Erik Wiehenmayer: summit in sight
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN ” Erik Weihenmayer, who has been fully blind since the age of 13, has no problem with the word “disabled.” That might be because he keeps himself too busy ” writing books, speaking in public, taking on physical challenges ” to be bothered much with nomenclature. Or maybe it’s because his accomplishments ” most spectacularly, being the first blind person to summit Mt. Everest, in 2001 ” basically make a mockery of the concept of his being disabled. (A friend of mine suggested that Weihenmayer be termed “hyper-abled.”)
Weihenmayer, in fact, laughs, gently, at people who trip over themselves in an effort to avoid making a socially incorrect slip of the tongue. In helping to organize the Real Deal, a rafting/biking/ropes race in June, for teams of disabled and physically intact people, he has been talking with potential sponsors. He has come away amused by their skittishness in dealing with the blind and amputated.
“They’re petrified to use the word ‘disabled.’ They’re scared to use the word ‘wheelchair,’ or ‘blind,'” said the 39-year-old Weihenmayer by phone from Golden, Colo., where he has lived for the past decade. “They don’t want to not use the most up-to-date term for what these people are. They don’t have a lot of information about how to work with people with disabilities.”
Weihenmayer discovered his passion for climbing after he was blinded, by retinoschisis, a disease which splits the retinas. His father and two brothers were all involved in traditional team sports; his father, Ed, was captain of the football team at Princeton. After Erik became blind, his father took him once a month, from their home in Connecticut, to Boston, to participate in recreation program for the disabled. Weihenmayer tried sailing and other activities; when he got around to rock-climbing, something instantly clicked.
“I thought, That’s the sport,” he recalls. “You’re problem-solving the whole time, using your balance and your mind. And there’s no ball ready to crack you in the head. It’s just you and the rock.”
Since then, Weihenmayer has lived as if there were no meaningful distinctions between the blind and the sighted. He has climbed the so-called Seven Summits ” the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. (His plans for the near-future include climbing what some call the “eighth summit” ” Carstensz Pyramid in New Guinea, a 16,000-foot peak which features a 2,000-foot vertical rock face.) In 2003, he participated in, and completed, the Primal Quest, a nine-day, 457-mile race through the Sierra Nevadas that includes some 60,000 feet of elevation gain.
Asked if he actually prefers the challenge of being blind, Weihenmayer paused a moment. Then he answered, “If I looked at the pros and cons, of being blind, of being a blind climber, if I were ruthlessly analytical, it would be more cons,” he said. “But I’ve stopped looking at my life in that way. I’m a pragmatist. I look at all my resources and my team, my equipment, and think, How do I maximize them? You make whatever you have into an advantage.”
Weihenmayer tends to extend that can-do attitude to others. “I like to assume people can do things until they prove me wrong, rather than the opposite,” he said.
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The documentary film “Blindsight” reveals just how much Weihenmayer tends to think of people, no matter their physical condition, as fully abled. The film, directed by Lucy Walker and showing Saturday and Sunday, May 3-4 at the Wheeler Opera House, is about six teenage students at Braille Without Borders, a school for the blind in Lhasa, Tibet. In Tibet, the blind are typically not merely pushed to the sideline, but ostracized, even cursed at and spit on. The school’s founder, a blind German woman named Sabriye Tenberken, has made it her mission to give the kids dignity, to educate them and teach them to believe in themselves. Figuring there is no better role model than a blind guy who climbed Tibet’s Mt. Everest, she invites Weihenmayer to speak to her students.
Weihenmayer, naturally, takes the idea to its extreme. He proposes that he not only talk to the kids, but lead them on an expedition up Everest ” not to the 29,000-foot summit, but to Lhakpa Ri, a peak on the mountain’s north side that has a reputation for being the gentlest 7,000-meter peak in the world. Tenberken picks six blind students who seem up to the challenge, Weihenmayer assembles a team of guides, and the film tracks the group as it treks up trails, across scree fields, and to the base of the snowfield that leads to the top of Lhakpa Ri. From there, things go less than perfectly, but not horrifically bad; “Blindsight” is genuinely inspiring and touching, not tragic. But the semi-sweet conclusion taught Weihenmayer that not every blind person has the fortitude and tools he possesses.
“I assumed because these kids lived in the mountains, the mountains were a part of their life,” he said. “I wanted to give them a big adventure. These kids are pushed to the side; I wanted to make them part of something important, part of a special team.
“I like thinking big. I like doing things that are firsts. That bigness gets inside you and it affects the rest of your life. Whether you succeed or fail, that bigness affects you, and makes you live bigger.”
Weihenmayer has rethought the episode depicted in “Blindsight” and wonders if he expected too much of the young climbers. On the one hand is the experience of Tashi, an emotionally fragile boy who gives varying signals about whether he can continue the climb. On the other side is Kyila, the girl who, after experiencing altitude sickness on Lhakpa Ri, hugs Weihenmayer and tells him she wants to climb to the summit of Everest. The students have obviously gained from their achievement; Kyila went to the U.K., studied English for a year, and returned to Lhasa to help run Braille Without Borders. But the film doesn’t look away from the friction generated when the kids’ inexperience catches up to them.
“I’m a little bit torn,” said Weihenmayer, the father of two children: a 7-year-old daughter, and a 5-year-old son, adopted from Nepal. “If I was looking just at the straight facts, I was maybe looking at a peak that was too high. Because of the language and the culture, it was hard to know how they were feeling, what they wanted. But they definitely benefited from it. I’m torn, and that’s why it’s such a good movie. It didn’t go perfectly. I saw that tension in the movie, and that’s the way I feel.”
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Weihenamayer will also be appearing in the Roaring Fork Valley in the flesh next week, as a guest speaker at the inaugural 5Point Film Festival in Carbondale. The festival, featuring four film programs centered around outdoor adventures as well as book-signings and talks, runs Thursday through Saturday, May 8-10, in various Carbondale venues. Weihenmayer will participate in a panel discussion, Living Passionately Through Adversity, on Saturday, May 10; fellow panelists include locals Aron Ralston and Chris Klug. He will also give a talk, and introduction to “BrainPort,” a short film about a breakthrough technology for the blind, also on May 10.
The festival’s founder, Julie Kennedy, has stressed that 5Point will emphasize respect, humility and balance over risk and endangerment in its presentations. That makes Weihenmayer’s appearance most appropriate; his experience with the young climbers in Tibet illustrates that adventure can be meaningful and successful without achieving the specific goals one sets.
“The top wasn’t exactly what that expedition was about. It was about finding an experience that means something to everyone,” he said. “And that had to be beaten into me. I’m not the biggest genius out there.
“If I could do the ‘Blindsight’ project again, I’d go in with some questions: What does a summit mean? What does a climbing expedition mean?” continued Weihenmayer. “I don’t know if these kids, 16 or 18, could answer those questions.”
One thing Weihenmayer has always known, however, is that climbing isn’t about the view at the top.
“That’s silly,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s a white-out, or you’re just looking down on the clouds. That’s just a nice, convenient, artsy way of putting it. I do get a sense of view. Not a sweeping view, but a sense of what the rocks feel like under your feet, and the wind, how the snow smells, the sun baking on your face.
“If it’s just about the view, why do people pick the hardest route up the mountain? You want to challenge yourself. You want to climb.”
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