Erik Weihenmayer is a great athlete. He wrestled in high school and college, even being inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1996. Since then, he has earned a reputation as a rock-climber, ice-climber, and mountaineer. Why do these things make him a great athlete? Erik is blind!
Bearing Adversity in Blindness It hardly seems necessary to argue that blindness is an adversity, but for the record here are some details. Born in New Jersey in 1968, Erik was soon diagnosed with retinoschisis. When he was 8, he moved with his family to Hong Kong for 4 years and returned to Connecticut in 1980. His very poor peripheral vision continued to degenerate, and he was totally blind by 13 at the end of junior high.
At Weston High School, he hated using a cane, reading Braille, and riding the handicapped student vehicle. As a freshmen, Erik spent a week at a camp for blind kids. There, he learned to hear open spaces, similar to echo location used by bats. Second, he relearned to swim, hike, and ride a horse. Third, he learned that he loved rock climbing. On his first rock climb, he scrambled up a 60 degree slope on all fours using small handholds and friction-soled climbing shoes. Next, he successfully climbed a sheer face with coaching (“hand hold to your left”). For his fourth climb, the assistance stopped. Erik had to search the entire face for holds with his hands. He learned to follow cracks and to re-use handholds as footholds. His mother died in 1985, while Erik was wrestling. Yet Erik persevered and graduated in June, 1987.
At Boston College, Erik continued to wrestle, but he also skied at Vail, got certified as a scuba diver, and bench pressed 315 pounds. When his left eye contracted glaucoma, he had it replaced with a glass replica. During vacations, his father took Erik and his older brothers, Mark and Eddi, on backpack treks. Their first was the 60 mile Inca Trail in Peru from Cuzco to Machu Picchu. The guide service said that no blind person had hiked the trail, but they welcomed him when they heard of his successes wrestling and rock-climbing. Although Erik enjoyed it, he still struggled while his father guided him for 5 days with a hand on his neck. In the Pyrenees of Spain and through New Guinea’s swamps with Yali men, his father deferred guide duties to his oldest son, Mark, who was stronger and faster. After the trek in New Guinea, the Yali chief told Erik through a translator “We would never have thought such a journey was possible. Our blind people weave baskets in their huts. Maybe there is a better way for the blind people of the Yali.” Erik recognized the importance of his example for blind people worldwide.
In 1991, Erik graduated from Boston College, and 2 years later he got his masters degree in education from Lesley College. During this time, the family trekked in the Pamirs of Tajikistan and the Karakoram of Pakistan. The rest of this story shows Erik overcoming his adversity and turning it into an asset for many people worldwide.
Overcoming Blindness through Climbing In the fall of 1993, Erik began teaching fifth grade at Phoenix Country Day School, where he met two other teachers: Ellen Reeve and Sam Bridgeham. Ellen went with Erik tandem biking and downhill skiing, while Sam became Erik’s rock-climbing partner. Expert rock climbers told Erik he would never be able to lead, because he had to see to locate secure spots for placing protection. With practice and Sam’s help, Erik learned to find safe spots by feel.
Sam wanted to climb Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in North America. For practice, Erik and Sam climbed Mt. Rainier, Washington, and Longs Peak, Colorado. Erik learned to pitch a tent wearing gloves, cook freeze-dried foods on a camp stove, drag a supply sled, use an ice-axe to arrest a sliding fall, and rescue a climber from a crevasse. When people climb Mt. McKinley, they stay roped together to reduce risk from falling into a crevasse, so Erik had only to follow the rope and the crunching sounds of boots on ice. After 19 days on Mt. McKinley, Erik and Sam reached the summit with Jeff Evans and Chris Morris on June 27, 1995.
Then the mail began to pour in: letters from blind children, their parents, and their classrooms from all over the world. Many related how Erik’s climb had given them hope. Again he recognized the importance of his example, and he decided he wanted to climb the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each of the 7 continents. For his second summit, Erik climbed Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, in the summer of 1997, and he married Ellen on its slopes on his way up. Soon, Ellen had their daughter, Emma.
Erik had other things to do before tackling the other 5 peaks. Erik, Sam, and Jeff decided to rock climb the Nose on El Capitan at Yosemite. The 3300 ft. rock face is the largest in North America. Hans Florine, who set several speed records on it, agreed to guide them. They climbed part way up to stash gear on August 6th and began their 3 day climb the next day. Erik led several parts of the climb (rated up to 5.10). In 1998, Erik and his father rode a tandem bike 1200 miles from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He also ran the New York marathon.
In December of 1998, Erik and Chris reached the top of Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America. Erik learned to use trekking poles like a cane. He followed boot-prints in the snow and the sound of Chris’s bear bell. When Erik couldn’t hear the bell in a windstorm, Chris whistled loudly and banged his ice axe on rocks. After returning, Erik’s other eye was replaced (glaucoma again).
Erik wanted to ice climb frozen waterfalls, but experts told him it would not work. Since he could not see, he would knock down a lethal ice mass on top of himself or his partner. Mike O’Donnell and later Mike Gibbs took him anyway, and they experimented. Erik learned to tap ice with his ice axe and listen. If it sounded tinny, the ice was fractured and would burst in his face. If it sounded like a bell, the shallow ice was would avalanche. If, however, he heard a thunk, then the ice was thick and would hold his weight. Erik silenced the nay-sayers when he climbed the Ribbon at Ouray and the 365 foot frozen Bridal Veil Falls at Telluride, Colorado. In 2009, Erik climbed Polar Circus, a 2400 foot waterfall in Alberta, Canada, and Lhosan, a 3000 foot falls in the Himalayas.
Erik and Chris climbed Vinson Massif, the highest peak in Antarctica in January, 2001. The key to success was packing, since the plane had a 100 pound baggage limit per person. The pilot said he’d be back in one week, so they resorted their supplies at Base Camp, carrying and dragging sleds with only what they needed to Camp 1. They reduced loads again when they climbed to High Camp (too steep for sleds). The next morning, when Chris saw a storm approaching, they left their packs, tagged the top, and retrieved the packs on their descent. This trip set Erik’s record for cold: -50°F.
Pasquale Victor (P.V.) Scaturro, who had summited Everest in 1998, met Erik the next year and asked him if he wanted to climb Everest. They began planning, but other climbers and guides tried to discourage them, saying that many sighted guides and climbers die in the icefall and the death zone on Everest. Nevertheless, they invited 11 other climbers, including: Chris, Jeff, Mike, Brad Bull, his father Sherman, Eric Alexander, photographer Charles Mace, and a doctor. For practice, Erik and Sherman climbed Mt. Evans, Colorado, and then the whole group of 13 went to Ama Dablam in April of 2000. Although no one reached the top due to bad weather, the group became a team.
In late March, the team arrived at Base Camp in Nepal at 17,400 feet. Erik wobbled across his first crevasse on a snow bridge in the Khumbu Icefall feeling his way with trekking poles. Then he slowly crossed another crevasse on his first ladder, recalling his backyard practices crossing ladders set on cinder blocks. Erik followed boot prints, but they disappeared frequently in the icy chaos. Sometimes he had to jump crevasses or ascend vertically up ice boulders. Erik’s teammates worked in pairs talking him through the icefall. Finally, he reached Camp 1 at 19,700 feet. It had taken him 13.7 hr., and P.V. was worried. They had figured it would take him 2 extra hours, or 7 hours total, but it had taken Erik twice that long. His team offered to let him stay at Camp 1 while they got the rest of the stuff. Erik rejected the idea; he wanted to try to do it faster. By the fifth trip, he reduced his time to eight hours.
On Easter, Eric Alexander closed their worship service with prayer. “Dear God, give us the will and the patience to climb this awesome mountain and come home safely to our loved ones. Help us make good decisions, to take care of one another, and . . . if standing on top is not to be, give us the wisdom to understand your great plan for us.”
The team climbed to Camp 2 at 21,000 feet on the glacier, and continued to Camp 3 at 23,500 feet. Bad weather caused the team to descend to Dingboche for 3 days and return to Base Camp on May 9. Erik traversed the icefall in 7 hours and went on to Camp 2, but more bad weather caused a return to Base Camp on May 15. On May 20, they started up again. Erik went through the icefall for the ninth time, getting to Camp 1 in 5.4 hr.; he felt good and went on to Camp 2. On May 22, he climbed to Camp 3. The next day he arrived at Camp 4 in the South Col, the pass between Everest and neighboring Lhotse.
Erik’s team had planned to leave for the summit at 9 pm, but only a few climbers could have kept going that day. In another week their permits would expire and monsoons would begin. On a guided climb, strong climbers would have gone on as planned, unwilling to lose their last summit bid if the weather worsened, but Erik’s team agreed unanimously to wait a day. The team departed from Camp 4 at 8:45 pm on May 24, all wearing oxygen masks and goggles. At midnight, P.V. turned around ill, helped by the doctor. About 2 am, Erik and Chris reached the Balcony, but it was snowing. At 4 am, Jeff and Brad had to pull the fixed ropes out of the ice. By 5:30 am, the last climbers arrived at the Balcony, but the heavy snow made the team consider turning back. They discussed the problem for an hour, until they learned by radio from Base Camp that the weather was clearing.
Sherman started climbing immediately and soon reached the South Summit. At 7:15 am, Sherman and Lakpa Sherpa ascended the Hillary Step, a 40 foot high sheer rock face and the last difficulty before the true summit. An hour later, Sherman and Lakpa reached the top. Sherman, age 64, became the oldest man to climb Mt. Everest. When Brad and Chris topped out at 9:30 am, Sherman and Brad became the first American father and son to stand on the summit together. After 10 minutes, they began descending.
Chris had left Erik on the South Summit. Erik climbed slowly, following Chris’s boot tracks with trekking poles. He heard rocks tumble thousands of feet to either side. At 9:15 am, Erik had the dry heaves at the Hillary Step. When he felt better, he kicked his crampon point in a cleft, put his left foot on a snowy cornice, and grabbed holds to pull his upper body onto the top of the step.
About 10 am, Friday, May 25, 2001, Erik, Jeff, and other teammates reached the top of 29,035 foot Mt. Everest. Erik became the first blind person on the top of the world. In the next 45 minutes, the last Sherpa, Mike, and another teammate joined them. The team set the record for the most climbers to summit in a day: 19 including 8 Sherpas. Erik felt the snow, listened to flapping flags, and thanked God.
Eric talked Erik down the Hillary Step and back across the sharp ridge to the South Summit about noon, when Chris was arriving back at Camp 4. Jeff reached Camp 4 at 3:15 pm, and 15 minutes later, so did Erik, Brad, and Sherman. The last few stragglers returned by 4 pm. The team returned to Camp 2 the next day and to Base Camp on May 27.
Erik’s historic ascent made the cover of Outside, Climbing, and even Time magazines. Interest rose even more with the publication of his first book, Touch the Top of the World, in which he chronicled his life to that point. The documentary film of his Everest climb, Farther Than the Eye Can See, was also released. The film won first place at 19 film festivals and was nominated for 2 Emmy awards.
Erik polished off the traditional 7 Summits shortly after. In the summer of 2002, at age 33, Erik reached the top of Mt. Elbrus. Elbrus is the highest peak in Europe at 18,510 ft. He skied down it with Eric Alexander. On September 5, Erik hiked up Mt. Kosciusko in Australia, making the 5 hour hike to the summit with 100 other people.
In September of 2003, Erik raced in California’s Primal Quest. Of the 80 teams of 4 that began, Erik’s team, was among 42 that crossed the finish line at Lake Tahoe. Averaging 2 hours of sleep per night, they completed the 457 mile course in 9 days. The course began with a 30 mile kayak across Lake Tahoe. Other portions required tandem biking, running, crawling, and climbing.
Turning Blindness to Advantage. In 2004, Erik began to channel his efforts to help others. A school in Tibet asked him to come, and Erik began to teach mountaineering and rock climbing to students in May. In October, he led 6 blind teenagers up the Rongbuk Glacier on the north side of Mt. Everest. The documentary of their climb to 21,500 feet, Blindsight, was released the following Spring.
Erik, next, helped a blind African, Douglas Sidialo of Nairobi, Kenya, reach his dream. Erik led a team of 28 climbers, and 23 of them reached the top of Kilimanjaro in 2005. The team included 5 blind men from 4 continents. Success led them to start the Kilimanjaro Blind Trust Foundation. Douglas administers the trust for blind East African children. In July, 2006, Erik also climbed both summits of Mt. Kenya, first Nelion and then Batian.
In January of 2007, Erik’s second book was published, The Adversity Advantage. Erik coauthored it with Paul Stoltz. Paul explains 7 principles for converting adversity into an advantage, and Erik’s climbs of the 7 Summits provide examples of the principles. Indeed, the adversty of blindness had become an advantage for Erik.
On August 20, 2008, Erik reached the summit of Puncak Jaya (Carstenz Pyramid) in New Guinea with Charles Mace and Hans Florine. Jaya is the highest peak in Australasia, which includes Australia and New Guinea. The multi-day trek to the peak and the final rock climb make it a bigger challenge than the short walk to Australia’s Kosciusko. Jaya was the eighth of Erik’s 7 Summits.
Of course, Erik did not stop adventuring. In 2009, Erik, his brother Eddi, and 3 Iranian climbers climbed Mt. Ararat in Turkey. One of the Iranians translated Erik’s book and movie into Farsi, and both he and Erik hoped it would help blind Iranian children. Also, in 2009, with the release of his video and first book in Spanish, he led blind students up Mexico’s volcanos.
In 2011, Erik, Jeff, and a military man formed a team for Expedition Impossible, a televised race starting in Morocco. Each of the first 9 weeks, a team was eliminated. In the tenth week, Erik’s team was one of 4 remaining, but Erik had to settle for second place behind the Gypsies.
Erik had joined a paraplegic and a double-leg amputee to climb Fisher Towers, an 800 foot spire near Moab, Utah, in 1999. After their ascent, they founded No Barriers, which held 4 day conventions in Italy in 2004 and 2005. The conventions introduce cutting-edge technologies for the handicapped, such as talking GPS for the blind and prosthetic legs with detachable climbing feet or computerized joints. No Barriers conventions also offer excursions hiking, rafting, rock climbing, horseback riding, and mountain biking. Since 2005 it has been held every two years in the USA: Squaw Valley, CA; Miami, FL; and Winter Park, CO. Erik loved to help blind and disabled people climb.
In 2011, No Barriers expanded to include soldiers. Erik took 10 disabled veterans up Lobuche near Everest. Such a trip helped disabled military veterans readjust to civilian life. In 2012, he plans to take another Soldiers to the Summit group to Ecuador to climb Cotopaxi.
For Erik, blindness began as an adversity. He overcame it slowly at first, but eventually achieved what few other climbers have ever accomplished: He climbed the 7 Summits, led multi-day rock climbs, ice climbed up frozen waterfalls, and participated in adventure races. However, Erik didn’t stop with finding new and innovative methods for doing what others had said would be impossible. He found God’s purpose for his blindness and used it to help other people. His books and movies continue to help people all over the world. His climbs with blind teens in Tibet and blind men in Africa have helped them achieve the impossible. His climbs with No Barriers have helped blind and disabled people reach beyond their limits and have also helped disabled military veterans readjust to civilian life. Erik has indeed turned his adversity into an asset for thousands around the globe.
•2001 Everest Expedition. See www.2001everest.com.
•Greenfeld, Karl Taro. “Blind to Failure.” Time, 6-18-2001.
•Kaminsky, Marty. Uncommon Champions. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press, 2000. Chapter 1 is about Erik.
•Kroese, Mark. “Erik Weihenmayer.” Outside, Dec. 2001, p. 54.
•Perlman, Eric and Mark Wellman. Beyond the Barriers. Truckee, CA: Eric Perlman Productions: 1998. Video shows ascent of Fisher Towers.
•Pierce, Barbara. “Weihenmayer Reaches the Top.” The Braille Monitor, July 2001. See www.nfb.org.
•USA Today. “Another Climbing Feat for Weihenmayer.” See www.usatoday.com/sports/2002-09-06-climbing-feat_x.htm.
•Weihenmayer, Erik. “Tenacious E.” Outside, Dec. 2001, pp. 55, 131.
•—-. Touch the Top of the World. New York: Plume, 2002.
•—-. Correspondence by email in September of 2006 concerning his recent trek in July.
•—-. www.touchthetop.com. All photos are from his website. See also Erik’s Bio.