Deaf high-altitude climbers – Scott Lehmann and Shayna Unger

Today, a film for mountain enthusiasts. Is it more challenging for a deaf person to conquer the world's highest mountains compared to someone who can hear? Explained in Polish Sign Language by Tomasz Smakowski.

Do you enjoy hiking in the mountains? Many people love the mountains. Today, I’ll tell you about a deaf couple who conquer the highest peaks in the world. They are named Scott Lehmann and Shayna Unger.

Deaf climbers – Scott Lehmann and Shayna Unger.

In 2015, this couple reached the summit of Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro, at an elevation of 5895 meters above sea level. Afterward, they tackled peaks in South America, Mexico, and the French Alps. In June 2021, they conquered Denali in Alaska, standing at 6190 meters above sea level. Then, in May 2023, they achieved the summit of the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest, towering at 8849 meters above sea level. Their goal is the so-called Seven Summits, which involves climbing the highest peak on each continent. If they succeed, they will be the first deaf individuals in history to accomplish such a feat.

But conquering mountain peaks is not their only goal. Another objective is to encourage and inspire other deaf individuals, especially children, to engage in outdoor physical activities. Unger says, “We want to be role models and show our community, especially children, that climbing or simply being outdoors is not only for hearing people.” Lehmann adds, “It’s not just about reaching the summit. It’s about the entire experience, sharing what we’ve learned with our community.”

Previously, Unger and Lehmann worked at a school for the deaf—she as a counselor, he as a math teacher. Both are now over 30 years old. They grew up in homes where American Sign Language (ASL) was used, and both received education in ASL.

Can a deaf person be a high-altitude climber?

Is it easy for a deaf person to learn climbing and conquer mountain peaks? There are many challenges. The first: Lehmann says that when he started, he wanted to enroll in a climbing course, but none of these courses were in ASL. He also didn’t know any deaf climbers who could train him. The only option he had was to learn on his own: from YouTube videos, books, and by asking experienced hearing climbers questions through notes. Over time, he began to pass on the knowledge he gained to Unger and teach her. As he says, he was surprised at how quickly she learned, thanks to acquiring knowledge in sign language.

The second problem: many climbers consider working with deaf climbers as a significant risk, an additional issue. After all, a deaf person won’t hear threats like rockfalls or avalanches. Therefore, hearing climbers are hesitant to collaborate with deaf climbers. Many guides back out when they find out they have to guide deaf individuals or suggest easier mountains. Scott and Shayna learned to keep information about their deafness until meeting guides in person.

Special sign language used during climbing

Another problem is communication with other hearing climbers who don’t know sign language. High in the mountains, where it’s very cold and there are often strong wind gusts, you can’t just take off your gloves and sign or write something on a phone or a piece of paper. Moreover, a phone probably wouldn’t work in such freezing air. Additionally, you have to hold onto ropes or carry an ice axe in your hand. Therefore, the couple teaches basic sign language to their collaborators in advance, which may be useful on the trail.

They also create new signs. Why? Some signs are too small to be read well in the mountains, where there is a considerable distance between people, and everyone is wearing gloves. For example, a large X with arms means “stop.” This learning brings results. When ascending Everest, Scott had issues with his oxygen mask. He says, “To get our Sherpa’s attention, I tapped him on the shoulder. Then I made a hand gesture in the shape of a mask on my face and motioned my hand in front of my throat, using the universal ‘choking’ sign to indicate that the mask wasn’t working. The Sherpa understood me clearly and immediately helped me with the mask.”

Interestingly, hearing climbers who learned these signs also started using them among themselves when, for example, strong winds or distance prevented verbal communication. Climbing is very challenging and risky.

Tragedy of a deaf climber

When the couple was ascending Mount Everest, they accidentally met another deaf climber from Malaysia, Muhammad Hawari Bin Hashim. He was the second deaf person in history to conquer Mount Everest, just moments before Scott Lehmann and Shayna Unger reached the summit. The trio communicated using a mix of ASL, international sign language, and gestures. Unfortunately, the next day, while descending, the Malaysian climber went missing and is considered deceased.

Mountains are beautiful but also dangerous. Would you like to learn more about these deaf climbers? Below are links to the social media profiles of Scott Lehmann and Shayna Unger:

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