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School for the deaf employees and filmmaker looking to inspire with Denali climbing adventure

Updated: Dec 16, 2022

Posted December 9, 2021 | By Laura Dukes |

Scott Lehmann and Shayna Unger never set out to be self-taught mountain climbers, but a lack of outdoor resources for deaf people put them there, so they decided to overachieve.

Lehmann, a Frederick resident and math teacher at the Maryland School for the Deaf, has climbed the highest mountain peak in all 50 states, and Shayna, his girlfriend, has started joining him. Over the summer, the two of them, along with her brother, photographer and filmmaker Chad Unger of New York City, climbed Denali, which is the highest peak in North America.

Chad filmed their journey up the 20,310-foot Alaskan mountain and is creating a documentary of their travels, likely to be released by early 2022.

The three said, via American Sign Language interpreters, that they are hoping to inspire other deaf people to challenge themselves, especially when it comes to the outdoors.

“If I can do this, what can’t I do?” Chad said of his mentality regarding the experience.

Lehmann said his mountain climbing started when he and three friends, who are also deaf, went on a road trip. They started climbing mountains on the West Coast, picking up skills mostly through YouTube videos and asking other climbers questions through pen and paper.

“Some were more than happy to help. Others were like, ‘Get off the mountain — you’re not ready for this,’” Lehmann said.

Mountain-climbing classes are generally very expensive on their own and have no ASL interpreters, he said. Providing your own would be another large expense.

Mountain-climbing expertise tends to be passed down through generations, said Lehmann, who is third-generation deaf, while Shayna and Chad are second. Lehmann said he has seen 6- and 8-year-olds who initially knew more about climbing than him, since they were taught by their parents.

The kinds of issues Lehmann ran into were things like not knowing how to use crampons, which are sharp metal points that go on the bottom of shoes for inclines if there’s snow or ice.

Through the years, Lehmann and his friends did some training classes, and he eventually passed on his knowledge to Shayna, who is a counselor at the Maryland School for the Deaf and also lives in Frederick.

“I told her, ‘You’re so lucky to not have to ask people on the mountain and save that embarrassment. I did it for you,’” Lehmann said.

The couple’s first mountain to climb together was Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa, which they climbed in 2015. They climbed Mount Aconcagua in South America in 2019. These, along with Denali, are three of the Seven Summits, the highest mountains on the seven continents.

They decided on Denali since Lehmann had already climbed every other highest peak in the United States at that point. To his knowledge through online records and word of mouth, he is the first deaf person to do this.

Lehmann and Shayna started training last year while working from home due to COVID-19. This preparation mostly consisted of going up and down Sugarloaf Mountain carrying 60-pound backpacks filled with sandbags.

Chad, who had taken some outdoor education classes and hiked and camped while previously living in Salt Lake City, decided to join them and film their experience, which they wanted to be free of an interpreter. Lehmann said this is because there still seems to be a perception that deaf people can’t experience challenges without the help of someone who can hear.

“The three of us know that’s not true, and we wanted to show people that,” he said.

Shayna said they also wanted to show their students that there are no limitations on what they can accomplish.

They did the climb from May 30 through June 15, which is one of the few times of year that the mountain is climbable, due to the harsh conditions and cold. Even on a beautiful sunny day, it’s still zero degrees, said Lehmann, who described melting snow for drinking water.

They each carried 80 to 100 pounds of equipment and food in backpacks and on a sled. Shayna said they had to calculate how many calories they’d need to eat per day and then weigh each item and put it in a separate bag. They brought a small stove and could only eat dry food like pasta, snacks and trail mix.

They slept in a three-person tent using a sleeping pad, an air pad and sleeping bags. They had to keep certain items — peanut butter and boot liners among them — inside their sleeping bags so the items wouldn’t freeze overnight.

They communicated by roping themselves together and tugging on the rope to get each other’s attention.

All three climbers called it one of the most rewarding experiences they ever had.

Along with the “million dollar view,” Lehmann said he loved the feeling of solitude and being free of phone signals and interruptions.

“You can’t get that feeling anywhere else,” he said.

Shayna said she loved the quality time with her boyfriend and brother.

“This will always be one of my most cherished memories,” she said.

Lehmann said about 1,000 people attempt to climb Denali during May and June, but only 48 to 53 percent reach the top. They needed a permit to climb and obtained it by answering various questions about experience and safety protocols. No permits were given out in 2020 due to the pandemic, Lehmann said.

They did not have to wear masks on the mountain but did need to wear them on the flights to and from the base camp and while talking to park rangers.

Chad said they are still working out details for when and how the documentary will be released, but he said they’ve been in touch with several companies including North Face, Clif Bar and Black Diamond.

When it comes to climbing, they aren’t completely sure what’s next, but Lehmann said he would like to be part of the first all-deaf group to complete all seven summits.

Follow them @AdventuresSquared on Facebook and Instagram to get updates about the film and other adventures.

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