Blind World Magazine

First blind person to climb the world's highest mountain.

November 27, 2005.
Trenton Times - Trenton,NJ,USA.

PRINCETON BOROUGH - Imagine climbing Mount Everest, scaling ice waterfalls with snow exploding all around and 70-mile-an-hour winds crashing into your face.

Now imagine climbing that same mountain blind.

Erik Weihenmayer met the challenge in 2001 when he became the first blind person to climb the world's highest mountain. Weihenmayer recently reflected on this seemingly impossible feat at the Princeton Varsity Club's annual lecture.

"People say 'seeing is believing,' and I think that's wrong," Weihenmayer told a large audience in Princeton's Richardson Auditorium. "Believing is seeing."

Author of the book "Touch the Top of the World" about the Everest experience, Weihenmayer reaches out to other blind people with an interest in climbing. He has trained a group of blind Tibetan teenagers, stigmatized for their disability in Tibetan society, and led six of them to a 21,000-foot high peak on Everest.

Weihenmayer, 37, was born with retinoschesis, a condition that caused his vision to deteriorate over the course of his childhood, leaving him totally blind by age 13. Blindness was like a storm descending upon him, he said, and he thought it would crush him.

A newsletter about a mountain climbing trip for blind youth prompted him to try the sport at age 16. Though he lost blood and skin, he got to the top. "It was like a rebirth," he said.

"Life is a never-ending process of reaching out into the darkness and you never know what you're going to find," he said.

One of the most challenging components of climbing mountains such as Mount Everest are frozen waterfalls, which people doubted a blind person could climb. But Weihenmayer learned to use his ice tools as an extension of his hands and to recognize the vibrations of the tools when they hit the ice.

The first time in an ice-fall on Everest it took Weihenmayer 13 hours to get to the top. Resting afterward, he thought he heard sirens telling him to give up.

"My own mind was about to turn me back," he said. "My job was to focus on every step, every moment."

Through hard times on the mountain he thought of the Tibetan saying, "The nature of mind is like water. If you don't stir it, it becomes clear." He strove to keep his mind clear and imagined the rest of his team waiting at the top, he said.

Of the 21-person team, 19 members got to the summit of Everest in May 2001, earning them the record for the most people from a single team to reach the top in one day. At the summit Weihenmayer heard the "beautiful sound of space, like I was swallowed up by sky," he said.

The idea of a "summit" also applies below the high altitude of mountains, he said, whether it be the wrestling mat or the living room floor with children.

A summit is "the moment we realize that our lives are important," he said.

"We can transform our lives into whatever we want them to be," he said. "Then we can transform the face of the earth."

Weihenmayer's climbing record has not been free of failures. Once while climbing a 22,000-foot peak next to Everest with his friend Eric Alexander, Alexander slipped and fell 150 feet. It was not a fatal fall, but enough to give the climber yearlong walking pneumonia.

Now Weihenmayer is writing a book on how to use adversity to one's advantage and plans to lead a blind group on a long trail through Peru. He also is working on the "No Barriers" festival, which teaches people with disabilities new skills such as rock climbing.

"I've learned in the mountains that everyone has strength and resilience inside," he said.

Weihenmayer also runs marathons, wrestles, skis and cycles. He and his father Ed, a 1962 Princeton University graduate and captain of the university football team in 1961, have biked from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

If the option to regain sight were available Weihenmayer would take it, but he doesn't live his life thinking that way. Instead he asks himself, "How can I do the best I can with what I have," he said.

End of article.

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