did not get up and back down quickly, it would be too dangerous to risk it. So, all I was focusing on was keeping up my speed and not giving him any chance to say we had to turn back."

No one was prouder of Lizzie's achievement than John, who comes from Colorado. "My wife is one amazing lady," he said. "It has been nothing but an adventure from the day I met her.

"She is the most caring, thoughtful, determined and daring woman I know. She makes me feel alive and everyday does something to remind me of how lucky I am to have her in my life.

"In terms of the climb, I really wasn't expecting anything other than a 'hard hike' before we got there. Mont Blanc was touted as just that recently and it could not have been more misleading. I was tested both mentally and physically.

"One of the things that kept me motivated throughout the climb was the fact that this little woman of mine, who is literally half of my size, could power up the mountain. I am afraid of heights but know this is the kind of thing that Lizzie lives for and so I thought, what the heck, it can't be that bad!

"Well, let's just say that I am forever thankful that we were climbing in the dark for the first few hours! As for feeling secure, whilst roped up to others - no, not really!

"On the ridges I remember just thinking to myself 'just keep looking at your feet and putting one in front of the other'. I didn't dare look either side of me but every now and again I would have the order from Lizzie to 'take a picture of this or that' forcing me to look up and enjoy all that was on offer.

"On Gran Paradiso we were looking for ways through a particular part of the mountain that was riddled with crevasses. We were roped in a group of three with our guide who was desperately looking for the safest way around one particular crevasse. Everyone in the area was afraid and anxious to get back to the hut but Lizzie was transfixed by the colours from within the crevasse and insisted on stopping to enjoy the moment and encouraging me to take another picture!

"One of my favourite pictures of her is on Gran Paradiso. It was so cold, her little pony tail froze and ice started to form on her eyebrows and eyelashes. I couldn't have been more in love.

"The worst part for me was the sound of the crampons on the rocks. On the snow they were a life-saver but on those rocks, it was a constant reminder of what we were doing. However, every time I looked over to Lizzie - she looked completely alive. She does this in the mountains. She becomes a completely different person. She has always been fun to be around but surround her with nature, and you couldn't wish for better company. Rain or shine - she loves the outdoors.

"The huts you sleep in are also a nightmare. Sixteen people to a room, no running water, chemical toilets, and you pay a fortune for the privilege! However, we met some amazing like-minded people who we will definitely be climbing with in the future."

Lizzie and John hoped to have raised around Au500 but were 'blown away' by the Au3,000 they achieved for the Alzheimer's Society as a result of the support they received from friends.

Next stop for the couple is Mount Elbrus in Russia with a July climb and, ultimately, they are aiming to tackle Denali in Alaska, North America's tallest peak.

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Publication:Gulf Weekly
Date:Sep 28, 2016
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