Erik Weihenmayer talks about living a ‘no barriers’ life at Symposium event
March 20, 2017
If you go …
What: “No Barriers,” with Erik Weihenmayer.
When: Tuesday, March 21; 6 p.m. doors open, 6:30 p.m. program.
Where: Donovan Pavilion, 1600 South Frontage Road W., Vail.
Cost: Free, $10 suggested donation.
More information: Although the program is free, preregistration is required at http://www.vailsymposium.org.
VAIL — Erik Weihenmayer shot to fame in 2001 when he became the first blind man to climb Mount Everest, but it was the quiet moment descending the mountain when the expedition's leader turned to him and said, "Don't make Everest the greatest thing you ever do."
Since that moment, Weihenmayer has pushed beyond the peak of Everest, leading expeditions around the world, helping injured soldiers re-establish their lives, adopting a son from Nepal and — what he calls his most terrifying feat — descending the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in a solo kayak.
These adventures, the one's since Everest, are what Weihenmayer writes about in his new book, "No Barriers." Using his exploits to establish the framework for his motto of living a life not limited by personal challenges — what he calls a no barriers life — Weihenmayer's writing follows a host of examples of people, himself included, overcoming major challenges.
Weihenmayer will speak at the Donovan Pavilion in Vail on Tuesday as part of the Vail Symposium's Unlimited Adventure series presented in partnership with the Vail Public Library. This program is also a collaboration with The Bookworm of Edwards, and copies of Weihenmayer's book will be for sale. The program is free, but preregistration is recommended, as space is limited.
Before Weihenmayer takes the stage, though, he opens up in this Q-and-A about his book and the stories in it.
Q: Can you give us, in your own words, a synopsis of the book?
A: On the surface, it's an adventure story — everything from coming down Everest to kayaking the Grand Canyon blind. The story is also personal, from being in a pretty dark place when I had just gone blind in high school through these wild adventures on big mountains and rivers. Equally, I think it is also about real life, about how messy and unpredictable life is and how hard to change and experience growth in our lives is.
People think life moves forward in a way where everything wraps up in a nice, neat bow. Really, there is a lot more flailing and bleeding forward. I think that is the coolest part of the book, trying to illuminate what that process looks like — the way people change and how people put themselves on new horizons.
Q: Your life has served as a source of inspiration for a lot of people, but can you tell us about one of the people in your book who stands out as having an outstanding story, or one that you are most inspired by?
A: There are dozens of people in the book, but maybe the forefather of them all is Terry Fox. Terry lost a leg to cancer, and he made a decision after that he was going to run across Canada. That was a pretty wild decision, definitely not a normal decision. That was one of the things I learned over and over again about this study of people — that at these pivotal moments, instead of shrinking and retreating and protecting themselves, they instead get bigger, and that propels them into this crazy, spiraling, unpredictable direction.
I think it is a message we all need now, what these people wind up doing. They ground themselves, turn inward and commit to growing whatever that thing is that is their inner strength, and that becomes energy.
Q: There is scientific aspect of your book that people have found fascinating — something about being able to see through electrical pulses on your tongue and the neuroplasticity of the brain?
A: There is a device called a BrainPort. Basically, you wear a camera on your head and that translates light from an image through a microprocessor to a plate I wear on my tongue where I get electrical pulses. So, the tongue is feeling what the camera is seeing. It sounds like science fiction, but I can play cards or tic-tac-toe with my kids, and I use it to climb.
It is a fascinating exercise of how the brain works. The brain never meant for the tongue to send visual signals to the brain. But this neuroplasticity is a biological reinforcement for this message that the brain can change and adapt.
Q: What was the hardest part of the book to write?
A: People with disabilities are often thought of as particularly inspirational. It is well intended. I appreciate it, but it does, in a way, separate us. There are lots of inspirational people out there. I wanted to write a book that connects us all. At one level, all of our experiences are the same.
The hardest parts of the book to write were about the death of my brother from addiction, about fighting through a civil war to bring my son home from Nepal. These are things that aren't as glitzy as kayaking the Grand Canyon. They are the kinds of experiences that are the glue that holds us together — family, love, pain — things we all experience.
Q: Finally, can you tell us about the Grand Canyon and how it was different from your experience on Everest?
A: Climbing mountains is slow and sort of methodical in some ways. Kayaking is not. Kayaking is way different. There are no breaks, and it was an insane environment with the noise from the water and all the crazy things happening to my boat and me. I was trying to navigate with the voice on the radio, the feeling under my boat and my ears to orient myself with holes and rocks and waves.
There were so many times I sat on the side of the river with my face in my hands wondering what I was doing, or dry heaving before a rapid because I could hear what was coming downstream. It was hard not to shy away from the fear. But I had to use that fear.
Q: Does your book have an intentional or particular message?
A: Understanding the things you can break through. Sure, I broke through barriers in a kayak in the Grand Canyon. That is a phrase that works. But I won't break through being blind. It is about trying to assert your own force over your own world and harnessing challenges and using them as fuel for yourself.