Erik Weihenmayer’s Quest For Adventure Has Put Him On Top Of The World By Samantha Craggs
The year was 1995, and it was, as Erik Weihenmayer would later write, a moment that he’d been preparing for his entire life. After an exhausting climb, Weinhenmayer finally reached the top of Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in North America. An NBC helicopter circled overhead, filming his summit. As his team lined up, all in nearly identical red jumpsuits, Weihenmayer turned to his best friend—and partner in adventure—Jeff Evans. “We’re all in red jumpsuits,” Weihenmayer said. “How are they going to know which one is me?” Evans smiled and nudged him. “Because,” he said, “you’re the only one facing the wrong way.”This brand of gentle ribbing is old hat to Weihenmayer and those who work with the world-famous adventurer. He is one of the most well-known extreme athletes on the globe. He has braved some of the world’s steepest slopes, climbed the Seven Summits and led a team of wounded veterans up the rocky face of Lobuche, in Nepal. He is also blind.
At 43, Weihenmayer’s resumé is full enough to spread over two lifetimes. He is the only person who is blind to ever climb to the highest point on each continent. He has graced the cover of Time magazine, and is the author of two books that have been translated into multiple languages. Weihenmayer has also starred in several documentaries, including the award-winning film Farther Than the Eye Can See. His latest film, High Ground, follows Weihenmayer and Evans as they take a group of injured war veterans on a life-changing climb.
The list of adventures continues. This past year, Weihenmayer and Evans placed second in Survivor-creator Mark Burnett’s latest reality show,Expedition Impossible. Weihenmayer has captured the imaginations of audiences at his motivational speaking engagements around the world. He is also co-founder of the non-profit organization No Barriers, which promotes ideas and technologies that help people with disabilities overcome obstacles and live active lives. Still, when Burnett took Evans aside before Expedition Impossible and asked if Weihenmayer thought he was up for the task, the mountaineer took it as a sign that he had much more to prove.
Weihenmayer is more than willing to do just that—for himself and for others with disabilities. “Seventy-five percent of working-age blind people in the world are unemployed, many of them because they’re not given a chance,” Weihenmayer says. “I want to update the image of blindness. When people think of a blind person, I want them to think about a person standing on top of the world.”
It hasn’t always been easy. When he was one, Weihenmayer was diagnosedwith retinoschisis. The prognosis? He would be blind by age 13. As a little boy growing up in Colorado, Weihenmayer had poor vision but was determined to do everything that his friends did. He rode his bicycle around the neighbourhood, narrowly dodging cars. He jumped off cliffs, even when he couldn’t see the rocks below. Weihenmayer wouldn’t recommend that others in his position try these dangerous stunts. In fact, he was lucky that his antics didn’t have dire consequences.
In Weihenmayer’s first book, Touch the Top of the World, he recall wearing thick glasses, holding books to his nose and refusing any aspect of what he considered “the blind world.” His family worried about his dogged determination to do potentially dangerous things. But they didn’t want to stifle him. “I didn’t want to restrain his sense of adventure and desire to break through boundaries,” recalls his father and manager, Ed Weihenmayer. “But on the other hand, I wanted him to stay alive… I remember his mother and I were riding back from Boston after being told when he was one, that he’d be blind by 13, and I was just praying that he’d be satisfied with his life. I wasn’t praying for him to be the tallest or the smartest. I just wanted him to be satisfied with his own existence.”
But the younger Weihenmayer was so anxious to cling to life as a sighted person that when he lost his vision at 13, he was largely unprepared. He’d never learned to read Braille. He had destroyed each cane his parents had given him. “At 13, you don’t even know who you are anyway,” he explains. “You’re like a little raccoon, cornered and gnashing your teeth at the world.”
Slowly, though, he learned to read Braille. He learned to use his cane and got a service dog, all of which led to greater independence. A turning point came at 16, when he went to a recreational program for kids with vision disabilities. There, he canoed, sailed, cross-country skied and, for the first time, climbed rocks.
“I just remember scampering up that rock face,” he says. “I loved being able to problem solve with my hands. It was very physical and a lot of thinking about how to get from point A to point B using my leverage and balance and strength. There was also an uncertainty about whether I’d make it to the top. There was risk. All those things, in my mind, made it an adventure.”
Weihenmayer graduated from Boston College and from Lesley University, earning a Master’s degree in Middle School Education. In 1993, he found a job in Phoenix, Arizona, where he met a community of rock climbers and became “a weekend warrior.” It was there that he met Evans, who would go on to guide him on numerous climbs up the world’s largest mountains.
Evans was immediately impressed with Weihenmayer. As an athlete, Weihenmayer was brave but methodical, and eager but calculating. “Hill after hill, I realized that he was not only good, but committed,” Evans says. “He just needed an ally and a teammate. We bonded right away and we’ve put our respective lives in each other’s hands countless times since. People think he puts his life in my hands, but it goes both ways.”
Weihenmayer’s first major climb—with Evans at his side—was Mount McKinley. The climb was exhilarating and emotional. Weihenmayer gained considerable media attention—he did interviews with stalwarts such as Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric.
Even more noteworthy was what he learned about his ability to face the tough moments while climbing a mountain— moments when he felt he had hit the proverbial wall. “The days before the summit were crushingly exhausting,” Weihenmayer recalls. “I was covered in blisters. I was sore and tired, and every step felt like we were going to suffocate. But summit day was actually easier. I thought, ‘Wow, I actually like climbing again.’”
He liked climbing so much that a string of other conquests followed. He went on to do Kilimanjaro in 1997, followed by Elbrus in Europe, Vinson Massif in Antarctica, Aconcagua in South America and Indonesia’s Carstensz Pyramid in Oceania.
In 2001, he gained international attention as the first blind climber to stand on the highest point in the world—the peak of Mount Everest. He climbed Everest with support from the National Federation of the Blind. Weihenmayer describes standing on the top as oxygen depriving, but exciting. He says, “I thought, ‘I’m in the most remote place on the planet. The summit of Mount Everest is not a place humans belong. It’s like going to the moon. It feels more like space than earth.’”
On each summit, Weihenmayer takes a few minutes to celebrate with his team. Then comes the tougher part—getting down. Descending a mountain is tough on anyone. People’s guards come down, and they forget that a fall forward can be as deadly as a misstep during the ascent. But for someone who is blind, Weihenmayer says, the descent is even more dangerous. “Momentum is working against you,” he explains.
Weihenmayer is now using his platform to elevate others. After his Everest ascent, he taught at Braille Without Borders, a school for the blind in Tibet where he took students mountaineering and rock climbing. His No Barriers organization has an annual summit where assistive technologies are unveiled. Among the latest showcases: rock-climbing gear for quadriplegics, an all-terrain hand cycle and an adaptive kayak.
This year, No Barriers started a program called “Soldiers to the Summit,” which took a dozen wounded veterans on a climb to Lobuche, one of the guardians of Everest. Boulder, Colorado-based Serac Films, produced a film about the climb. High Ground will debut at film festivals in early 2012.
Some of the soldiers in High Ground have post-traumatic stress disorder. Some have traumatic brain injuries. One, like Weihenmayer, has a vision disability. The film shines a light on the struggles that injured soldiers face when they come home from war, says director Michael Brown, and “it’s nothing like what people expect.”
The “Soldiers to the Summit” project started when Weihenmayer’s Everest team wondered how to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of their climb. When they saw footage of soldiers returning from war, they were struck by the stories. “These people just Weihenmayer took a dozen wounded veterans climbing on Lobuche, a guardian of everest went and stood for our country and believed in something bigger than themselves, and because of that, they have a heavy burden to carry,” Weihenmayer says. He plans to take more soldiers to the summit in the future.
Ed Weihenmayer says his son’s legacy has moved beyond simple adventure. “Eighty percent of his energies now are spent passing the baton to people living with special challenges so that they can make the most of their lives,” he says. “Erik is using what he is to motivate and inspire and help people understand that they can accomplish their dreams.”
Says Erik, “Pushing ourselves past our limits is an uncomfortable state, but it’s such a healthy thing. It’s scary—but exciting—to stay in that state of mind. Whatever people do, I want them to keep going through that process.”