Dr. Geoffrey Tabin- Giving Eyesight to the Blind

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“What do you think is the most fun we can have?” The words of Dr. Geoffrey Tabin as I sit waiting to begin my interview. He is conversing with one of his good friends about the possibility of skiing ten resorts in one day. “We’ll see what the avalanche danger is, but I think we should start at Snowbird and work our way towards Park City, then move up north to the Ogden slopes.” Apparently, the Wasatch Interconnect Tour, a mere seven resorts, just wouldn’t cut it. This escapade would involve a bit more excitement and the opportunity to rack up an incredible amount of vertical. Just another wild idea concocted by a brilliant mind with an insatiable thirst for adventure.

Like most of his exploits around the globe, Dr. Tabin relishes the chance to try something many people would deem outrageous or improbable. His extraordinary voyages have brought him to seven continents and a variety of unexplored places in between. In addition to being the fourth person to scale the “Seven Summits”, Tabin has pioneered an innumerable list of first ascents and been part of the development of exciting activities like bungee jumping. Currently, Dr. Tabin is working on his most challenging task to date, curing the world of blindness. A seemingly insurmountable goal he’s sure he can overcome.

Strong Foundations
Rallying around the suburbs of Chicago, Geoffrey was an average youth who spent a good amount of time trying to figure out what to do with his life. After graduating from high school, Tabin was accepted at the prestigious Yale University. His early collegiate experiences were that of the typical freshman, meeting the co-eds, playing tennis, and enjoying the newfound freedom of being away from home. As he contemplated how to focus his energies in order to pass his exams, he came across the Michael Ellenwood Curtis collection of mountaineering at the Yale Cross Campus Library. While reading about explorers like Tilman, Harrer, Messner, and Burton, Tabin learned that his problems paled in comparison to the hardships suffered by these men and their expeditions. His interest soon became an addiction, and Geoff would spend up to four hours a day engrossed in texts revealing the difficulties of mountain exploration and the tales of men who risked everything in the name adventure. Before long, he decided to undertake a quest of his own. During a trip to Europe with the Yale varsity tennis team, Tabin noticed an advertisement for a climbing week and leapt at the opportunity to venture into the Alps, just like his heroes. However, he soon found out the hard way that mountaineering was serious business. Through a communication error at the guide agency, Geoffrey ended up on the most strenuous tour, and soon realized he was in over his head. Not knowing how to put on his crampons or even tie into a rope earned him the moniker “Dumsheist” and made him quite a burden on the rest of the more-experienced group. Determined to stick it out, Tabin met up with a willing guide and continued his tour. Now hooked; going back to the US and trying to finish school would be far more challenging than any mountain peak.

Over the next few years at Yale, Geoffrey spent an inordinate amount of time training to be a climber. He and his roommate had a challenge going where they would put off sleeping until they had accumulated 100 points, given in increments based on a certain activity. Climbing a 5.10 route, for instance, would be worth ten points. Pull-ups and sit-ups would be worth a few points as well. “It was quite silly,” recalled Tabin, “but it kept us entertained.” By the time graduation rolled around, Tabin was a solid ball of muscle; ready to tackle any challenge sent his way. Despite his dedication to training, Geoff was able to keep up on his studies, earning himself Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships. Delighted at the prospect of being able to study at Oxford University in England for free, he put off going to med school and took up studying philosophy for the next two years. With the freedom to go on extended trips every eight weeks, Tabin could explore the vast wilderness that is the Alps.

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However, he would need a climbing partner to share in the madness. A chance encounter with a young Oxford man named Bob Shapiro would prove to be just the link he needed. Bob and Geoff spent the next two years engaging themselves in every outlandish endeavor their active imaginations could create. A helpful professor also turned them on to the A.C. Irvine Grant, an allotment set aside by the trustees at Oxford that enabled scholars to explore the world. The grant was established in memory of A.C. Irvine, who perished on the slopes of Mount Everest in 1924 while attempting to summit with mountaineering legend George Mallory. This was their meal ticket to a new realm of exploration and excitement. Perhaps one of the most memorable for Tabin was his journey to New Guinea to climb the Carstensz Pyramid, the highest peak in Australasia, and one of the seven summits. In addition to a general lack of formal mountaineering knowledge, the two men would need a permit to enter the Irian Jaya territory. A roadblock to most, Tabin and Shapiro saw the opportunity to get creative and find their way into the country anyway. Accompanied by a willing and able reporter named Sam Moses, who would be covering the expedition for Sports Illustrated, the three men set out to gain access to the primitive region. According to Geoff, “Shapiro is a logistical genius and was able to come up with some official looking paperwork written in Indonesian.” Lucky for them, Moses’ foreign language skills were slim. They convinced him that they had permission to enter the area and climb the peak. The trip was now in full effect and they found an equally daring pilot name Leroy Kelm to fly them deep into Irian Jaya. With his small winged craft loaded to the gills, Leroy soared over dense jungle and towering mountain spires until a suitable landing spot was insight. The bird touched down without much trouble, but the strip was so slick with mud that the plane skated down the runway until it came to an abrupt stop moments before plunging off a cliff. An excited group of Dani tribesman witnessed the event and hooted with joy as the men emerged from their tiny capsule. The Dani are a good-natured Irian Jaya tribe that has lived in the region for centuries. Geoff speaks fondly of this curious group of native people and their willingness to help him and his mates on their journey. Enlisting the Dani’s intimate knowledge of the jungle and amazingly strong work ethic proved essential to reaching the base of the mountain. After an incredible effort put forth by the team, they succeed in making a first ascent of an unexplored portion of Carstensz, and so began Tabin’s quest to explore the world, interact with its people, and achieve seemingly impossible outcomes.

As Geoff grew his traveling resume at Oxford, he continued visiting distant locales with Shapiro and racking up an impressive amount of first-hand experience. Their voyages to Africa to scale the untouched faces of Mt. Kenya proved to be world news and gained them much notoriety that assisted their later sponsorship attempts. Tabin even joined the Oxford Dangerous Sports Club and learned alongside David Kirke, the father of bungee jumping.

After his graduation from Oxford University, Tabin enrolled at Harvard Medical School. Intent on pursuing his studies in medicine, Geoff limited his extreme adventures and spent most of his free time playing around on the smaller rock features around town. However, he should of known that a burning desire to undertake great opportunities would not be snuffed out so easily.

Kangshung and Beyond

In 1981 Tabin received a call from Lou Reichardt asking him to join an expedition to Mount Everest in a first ascent attempt of the Eastern wall, the Kangshung Face. To even be invited by a mountaineer of Reichardt’s stature was an honor, and Geoff couldn’t possibly say no.

The Kangshung Face towers 11,000 feet over the glacier below bearing the same name. It had been looked upon by thousands of climbers throughout history and been deemed as an impossible route by which to summit the mountain. On George Mallory’s expedition in 1924 he mused, “Other men, less wise, might attempt this way if they would, but, emphatically, it was not for us.” So why would anyone want to undertake such a massive effort with little or no chance of success? To quote Mallory once more, “Because it’s there.” As Tabin’s team inched their way up the face, they encountered numerous avalanche prone gullies and dodged the rockfall that peppered them with stone missiles nearly everyday. After several weeks of laying siege to the massif, the team decided that they could no longer safely proceed to the top. It would be two more years before Geoff got another crack at Everest.

After the expedition concluded and the party disbanded, Tabin returned to Harvard to pursue his studies. Nevertheless, the possibility of standing on top of the world via the last unconquered face still appealed to him. Through his contacts with former teammate, Jim Morrissey, Geoff was given another opportunity to achieve his goal, although there was still the matter of leaving school. One night while sorting through his gear, Tabin’s phone rang; the voice on the other end was critical to say the least. “You’re an idiot. You’re a complete moron. I can’t believe Harvard Medical School would ever accept anyone as stupid as you.” Words of highly revered ophthalmologist, Dr. Michael Weidman, rattled through the receiver. “There is zero chance Harvard would ever let you take another leave of absence, but someone with half the intelligence to get in here should know that if you apply to do research, they will give you money and credit!” It happened that Weidman was also on the committee that approved leaves of absence, and also was highly interested in the effects of high altitude on the eye. Tabin once again had a golden ticket to do something he loved. With the help of Dr. Weidman, Geoff applied for a research grant that would pay for his trip to Everest and give him school credit, provided he study the link between retinal hemorrhaging and high altitude cerebral edema (HACE).

By the first of September, the team was on the face. Armed with prior knowledge of the proper route and advanced equipment to aid them in the ascent, Tabin and company began the impossible, again. This trip, however, took a greater physical toll on Geoff and he was sidelined for a brief period while he recovered from the effects of altitude. The expedition was flowing smoothly for the most part and Tabin was beginning to understand the meaning of the Sherpa saying “Kay Guarnay.” Which translates to “what to do when there is nothing to do.” Basically, don’t worry about things that you have no control over. Geoff and his team suffered a variety of maladies but kept their spirits high and their wits keen. Through sheer endurance and the ability to ignore pain, Kim Momb, Carlos Buhler, and Louis Reichardt summated Everest on October 8, 1983. The next day, George Lowe, Dan Reid, and Jay Cassell summited as well. Although Geoff never stood atop the roof of the world on this trip, he was undeniably a part of one of the greatest teams ever to step their crampon-clad feet on the mountain. In addition to the achievements of the expedition, Tabin had gathered enough research to compile a thorough report and eventually be published in one of the most esteemed ophthalmology publications in the field.

By 1988, Tabin would return to Everest for a third time. This expedition would strive to place the first American woman, Stacy Allison, on top of Chomolungma, “The Goddess Mother of the Earth.” The route would be different, but the hardships the same. With excellent support and a dedicated team, barriers were broken and the expedition was successful, both for Stacy and Geoff. In fact, this expedition also succeeded in placing the first plastic lawn flamingo on the pinnacle of the globe. Through a bizarre conversation Tabin had on the plane with a persistent salesman, the team agreed to bring one of the decorative pink yard ornaments with them on their journey. To this day, flamingos still dot the landscapes of the small towns leading to the foot of Everest.

Realization and Determination
In nearly all of Geoff’s voyages around the planet, he has encountered thousands of people and formed countless indelible relationships. He pours his heart and soul into every venture he pursues, and his latest enterprise is no different. After several journeys to the Himalaya, Tabin realized that the people of the countryside needed his help. More specifically, they needed help restoring their sight.

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A Cataract is a disease that affects millions of people around the world, yet is also one of the most curable ailments of the eye. However, due to the lack of advanced medical care in countries like Nepal, tens of thousands of people suffer through an illness that need not. In the US, for instance, we have one ophthalmologist for every 18,000 people. In Nepal, they have only 37 ophthalmologists for 24 million people. A disparity so staggering that Tabin had to do something about it. So in 1994, Geoff joined forces with a gifted Nepalese eye surgeon named Sanduk Ruit to form the beginning of the Himalayan Cataract Project (HCP). Together they turned Ruit’s Tilganga Eye Center in Katmandu into the best clinic in the country by training local doctors in advanced procedures. Using techniques born in the Western world, Ruit and Tabin found a way to deliver the much-needed surgery to the people of Nepal, all for around twenty dollars per operation. Using an advanced intraocular lens, the two surgeons can perform a fifteen-minute procedure that restores vision back to nearly 20/20. It doesn’t take much to imagine how powerful it is to give someone back their lost sight and make them a productive part of society again. The HCP has grown from its humble beginning in Nepal to become a model organization that helps reduce the amount of people affected with Cataract disease by thousands every year.

Talking with Tabin in our second interview while poaching the hot tub at Snowbird’s Cliff Lodge revealed the next stages of his master plan. Along with the help of a University of Utah surgeon named Alan Crandall, Geoff is expanding his sphere of sight to places like Nairobi, Ghana and Rwanda in Africa. The two have made several trips to these locations and performed life-changing surgeries that restore vision and prosperity to the Dark Continent. Joining Tabin and Crandall is the talented and energetic Mike Feilmeier, who is currently participating in a fellowship with the Division of International Ophthalmology at the U. His youthful outlook and ability to interact with the people he helps make him a valued part of the team. By the time this article is published, Tabin will have just returned from a stint in Africa where he will have performed twenty corneal transplants and numerous corrective surgeries for the locals.

While simultaneously heading up the Division of International Ophthalmology at the University of Utah and The Himalayan Cataract Project, Tabin also spends time at the VA Hospital in Salt Lake City. I got the chance to visit him during one of his afternoon clinics and see firsthand how he deals with his patients. The entire time Geoff was relaxed and made everyone feel at ease. We even got a chance to joke around and play a rousing game of HORSE involving an empty tic-tac box and a garbage pail with the resident doctors after the clinic. Proof that you can still have fun, even at a hospital.
If that seems like a long list of obligations, tack on the work he does at the Moran Outreach Clinic and People’s Health Clinic in Park City.
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With all of his professional projects in Utah and his trips abroad, Geoff still finds time to be a family man. He currently lives in Park City with his wife and children, where they go on small adventures in the local mountains.

If you would like to learn more about Geoff and his adventures, take a look at his book, Blind Corners. It is full of exciting stories of his travels around the globe and gives detailed accounts of his encounters with indigenous cultures from all over the world. Or, just find him on the chairlift at the Canyons or Snowbird and ask him. He’ll be happy to share his tales of adventure and will no doubt leave you spellbound.

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