Top of the World

by Rebekah Goode
0 comment
Aerial view of the top of Mt. Everest showing Hill and his team of climbers.

Story by Rebekah Goode  |  Photos by Bryan Hill

Standing on the summit of Mount Everest, Bryan Hill (’08) and his fellow climbers had the entire ridge to themselves. They had gambled with time and weather for the opportunity to make it to the top of the world. Yet the view was not quite what he had expected.

Dense cloud cover made it nearly impossible for Hill and the others to see much beyond where they stood. At first he was disappointed. This was the moment the team had been working for—the panoramic views, the majesty of it all.

However, he soon realized what a gift it was to be on the summit with his friend Lonnie Bedwell, a military veteran and extreme sports athlete who had lost his sight in a hunting accident.

The conditions on Mount Everest allowed Hill to put himself in Bedwell’s shoes and recognize both the significance of his friend’s feat and how limitless life can be, regardless of ability.

The climb was the second outing for Sightless Summits, an organization Hill, Bedwell, and their friend Michael Neal founded to inspire and encourage veterans and children with disabilities to take on new challenges.

“It’s really fulfilling to help people step out of the cave they’re in, to take that first step forward and keep moving on, to realize that even though something’s happened to them they can keep pushing and keep maximizing life,” Hill says. “It might look different than it did before, but it can still be amazing.”

Bryan Hill stands with Mount Everest's peak in the distance. He has tan skin and is wearing a baby blue hooded sweatshirt and a baseball hat.

Bryan Hill (’08)

Hill was born and raised in Knoxville, and his journey to Mount Everest began in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. His love of the outdoors runs deep, with roots winding through the creeks and rivers, mountains and valleys of East Tennessee. Growing up, Hill spent endless hours exploring with his father, sparking a passion that would transcend time and place as he grew into adulthood.

Academics didn’t hold the same excitement for Hill as the prospect of being active and seeking adventure in nature. It wasn’t until he became a student in the exercise science program in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences that he felt he’d found a home.

In that program, where instructors encouraged students to come to class in athletic wear and to test each other’s physical limits, Hill saw a future in which he could help others overcome physical challenges and thrive.

“I was so fascinated by the human body and its potential to adapt and get better when stressed a certain way. The University of Tennessee, especially the degree in exercise science, gave me that foundation and understanding. It really was the catalyst for me working in physical therapy and with people with disabilities,” Hill says.

After graduation, Hill moved out West, where he was inspired to climb his first mountain. He failed, but instead of being deterred he decided he wasn’t going to give up.

Together with other adventurers, he trained and climbed and was introduced to remarkable people of all abilities along the way—including Bedwell, who helped found Sightless Summits.

Lonnie Bedwell holds onto a large cable as he scales Mount Everest.

Lonnie Bedwell scaling Mount Everest

“The reason why I enjoy working with people who have disabilities, or someone who’s had their knee replaced or an athlete who has torn their ACL and thinks their life is over, that they’ll never play again, or anyone who is in that low state—I love meeting people in that spot and helping them progress more and more,” says Hill. “The Sightless Summits project really resonates with that. We want to meet people when they aren’t empowered or when they think they can’t do things and help show them what is possible.”

When he’s not working as a physical therapist, Hill is a photographer. It was a chance encounter with a blind climber on a photography assignment at Mount Everest in 2021 that inspired the idea for Sightless Summits. Hill and Neal, a fellow outdoor enthusiast who had joined him on the trip, were inspired by the climber and immediately reached out to Bedwell to see if he would be interested in climbing Everest with them. And from there, Sightless Summits was born.

Climbing Mount Everest was the ultimate way to illustrate the project’s mission of “taking on some of the world’s most challenging adventures in order to show what we are truly capable of if we unite for a common goal.” Over the course of three and a half months, starting with a bike ride across India and the foothills of the Himalayas to meet Bedwell and begin their climb, Hill and the Sightless Summits team did what some would consider to be impossible.

“Your disability is a part of you, but it does not define you,” says Bedwell. “We are able to adapt and do so much more than we think if we simply work together. So let’s get up and go live our lives to their fullest potential.”

Leave a Comment