The seven summits, Seven of the tallest peaks in the world. Many have talked about daring the bold adventure, some have set forth on the quest, but only a relative few will be able to tell their children tales of Everest, Aconcagua, McKinley, Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Vinson Massif or Kosciuszko. As they embark on their journey, setting forth with a goal and a dream. each climber brings to the team unique hurdles-those things in life they’ve had to overcome to be worthy of seeing the world from a level eagles have never dared to soar. Each climb, a victory. No matter their reason or motivation, each climber exemplifies a remarkable fortitude distinguishing them from all others.
In May of 2001, a record was set when a 64 year-old man became the oldest person to summit Mount Everest. That history making expedition set more than one record though when Erik Weihenmayer became the first legally blind climber to ascend the world’s tallest peak. Today, Erik is one of only a handful of people in the world to have completed the seven summits. Although completely blind since the young age of 13, Erik is known for being a man of extraordinary vision. His passion and zeal for life extends beyond mountain climbing to include almost every sport imaginable from rock climbing and skydiving, skiing to most recently, paragliding. His story has been followed by FoxNews, CNN, Sports Illustrated, Time Magazine, Outdoor, Climbing and a host of other news sources.
Erik’s early blindness was caused by a disease called Rhetinoschesis. As Erik explains to ABILITY Magazine‘s Romney Snyder, during one of his brief respites at his Golden, Colorado home, “I was diagnosed with the disease at age two. Juvenile Rhetinoschesis is very rare and I visited a ton of doctors before they diagnosed it. This isn’t a technical description of what hap pens, but the way I understand it, your retinas sort of unravel like a rope. There’s a lot of pressure in your eyes that can make them split and hemorrhage. For years, my retinas were constantly splitting away from my eyes. I would be able to see at a certain level, then a couple weeks later, something would happen and I’d be able to see a little less.”
While born legally blind, Erik could still see well enough to ride a bike, play sports and participate in most games and activities. By middle school. Erik’s residual eyesight was depleting quickly. “They said if my head was to get banged around, my retinas would separate faster… but I couldn’t live in a bubble. I was water skiing, running through the woods, jumping off cliffs into the river. That may have made it go faster, but that’s OK with me.’’
Against the doctor’s recommendations, Erik was unwilling to give up living his childhood in turn for a little extra time with his dwindling eyesight. “They want you to live a sedate life, but I was having fun. When I was a kid, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about going blind. I just liked being one of the guys, doing things that made me part of a team. I didn’t want to be left behind, sitting on the sidelines. I hated that feeling,” he comments..
Fortunately for Erik, he wasn’t coddled by his parents and his blindness never got him out of a wrestling match with one of his rough-housing brothers. “My dad’s an ex-marine. He was a Vietnam veteran and captain of his football team; my brothers are all athletes and have this gung-ho attitude. I grew up with them and was sur rounded by good athletes and people that are very aggressive. My older brother, Eddie, is three years older than me. We’d wrestle, fight and hit each other over the head-so I definitely wasn’t coddled. I used to love jumping ramps. There’s a story about how my dad spray painted the ramp bright orange when I couldn’t see the edges anymore.
“I remember when I was in Boy Scouts. We’d go hiking and I couldn’t see that well, so I’d hike along with a white cane and he would be one of the dads who would volunteer to hike with everyone he was just always there. He was a great dad. My mom, on the other hand, was very protective-like a lioness-always protecting my opportunities. I compare my parents to being a broom and a dustpan; my mom picks up the shattered pieces and puts them together and then my dad sweeps me back out again. That’s the way it continually was.”
Every parent is instilled with an instinct to protect their children from themselves and their environment. Parents of children with disabilities are faced with the same tough dilemma, which is then compounded by any additional requirements their child may have. While his parents were always careful, Erik is grateful they gave him the opportunity to experience life. During high school, he attended a two-week computer camp for the blind where he met another child frightened to go under the water. This child’s parents told him, “Don’t go under the surface. You’re blind so you won’t be able to see the surface to get back up.”
“I’m not saying his parents didn’t love him.” Erik responds. “They were sympathetic instead of being empathetic. He didn’t know whether he could do it or not because that’s what he’d been told. The result was that he never tried. I always had this attitude to go out and try things.”
Although Erik would do everything to push the limits, his parents were there to reel him back in. “I had a little mini-bike, a YZ-50, that I got from a friend and my parents didn’t know about it. 50 mph down the road and I could barely see. My mom was coming home from the grocery store one day and I almost ran right into the car. There was a lecture that night and I never rode a motor cycle again.” Erik recalls. “They didn’t want me to do crazy things, but that’s a part of growing up; a part of life is about assuming calculated risks.”
Then one day at the age of 13, Erik walked right off the end of a dock. He landed in a swamp, and it frightened him into accepting the truth.
A natural part of growing up is facing disappointments. After having his bike confiscated, he was also forced to accept that as much as he loved the sport, basketball was not going to be where he excelled. By the time Erik was a freshman in high school, he was totally blind and no longer cautious about taking blows to the head. Still looking to be involved in team sports, Erik quickly gravitated to the wrestling team where he became Connecticut’s second-ranked wrestler in his weight class. Erik admits that losing the last of his residual eyesight was a good thing because the gloves were off. There was no more sight that could be lost and he could finally do whatever he wanted. “In some ways, that middle ground, that transition of going blind was harder than
just being blind,” he notes. “There was no consistency. At least being blind I realized how to approach things. I had a consistent playing field. Wrestling was a great sport for me. It saved me.”
Even while wrestling, he was missing other recreational opportunities. Connected with the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Massachusetts, Erik began attending various activities like tandem biking, cross-country skiing and sailing.
Everything changed when they took him rock He was 16, weighed 120 pounds and could do 40 pull ups; he had the perfect physique for the sport. “I enjoyed tandem biking but you know, you’re sitting on the back of a bike and you’re not in control. When I started rock climbing, I was so engaged. I used my hands and my feet against the rock and felt my way up. I’d be hanging on one arm and doing a pull up and scanning my other hand across the face. There was a sense of urgency about it as you feel for little cracks, pockets, grooves, knobs and all sorts of dozens and dozens of different things. You’re problem solving your way up the mountain and trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B to point C. I had never done anything so engrossing before in my life and I just loved it. The texture of the rock under my hands and the patterns of hot and cold… When I got up high, it was an absolutely amazing sense of space. I could hear sound vibrations moving infinitely through space-you don’t get that on the ground unless you’re in a big wide field. When you’re up on the rock you can hear sounds below. It’s super powerful.”
While he was away at wrestling camp, Erik learned that his mother had been killed in a car crash. In the coming months his father would return from work to find Erik curled in his mother’s closet, where he could smell her clothes.
Looking for a way to keep the family from drifting apart, Erik’s father suggested they hike the Inca Trail in Peru. Using a cane and letting his father and brothers steer him by exerting pressure on the back of his neck, Erik completed the 27-mile trek and began to develop a love for adventure and the wilderness. In the following summers Erik and his family trekked through Spain, Pakistan and Papua New Guinea. Erik’s father hoped these trips would provide a cohesiveness for the family after their mother died.
Not long after graduating from Boston College, Erik rediscovered his passion for rock climbing. Over the next few years he honed his skills during dozens of one day climbs. It was his climbing partner, Sam Bridgham. that first suggested they try something more difficult Mount McKinley.
Erik embraced the challenge. He prepared to pitch his own tent in finger-numbing blizzards by practicing in the desert wearing heavy mittens. He trained for weeks by running the stairs of a 50-story building in Phoenix wearing a 70-pound backpack. During his first summit on Mount McKinley, Erik learned to use the poles to test for thickness before taking a step. He discovered that by hanging small bear bells on the climber ahead of him, he could follow confidently without having to ask directions. Working as a close team with the other climbers was imperative to Erik’s success, “When we were climbing and you’re going through the dangers that you encounter, you become the best of friends. They’d tell me about terrain changes or tap the pole if they want me to jump across the crevasse onto the other side.” When he encountered uneven, unstable surfaces of rock and ice-one of the most frustrating conditions for a blind climber-his partners gave him oral cues to help. An “iceberg” was an immovable rock in the trail. “Ankle burners” were a series of those rocks dead ahead. “Rollers” were loose rocks or ice chunks.
Along the trail, his partners tried to give him a sense of the danger they faced. There were “death falls,” “severely pissed-off falls” and “mildly annoying falls.” The final narrow ridge to the top of McKinley (the ridge is only a few feet wide) involved a 9,000-foot death fall to the right, and a 1000-foot death fall to the left. “They were super patient,” he adds. One mistake during that quarter-mile traverse would have been fatal. He made it, though. By complete coincidence, his team of six climbers, which was sponsored by funding from the American Foundation for the Blind, summited McKinley’s 20,320-foot peak on Helen Keller’s birthday.
Touch the Top of the World: A Blind Man’s Journey To Climb Farther Than The Eye Can See is Erik’s autobiography that chronicles his struggle through blindness to reach some of the highest peaks in the world, shattering expectations about what’s possible, “I’ll tell you a story out of my book. When I summited McKinley, my family went to Alaska as well. My dad, two brothers and my wife timed it so that they would be flying above us and watching us take our last steps. It was really cool. So there we were at 20.000 feet standing on top of this mountain, wearing red suit and waving our ski poles at this plane circling above us. It occurred to me that we all had the same red suits on and they would not be able to tell who was who. I said to my friend, ‘Hey, you think they’ll know which one is me?” and he said, ‘Yeah, they’ll know. You’re the only one waving your ski pole in the wrong direction!’ Things like that happened all the time. Stuff like that is funny, you’ve got to have a sense of humor in life. You have to laugh at yourself.”
To Erik and his friends, his blindness has never been a big deal and has been an on-going source of humor, “It’s funny because I saw a blind comedian one time and he was making jokes about his blindness like a sixth grader poking fun at himself to fit in; I didn’t like that kind of humor at all. Around my friends it’s different; we totally make fun of each other. I think guys do that. Blindness is just one of those things that makes me unique. For example, my friend Jack is a pretty boy. When he’s around there are a lot of women that pay attention to him, because he’s a really handsome guy. Another is a smart guy with a high IQ… but for me, I am blind and that’s something unique that my friends point to. They call me names like, ‘Super Blind Guy, and they don’t avoid it. They don’t make fun of me, but they use that, as a piece of who I am to connect with me. Humor is great.”
Today Erik has completed all seven summits. It was on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania where he stopped halfway to the top for a ceremony to make Ellie Reeve his wife, and Kosciuszko, the tallest peak in Australia which marked the end of his quest.
As a tribute to his life and accomplishments-which have apparently only just begun-Erik was asked to be the spokesperson for the “National Campaign for Literacy, Textbooks, Transcribers and Technology,” which is co-sponsored by Verizon and the American Foundation for the Blind. “It’s nice to have a broader cause attached to the climb,” he says. “It might shatter people’s perceptions about blindness, which are often more limiting than the disability itself.”
Growing up, Erik was typical in his desire to blend in with other kids and resisted learning Braille. “Finally,” he concedes. “I learned something, and I learned it the hard way. In that, I mean if you’re blind-you learn Braille. It’s not the way that other people read with their eyes, but it does the trick.” When put into perspective. learning Braille was simply one more adjustment that Erik had to make to accommodate his blindness. “It’s like when you type on the computer with a voice synthesizer, listening instead of reading, walking down the hallway with a cane, using trekking poles when I’m hiking or climbing with my hands verses my eyes-it all gets you to the same place. I started thinking that the real strength of a person is in their differences, not their similarities.
“It is important to find your own way, and Braille is that system for a blind person. You cannot function-or you’ll function very poorly-without Braille. I use it all the time: when I’m doing a presentation to a company I have my note cards in Braille; I use a computer with a Braille display; my grocery lists are in Braille; phone numbers, addresses, my rolodex-all in Braille. I read stories to my daughter in Braille. I just think my quality of life would not be as good without it. People say, ‘What about tapes?’ Well, that’s great, but it’s not active. It’s not really reading. It is taking in information, but it’s not active reading.”
While the concept of learning Braille can be very daunting, Erik finds there is little difference between learning Braille at the age of 25 or first learning to read print at that age, “I think it’s exactly parallel with print. People think it’s harder, but I don’t think it is. I think people don’t attack it with the same expectations as when they read print. It has a lot to do with expectation.”
Unfortunately, there are not enough qualified Braille teachers available. The purpose of the national campaign is to encourage and motivate people into the professions of Braille teachers and textbook transcribers. “I think that it’s one of the reasons that kids who are blind are not learning Braille as much as they should be there are not enough qualified people out there to teach it. Blind kids should be taught to read Braille with the same sort of frequency and velocity as a sighted kid… and I don’t think that happens,” he says.
One of Erik’s sponsors is a company called Freedom Scientific, which manufacturers computer hardware and software products for people with low vision or who are blind. “I use the Millennium, which is basically a lap top for the blind. It has a Braille keyboard and instead of having a visual screen, there is a Braille display on the bottom. It can go back and read what you’ve written or what email is on the screen.’ It’s absolutely amazing. These technologies have revolutionized blindness because now in college, you can sit and take notes quietly, print it out and then have your notes in Braille.
“They also make something called JAWS, a screen read er software. The software connects with something already in windows that enables it to talk-an internal synthesizer per se. There’s now software available to the blind for word processing, accounting, spreadsheets, internet and emails! What does pose a barrier these days is that sometimes websites are formatted with graphics, as opposed to text files. This can become difficult for a screen reader to navigate. The other sponsor of my Everest climb was the American Foundation for the Blind which posts steps for creating an accessible web site on their own site. It’s not a big deal, but keeping certain parameters in mind makes it a lot easier to do it correctly from the start than to go back and fix it.”
He’s braved Mount Everest, climbed the world’s most difficult face of a rocks, jumped from a plane-what else is there? “I’m taking up paragliding. I’ve been thinking this is a great way to get down from mountains,” he laughs. “I have about 12 jumps now.”
There are some lines Erik will draw for himself, “I had started ski racing, had a pretty bad tumble and fell off a cliff,” he says nonchalantly. “If you try to do everything, you’re going to spread yourself too thin. I don’t even call them sacrifices, it’s just identifying where your priorities are. I do stay focused. I always like to have five or six things I’m doing on an on-going basis; one’s my wife and my daughter, climbing is one and then I always like to be learning something new. For me, the greatest part is when you put yourself in the position of being a pioneer; when you are just trying to figure something out-you are trying to cross through those lines between what some people may think is impossible and what you know could be possible. It’s exciting to look towards new opportunities and new possibilities. When I paraglide, I fly solo with two radios. There’s a person at the drop point-the landing zone-looking up at me helping me to navigate myself and so forth.”
Once referring to his blindness as an adventure, Erik has continued to live his life that way-tackling every new opportunity with vigor, “I don’t think any blind person has paraglided before, but I get a kick out of being the first person and trying something that no one has ever done. Just seeing how far I can take it.” Of course, like every person who’s ventured into the unknown, Erik has his naysayers that sit back and question his techniques… and sometimes his sanity. The reality though, is that Erik and his teams have always gone to great lengths creating systems to ensure that what he is doing is as safe and as efficient as possible. “I never see myself as some kind of blind Evil Knievel-guy. I don’t think I’m taking crazy risks. I think there’s just a lot of untapped potential out there. I have a great team of people around me, lots of back-up plans, and I think everything through. Sure, I’ve backed away from climbs before. I get nervous and I get scared-like anyone. I’m not just some crazy blind guy.”
Making sure the record is set straight, Erik concludes, “I climb the mountains and do the things I do for selfish reasons. It’s the same reason an artist paints a picture or an author writes a book-it fulfills them. You want to tap into that. I think when a blind person stands atop Mt. Everest, climbs the seven summits, paraglides or whatever, it essentially shatters a person’s idea of what’s possible or what’s not. It creates new opportunities for people that come later and that’s a good feeling. I really just do it because it’s fun. You can’t go up a dangerous mountain like Everest to prove to the world that blind people can do this or that. You’ve got to do it because you want to be there. You really truly love it. You appreciate the mountain.”
by Romney Snyder