December 18, 2015
I don’t remember the first time I met Steve Bate. It’s often the case with people who become central in your life. He probably entered as a person someone else knew, in a story they told, about their life, in which he played a part, just a name. My first real memory of him was as a Kiwi who built a wooden shed for someone I used to know. Then he became a Kiwi Steve - ‘the one who built the shed’ - that detail that he had tons of tattoos, his aim to end up with the bottom half of his body covered apparently, a reference to some Polynesian rite of passage. Maybe I met Steve before the first time I remember actually shaking his hand, but seem to remember that first meeting being in a corridor in Elgin - where we were introduced - a handsome guy with crazy ginger dreadlocks and shorts - like a good looking sideshow bob with a Kiwi twang. It transpired Steve was not only a carpenter, but also a guy who loved climbing and cycling, lived for the outdoors, and worked a lot with the types of kids no one else wanted to work with, shuttled them around the Cairngorms in noisy minibuses. Steve appeared on an off after that, at talks, popping in the house, establishing himself as some robust, to the point, always on the go, with little time for chit chat, a man on some mission, a bit like most Kiwi’s, like Aussies but without the disposable income… or the charm : ) Never the less Steve was for a long time tagged as someone else’s friend, from another person’s memory - not mine.
Then a few years back, maybe in the Autumn of 2011, I heard how Steve’s life had fallen apart a bit - well a lot - being diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a condition that was slowly robbing him of his sight, that he was going, and would soon be, blind. “Did I tell you Kiwi Steve’s going blind?” and there was his imagined future gone. This condition that had come out of a clear sky, when life was looking good, Steve having passed all his outdoor instructor certs. It began with a realisation he was useless in the dark, a form of blindness that soon bled into the light, his world becoming distorted and restricted day after day - death of sight by a thousand cuts. This turn of events forced Steve to give up driving, meaning he could no longer work as a climbing instructor, no longer drive those vans filled with trouble, give up joinery, his bread and butter. That life was over, as can often be the case, a wind that blows on a clear blue day and scattered all the pieces of a life so well set out. For Steve, it was year zero. I didn’t think too much about it at the time, after all, there is tragedy everywhere you look, but thought it sad - for a moment - we do - to suddenly have everything that made you who you are, what you loved and your passion, taken away so suddenly. I also heard he’d shaved off his ginger dreadlocks - so it wasn’t all bad.
Then in that autumn, we met up for a brew one stormy day beside the sea on the Scottish East Coast, Steve arriving with his wife Caroline in their camper van. The first thing that struck me about Steve, as we sat down in a cafe close to closing, was his total lack of any obvious self-pity, he smiled, he took the piss, he was loud, he almost laughed it off, even when he told us how his sight was only 10% of a ‘normal’ person now, that in a year he could well be shut out from all that could be seen. I’d known many with far lighter a load who had carried a black cloud on a string where ever they went. I don’t think I could take going blind so in my stride. His work now was repairing second-hand bikes for a charity, working in an industrial estate where the wind blew off the sea, a sausage factory of rust and oil, not the place he imaged he’d end up. As we drank tea and ate the cake I listened to Steve talks about new ideas he had for the future, but between the bold words you could sense tomorrow was yet to play its hand, that Steve was not quite so happy - or resigned - as he gave out, and neither was Caroline - some slight worry and dread, no - some large dose of love and worry evident between them.
I’ve met and worked with a lot of disabled people in the past ten years and Steve pretty much typified what I seen in so many, an attitude best described as ‘just getting with it’, after all that’s the alternative? I actually hate the word ‘disabled’ almost as much as not being able to write ‘normal’ when describing a person’s human condition, as such people do not conform to the broad definition ‘normal’ even if they are more normal inside than many who appear that way. I don’t like the label disabled either as it kind of corrals someone into a ‘safe space’ we think we understand them - I don’t like safe spaces, I like face spaces, where you can judge people free of labels (black, gay, disabled, Mormon, old, rich, ginger). Such labels dehumanise and politicise and act as a barrier, and real equality is something that only takes place in clear sight and deed. Most people I met who were defined as being disabled were devoid of self-pity, perhaps due to being at the coal face of a tough reality: constant paint, pissing in a bag stuck down their pants, some gnarly medical disaster around every bend - that big cloud always hanging out on the horizon. None of these people seemed the type to sink into the swamp of the problem, of their reality. Back then in 2011 being ‘disabled’ was a bit of a joke I guess, with governments cynically moving the long term unemployed into tax credit supported self-employment or onto disability payments. It’s easy to pity disabled people these days, with talk of cuts and unfair tests of need, but back then almost nine percent of the UK workforce were on incapacity benefit, that’s 2.6 million people, and yet I’d never met one person who was ‘proper’ disabled who did not have a job, some several. When I used to visit Morrison’s car park in Inverness there always seemed to be a crazy number of disabled spaces, never a free one, yet few who parked there seeming to require such a label. It’s easy to be righteous and liberal about the Tory’s and Lib Dems, who fucked over the disabled, but I wonder how those with genuine need feel about those who broke the system?
Enough of politics - sat there listening to Steve in that cafe - he said “My climbing days will be over soon. By next year I’ll probably be stumbling around with a white stick, my eye’s fucked mate, no big climbing dreams for me.”
“You can still climb El Cap, even if you’re blind,” I said, more as a joke than an actual idea, remembering how Eric Weihenmayer had been guided up the Nose by Hans Florine in 1996. “If you fancy climbing El Cap I’ll do it with you, although really you should go and solo it while you’ve got the chance”.
Perhaps inside our heads, we have a pinboard onto which we pin our dreams, big and small, close and far, doable and impossible. We start as kids and carry on as grown-ups, sticking them up, taking them down, crossing them off or ripping them up, patching some, looking like one of those police investigation boards you see on TV - evidence for an amazing life you hope to come. I guess Steve’s board - right then - was pretty empty, each and every picture was taken down and put in a box, and so that sudden idea of El Cap helped fill a space.
Unfortunately, Steve didn’t know me that well, and I didn’t know Steve well either - both not in each others story yet. He knew me little enough to know I say such things as ‘let’s climb El Cap’ all the time, I don’t really mean it, it’s like ‘we should have a drink sometime’ when you know you never will, while I knew him little enough not to know Steve was no ordinary man.
And so, a year later, we found ourselves waking at 4 am beneath El Cap, a shitty night under a shared sleeping bag, on half a sleeping mat and a full ants nest not a good start. Steve had spent the last few months training like a bastard in a local quarry, hauling tires, learning to aid, but now this was it for real, El Cap’s Zodiac route hanging above us. I know that when the alarm rang his heart sank as he thought the dream was over, that we’d go down that day, not up, that it was beyond us really, the sheer madness of me, that we’d send the wall in a day, him a novice… and sort of proper blind. My life was also in some long drawn out melt down, hence this sudden crazy plan of a one-day ascent of a wall that should have taken the two of us four, I felt committed to Steve but sort of regretted have some guardianship over his ambition. But then again perhaps Steve didn’t know me enough to know, like him, I don’t like to give in to realities I consider annoying and intrusive to ambition. And so we racked up and started climbing.
In the end, we got within 2 pitches of the top in about 24 hours, me leading and Steve cleaning his first big wall, kipping on a ledge for a few hours, then toping out the next morning. For me, it was another climb, but for Steve is was maybe a valediction to some dark future.
Here’s a little video of that climb, as well as a second route we did the next week:
The rest of the trip was a tough one for me, but Steve’s story was bigger than that, and perhaps I missed the lesson of the man then, thinking all the teaching was mine to give, but Steve made the most of it, climbing El Cap a second time with me and our new mate Johno. Then came his ultimate test.
Since that time in that cafe, Steve had had the idea of soloing El Cap in his head, something, with his blindness, perhaps one of the most audacious climbs on el Cap ever. I’ve soloed El Cap four times, spent over a month alone on that stone and cannot imagine what it would take for Steve to find the strength to tackle it alone. And yet he did, taking 5 days to climb Zodiac a second time, climbing, cleaning and hauling every single pitch alone.
When me a Johno met him on the top six days after he began, Steve topping out in mist and storm, I knew that Steve had gone to the edge of himself, this tough guy crying as he sat at the void. It was pretty amazing what he did.
And that could have been Steve’s story, part of mine now, that defining moment before the curtains swung in and life truly faded to black. But maybe something happened on that wall, maybe something was there before he began, after all, who’d agree to go out to Yosemite with me in the first place on such a mission, but something happened. When Steve came home his was not the same man who left, as no one is when they undertake such trials. He came home and tried out for the British Cycling para squad, riding a tandem (he’s the one on the back… not the front), and made it, and so began a new life. Steve took the skills he had, his character, and mixed them with what he learnt and understood and refined on the wall and applied it to pro cycling and did well.
This year with his tandem pilot Adam Duggleby they won 4 World Cup medals, defended their titles in the national road race and time trial titles, set personal bests over 10 and 25-mile time Trails, and set 4km pursuit national record. If all goes to plan he’ll make it to Rio next year - this guy who not so long enough stood in a shed mending rusty bikes, dreams once had in pieces at his feet. Steve’s story was part of someone else’s, then part of mine, and soon I hope it will be part of all of us, as Steve teaches us something of great value in what he does. I thought this morning about how life is an act of survival and if we lose sight of that, sink into self-pity or despair, into blame and anger, not hope and love (mostly of ourselves) we don’t survive at all in any meaningful way. Steve is a reminder to me every day of what gifts we have, and how lacking others is no excuse not to try anyway.
I remember as we walked up to meet Steve on the summit of El Cap in 2013 we bumped into another soloist returning from a week-long solo ascent, wet through and bedraggled, who asked us why we were going up the trail not down. “We’re going to help our mate Kiwi Steve down from the wall” we replied. “Is that blind Steve? I hope he’s not doing any leading” he laughed. “No - he’s soloing Zodiac” we replied, too much laugher. “Man, no matter how hard life is for Steve, no matter what’s to come, he will always have this,” said the soloist, and at the time that idea filled me with pride, that this was something good and honest and about friendship and hope. But I was wrong. Steve was bigger than El Cap, he was a man with no vision left like us mortals have but instead had gained something greater - that he’d always had I guess - but had been made keener by this twist of fate. For Steve Bate this was not the end at all, no high tide, and neither will cycling, those medals, standing on a podium, those personal bests, they are simply ways for Steve, a stubborn ginger-haired Kiwi, to show he’s no quitter, that for those with real drive - and vision - and the will to ask for more than simple survival - but to really live - the future holds infinite possibilities.
If you want to support Steve then give your vote as he’s been shortlisted for British Cycling rider of the year.
Steve’s webiste is here