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Blind Ambition

Sightless students make a tense Everest trek

THE PREMISE of director Lucy Walker's Blindsight sounds like fodder for an inspiring Hollywood feature. A German teacher embarks on a trek up Mount Everest with six Tibetan teens who lack any mountain-climbing experience. And, as they say at pitch meetings, get this: The teacher, her students and their lead guide (an American) are all blind. It can't miss, right?

As we see in Walker's film, a frank and gripping documentary that opens on March 7, the expedition did, in fact, go awry. Halfway up Lhakpa Ri, a 23,000-foot peak on the north side of Everest, the students—who were accompanied by professional climbers—are physically and emotionally spent; several of them suffer from altitude sickness. When Tashi, a 19-year-old boy in the care of teacher Sabriye Tenberken, falls repeatedly, she considers heading down the mountain: "I'm not sure where the fun is right now," Tenberken says.

It's clear that Tenberken, who in 1998 founded the first school for the blind in Tibet (where blindness is regarded as a curse), thinks that the venture is still a success. But her impulses to turn back are challenged by guide Erik Weihenmayer, who makes it known that he didn't travel 7,500 miles from Colorado to take these kids halfway. He also notes that he never promised fun. "When you suffer, that's when you make the greatest connections with the people around you!" he says, and he's in a position to know. In 2001 Weihenmayer became the first blind person to scale Everest.

Walker, who has come a long way since directing episodes of Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues, captures the tension on Lhakpa Ri without taking sides. When things fall apart and factions form, each party's motivations are put up for inspection—including the director's. Was Tenberken too protective? Was Weihenmayer too aggressive? Were those blind kids being shepherded up Lhakpa Ri for the sake of a marketable documentary? Some questions get answered, others don't. Reality is messy but not disappointing, unless you insist on a neat Hollywood ending.

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MAXED OUT Climbers like Sonam Bhumtso, 15, started strong but reached their limits.

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