I met Tabin two years ago. I was giving a talk, part of the never ending tour I’d been on for Three Cups of Tea, my book about Greg Mortenson’s work building schools in Central Asia. Tabin approached me afterward and mentioned I’d written briefly about his efforts with Mortenson to treat preventable blindness in Pakistan. He was kind enough not to point out that I’d gotten a few crucial facts wrong. We met for Mexican food the next night in Salt Lake City, where he works, when he isn’t overseas, as a surgeon at the University of Utah’s John A. Moran Eye Center. Or rather, I watched, stunned, as the concentration of nervous energy that is Geoff Tabin ticked in his seat like a time bomb, telling wild stories that turned out to be mostly true—like the one about inventing bungee jumping—while inhaling all his food and half of mine.
“A lot of climbers get all weird and competitive. I try to take the golden retriever approach to life,” Tabin said in his high-pitched voice, his cheeks bulging with my carne asada. “Try to be friendly to everyone. You get more done that way.” I could see even then that he was more terrier than retriever. Tabin is short, thickly muscled, and has a habit, once he gets something in his teeth, of not letting go. But there’s no question that he gets things done: the medical degree from Harvard, the philosophy degree from Oxford, number one on the tennis team at Yale. And the mountains.
Much of Tabin’s life has been lived at altitude. As a young medical student with more nerve than talent, he made the first ascent of the last unclimbed face of Everest. He became only the fourth person to scale the Seven Summits, the highest points on each continent. And along the way he has put up new ice and rock routes with legends like Lou Reichardt and George Lowe, skied toe-to-toe with madman ski mountaineer Andrew McLean, and scrambled his way into climbing history.
At 53, Tabin looks 40, has the sense of humor of a 14-year-old, and still climbs every chance his overscheduled life allows. If he’d never met a visionary Nepalese surgeon named Sanduk Ruit and witnessed the miracle that is cataract surgery, Tabin might have found a more conventional way to marry his worlds of medicine and mountain adventure.
But Tabin did meet Ruit. And his eyes were opened to an unacceptable fact: Throughout the developing world, four out of five of the 150 million people who are functionally blind don’t need to be. Most have easily curable conditions like cataract disease. What they don’t have is access to quality medical care. So Tabin made a decision to live a different sort of life. And the lofty goal he’s set for himself involves more sustained effort and logistical intricacy than any expedition to the world’s high places. He’s attempting to cure preventable blindness. On Earth. And if anyone on the planet has a chance to succeed, it’s Geoff Tabin.