Posted April 6, 2023 | By Johny Dodd | People
Despite not being able to hear, Scott Lehmann and Shayna Unger are climbing the world’s highest peaks — and inspiring others
Shayna Unger and Scott Lehmann became the first deaf-led team to stand on the snow-covered peak of Alaska's Denali in June 2021. Shortly after the climb, which took them to an elevation of 20,310 feet, the couple — who hadn't even unpacked their gear yet — started planning their next ambitious expedition.
In the coming weeks, Unger, 33, and Lehmann, 31, will strike out on their latest high-altitude odyssey: an attempt to reach the 29,032-foot-high summit of Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain.
"The day after we got off Denali, we looked at each other and said, 'Let's go for it,'" recalls Lehmann, using American Sign Language (ASL) and an interpreter.
Their Mount Everest expedition is part of the couple's larger plan to become the first deaf climbers to ascend the highest mountain on each of the seven continents, known as the Seven Summits.
But the couple are also determined for their quest to be about something bigger than climbing mountains for the nearly 30 million Americans living with hearing loss in both ears.
"We want to be role models and show our community, especially the kids, that climbing or even just being in the outdoors isn't something that only hearing people do," says Unger, who, like her boyfriend, worked for years at the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick (she as a counselor; Lehman taught math), before leaving to train for their current expedition. "We want this to have a ripple effect."
"It's not just about reaching the summit," Lehmann adds. "It's the whole experience, sharing what we've learned with our community."
The couple, who met in high school, have been focused on mountaineering ever since Lehmann began teaching himself to climb 11 years ago.
When he couldn't find any classes for deaf climbing enthusiasts, he decided to teach himself by watching YouTube videos and reading books. "I'd often show up the mountain," he says, "and ask anyone who would answer my questions [by writing them down on notepads]."
He soon began sharing his obsession with Unger and then teaching her everything he'd struggled to learn on his own.
"I wanted to save her the embarrassment of having to ask random strangers on the mountains," he says. "It was really amazing how quickly she learned because she had direct access to the information from me."
In 2015, the couple climbed Africa's highest peak, 19,341-foot-high Mount Kilimanjaro, and before long they were bagging peaks in South America, Mexico and the French Alps.
"Standing on top of a summit is such a feeling of accomplishment," says Unger, who will have three additional peaks — in Antarctica, Indonesia and Russia — to climb after Everest before she and Lehmann become the first deaf alpinists to complete the Seven Summits.
They both admit that their upcoming expedition to the world's highest mountain — which they hope to summit in early May with the help of two sherpas, weather permitting — will be their most challenging adventure to date.
The couple is ready to begin and clearly focused on the arduous climb. Asked whether Lehmann might pop the question to his longtime girlfriend when they reach the peak of the highest mountain on Earth, Unger quickly dismisses the suggestion.
"'Don't even think about it,' I've told him," she says with a laugh, admitting that she's determined to complete their lofty mountaineering goals before tying the knot. "No Seven Summits, no ring."