Brighton boffins help blind balloonman reach North Pole

Posted On 05 May 2010 at 11:01 am

A blind hot air balloonist has reached the North Pole – with a little help from the University of Brighton.

Mike Scholes was supported by staff and students from the university’s Chelsea School in Eastbourne where he trained in sub-zero temperatures in a climate chamber.

Mike Scholes with the St Dunstan's flag at the North Pole

Just back from his epic journey, Mike, 56, said: “Their help was invaluable.”

Mike was one of a team and pulled a sledge through gale-force winds and heavy snow. He twice fell through the ice and conditions became so bad and they lost so much time that he had to finish the journey by helicopter.

Mike, who raised £12,000 for St Dunstan’s which cares for blind ex-servicemen and women, said: “I was disappointed we had to fly the last bit but it was still an amazing trip and it was for such a worthy cause.”

Mike, who was helped on his trek by a guide, became severely sight-impaired in 2007 from a rare disease, Leber Hereditary Optic Neuropathy.

As a hot-air balloon pilot and owner of a Sussex-based passenger balloon company, he had hoped to fly one of his lightweight balloons at the pole to create a record of the most northerly balloon flight by a registered blind person.

That too was not possible but Mike, who lives near Haywards Heath, remained positive: “It was a great experience – and I’d do it again.”

Dr Neil Maxwell, principle lecturer at Chelsea School, said: “The training gave a good opportunity for our students to get involved and develop their vocational skills.”

Student Lee Eddens (MSc in Applied Exercise Physiology), led a team of undergraduates, Mark Wilkins, Peter Matthews and Jen Collins, testing Mike’s fitness, and helping with diet and acclimatisation.

Mike Scholes in the cold chamber with student Mark Wilkins

Lee said: “This included Mike sitting in the cold chamber at temperatures of around -5C with him wearing just shorts and T-shirt. We used these one-hour sessions to help Mike practice some of the psychological skills that we had introduced him to.

“We asked Mike to perform some everyday tasks like zipping up a bag to help him understand how performance can diminish when the body is in a cold environment.

“It was a pleasure working with Mike – he is a man with a fantastic attitude towards life and I was sure he would complete the trek.”

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