Blind climber Erik Weihenmayer sees his dream come to fruition
When Erik Weihenmayer gave a slide show in Carbondale Thursday night, he constantly had to double check with his audience to verify which picture was showing on the screen.
He didn’t have any way of even knowing whether the house lights were up or down.
But he knew one thing: Despite his blindness, he had proved the skeptics wrong.
He had climbed to the top of the world.
Speaking in a filled-to-capacity Barn at Colorado Rocky Mountain School, Weihenmayer gave a humor-laced, engaging and inspirational account about not only climbing in perpetual darkness to the top of Mount Everest, but surmounting summits, despite the obstacles, in our day-to-day lives.
Weihenmayer said he doesn’t climb to prove anything, but only because he loves it. At the same time, when he reached Everest’s top last May 25, he acknowledged that it was nice to face his naysayers “and say `look what’s possible’ … because that creates more opportunities, less barriers in front of people.”
There was a time when barriers were all that Weihenmayer thought was left to see. At age 13, he rapidly lost his sight from a rare genetic disease, retinoschisis.
Weihenmayer had been an active youth who loved basketball, bicycling and hanging out with friends. But by the time he got to high school, he was having to be led to classrooms and the bathroom.
“Blindness was like this monster that was descending on me with such force that I didn’t know what to do, where to turn,” he said.
Weihenmayer quickly came to hate his disability and the fact that it rendered him helpless and reliant on others.
“I didn’t want to be swept to the sidelines, I didn’t want to be swept away and forgotten. I wanted to be a leader, a pioneer.”
Weihenmayer adjusted only grudgingly to the idea of using Braille. He remembers playing practical jokes on his Braille teacher by scratching out some of the dots to turn the symbols into dirty words, and then asking her to read the words to him.
“You can hear a blush, by the way,” Weihenmayer said, who still wears a perpetually mischievous grin.
But his teacher managed to pull a trick or two on him, as well. She “Brailled out” adventure travel stories for him to reads, and an article on minor league baseball players with big dreams.
“It described them as salmon swimming upstream, and that’s how I felt,” he said.
Inspired, Weihenmayer soon decided not to be sidelined by a condition that left him stumbling in the dark.
“I was sick of falling and reacting to life, I wanted to lead,” he said.
Before long, he was doing just that, serving as captain of his high school wrestling team.
Around the same time, he received an offer from an organization that took blind kids rock climbing. To Weihenmayer, being a blind climber sounded like an oxymoron, he said – “like a Jamaican bobsledder” – but he also was starting to realize not to doubt what he was capable of.
“Maybe if there are other things that I really set my mind too, I can do them,” he reasoned.
When he tried climbing, he learned to hang on with one hand and feel for holds with the other – scary as it was.
People who can see sometimes also experience that same paralyzing fear of failure, he said.
“I think that’s what turns people back, that fear of reaching out into the darkness when you don’t know what you’re going to find.”
Weihenmayer soon came to love the feel of the rock, being up high, and the sense of open space all around him, which he could sense from sounds moving out in very direction.
“It was so exhilarating, it was almost painful. It was a rebirth,” he said.
“I decided all I wanted was right in front of my eyes. I just have to reach for it.”
As Weihenmayer developed his climbing skills, he began to employ what he calls “secret systems,” just as he does in other aspects of his life. He can tell the size of a room by its echo, and whether his socks match by the placement of safety pins on their heels, toes, etc.
Likewise, he learned when ice climbing, for example, to tap on the ice and listen to it before making his next swing with the ax, in order to find a solid place to strike and to avoid dislodging an iceblock onto him.
Some may think vision is necessary to climb, said Weihenmayer.
“I’ve come to the understanding that there’s not just one way to climb a mountain. There’s an infinite number of ways to climb a mountain. Everyone has to figure out how to climb their own mountains.”
After Weihenmayer grew up, he became a teacher in Phoenix, a job he loved. But climbing eventually demanded his full-time attention.
While Weihenmayer also runs marathons, skis, scuba dives and skydives, he was reaching the greatest heights of achievement as a climber. He succeeded in climbing up El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, where he led about six pitches covering almost 1,000 feet. And one by one, he began ticking off the highest summits on each of the world’s seven continents.
On one of those, Kilimanjaro in Africa, he married his wife, Ellie Reeve. A year ago he summited Mount Vinson in Antarctica.
This June, he hopes to climb up and ski down the highest mountain in Europe.
The first peak he summited that was significantly above 14,000 feet was Denali. Coincidentally, he reached its top on June 27, Helen Keller’s birthday.
As he sat on top, family and friends circled in an airplane, hoping to catch a glimpse of him and his partners as they waved at the plane. When he asked whether those in the plane could see him, “A friend said, `Yeah, they’ll know, Eric. You’re the only one waving your ski pole in the wrong direction.'”
With Everest behind him, Weihenmayer has only two of the seven summits to go. He said he first decided he was ready to climb the world’s highest peak five years ago, but worried about failing. Even though most who attempt the peak don’t make it, in his case, if he didn’t succeed, “people would immediately say, `What did you think? I mean, the guy can’t see.'”
Still, he decided it’s far better to fail at something than being talked out of it before he started.
Before he knew it, a fellow climber who had previously summited Everest asked him if he’d like to climb it, and soon they had a team formed to make an attempt.
Weihenmayer is full of praise for his team, which worked together, on behalf of everyone. Other Everest teams don’t trust each other or communicate well, but instead are just a group of individuals, he said.
“They build walls around themselves. Their egos get in the way of a team vision. They end up climbing alone, and I think the mountain is probably too big to climb alone.”
Weihenmayer believes that a lack of teamwork is to blame for many of the deaths on Everest.
But despite the strength of Weihenmayer’s team, some questioned the wisdom of his undertaking. Climbing legend Ed Viesturs publicly expressed fears that Weihenmayer might prove a risky liability to his teammates. Jon Krakauer, who summited Everest in 1996 and wrote an acclaimed book, “Into Thin Air,” about the many deaths that occurred on the mountain that year, wrote Weihenmayer a polite letter in which he said he knew Weihenmayer could make it to the top, but still feared he would subject himself to more risk than other climbers on what is already a risky mountain.
“The critics were endless. Some of them were nice, some of them were downright cruel,” Weihenmayer said.
But he added, “These guys were experts on climbing, and they were experts on Mount Everest, but they didn’t know a thing about me.”
He decided to go and find out for himself.
“I didn’t need others to tell me.”
As their climb began, he quickly found out just how difficult a challenge he faced. He and his Sherpas thought getting across ladders bridging the notorious Khumbu Icefall might be the toughest part of the climb. Weihenmayer played a video Thursday showing his first tentative and frightening attempts to walk across a ladder bridging a deep crevasse, as his crampons tried to trip him up.
But he said the ladder was the easiest part of the icefall, compared to the “jumbled mess” of the rest of it, which threatened to break a bone if he took a wrong step.
“My first time through the icefall was definitely the hardest day of my life, and I’ve had some hard days in the mountains,” he said.
What should take five hours to cross took him 13.
He crawled into his tent discouraged that night. He couldn’t imagine passing through the icefall another nine times. But it would take that many, if his team was to make repeated trips up and down part of the mountain in order to acclimatize to the lack of oxygen.
Weihenmayer thought of the naysayers, but also of a Tibetan saying that holds, “The nature of the mind is like water. If you do not disturb it, it will become clear.”
He decided that no matter how high up Everest he got, he would celebrate the accomplishment, rather than looking at anything less than summiting as a failure.
Meanwhile, the weather wasn’t cooperating, delaying Weihenmayer’s summit bid. But his climbing skills on the mountain were improving. He reduced his time getting through the icefall to the standard five hours.
Soon, Weihenmayer and his team ascended to within striking distance of the summit. As they waited in their tent, another climber poked his head in and told them they were going to have a tough time getting a blind guy up the mountain – not realizing Weihenmayer was in the tent, having already made it up that high.
Though he feared the climber might be right, he decided to prove him wrong.
When the team started out in the dark for the summit, Weihenmayer was in his element. As the others searched for footing and handholds in the small circles of light illuminated by their headlamps, he moved along confidently, feeling his way as he always did.
“I was now the fast guy; it was sort of strange,” he said.
Soon, however, the team was beset by a big storm, and had to stop and debate whether to press on or turn back. However, a radio call from base camp alerted them to the fact that the storm was supposed to pass. They proceeded cautiously, and before long had perfect conditions for summiting.
Weihenmayer and 18 others made the summit that day, a one-day record. Those summiting also included another on Weihenmayer’s team, Sherman Bull, 64, who was the oldest man ever to climb the mountain, and with his son Bradford, of Denver, became the first father-and-son duo to summit on the same day.
When Weihenmayer summited, a climbing partner urged him to “stop and look around.”
“I did, and the view was great, I have to say.”
What he couldn’t see, he could hear: “that beautiful sound of sky all around me. … It was like I was swallowed by sky.”
But – take it for what it’s worth from a blind man – Weihenmayer said summit views alone are overrated. If that’s all climbers are after, it’s easier to stay home and buy a postcard, he said.
“A summit isn’t just about the view, it’s so internal – a little dream made real. I think a summit in a sense could exist anywhere,” he said – in the classroom, on the ski slopes, with family.
“I believe the summit is inside of us,” he said.
He said he loves climbing because of the joy of being in the mountains with friends, the fun of the climb and the clear goal of summiting.
“It’s very straightforward, very linear, very focused,” he said.
But this man without the ability to see also believes that in climbing, and in life in general, any goals arise from a deeper vision of how people see themselves impacting the world and leaving a legacy.
“I think in our lives we first have to conceive a vision of our lives and then our goals will spring from that,” he said.
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