Some say that the quest of sightless climber Erik Weihenmayer to summit Mount Everest is foolhardy. He and his team say it's worth the try
In the 1920s when asked, "Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?" and
George Mallory asserted, "Because it is there," he was only stating
the less important half of the equation. The unspoken half is that we are here.
Striving and achieving is part of our nature, built into our genetic
The man who would climb Everest is talking softly to his nine-month-old daughter, Emma, stroking her head as he holds her, drawing a mental picture as he stares into space. He is three weeks away from the late-March morning when he will leave his Golden, Colo., home and begin his historic climb of the world's highest mountain. He hopes to summit in mid-May, and by the time of Erik Weihenmayer's projected return in the first week of June, little Emma will be much changed. Crawling, certainly. Walking, perhaps. Weihenmayer has never actually seen his beautiful child, whom friends have nicknamed the Gerber Baby. The mountain climber is blind.
"It's like being a Jamaican bobsledder," he says. "Blind mountain climber. The words just don't connect."
Little about the 32-year-old Weihenmayer connects with traditional stereotypes of the blind. At Weston High, he was Connecticut's second-ranked wrestler in his weight class. He's run marathons. He's made nearly 50 solo skydives. But it's when he's perched on the side of a mountain that Weihenmayer feels most alive.
"I like the spiritual feeling of being on a mountain," he says. "The space. The sounds. The vast openness of it. The most annoying question I get is, Why climb when I can't see the view from the top? You don't climb for the view. No one suffers the way you do on a mountain for a beautiful view. The real beauty of life happens on the side of the mountain, not the top."
Weihenmayer hopes to become the first blind man to climb the highest peaks on all seven continents. He has already conquered four: Mount McKinley in Alaska, Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, Mount Vinson in Antarctica and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, where halfway to the top he stopped for a ceremony to make Ellie Reeve his wife. But he knows that Everest, a mountain no blind man has attempted, will be his greatest test. "You don't conquer a mountain," Weihenmayer says. "You work with it. You sneak up on it when it takes a nap. If you don't abide by the rules, you get crushed. I like that. I like to feel I'm part of nature, not separate from it."
Others fear he's reaching too far. Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air and a Weihenmayer fan, strongly cautioned him in a personal letter against trying Everest. The sudden storms, the freezing temperatures and the brief window of opportunity afforded by the weather conditions make Everest the most hostile climbing environment on earth, life threatening to the most accomplished of mountaineers -- sighted or not.
That explains why Weihenmayer's wife, who has also done some climbing, has such deep reservations. "Erik's really good at sucking it up and just suffering, persisting for hours at a time," Ellie says. "Mountain climbing's more a mental game than a physical one. I understand if you're going to call yourself a mountain climber, you have to climb Everest. But as a wife, it's hard to be too supportive."
For Weihenmayer, Everest represents both a personal goal and a collective quest. His 10-man expedition is being underwritten to the tune of $250,000 by the National Federation of the Blind, which hopes to piggyback on the attention generated from the ascent to publicize the fact that more than 70% of blind Americans are unemployed. It's a statistic Weihenmayer can relate to. The summer after graduating with a 3.4 grade point average as an English major from Boston College, three restaurants turned him down when he applied for dishwashing jobs. "It's nice to have a broader cause attached to the climb," Weihenmayer says. "It might shatter people's perceptions about blindness, which are often more limiting than the disability itself."
Weihenmayer wasn't born blind. As a child, doctors determined that he suffered from retinoschesis, a degenerative disease in which the retinas become detached and gradually split, leading to total blindness by the early teens. "There was no hope Erik wouldn't go blind," says his father, Ed, a former Princeton football star and Marine corps pilot who before his retirement worked as an executive at Pfizer. "We accepted it and tried to work from there. The worst thing you can do is pamper a blind child, so I encouraged him to take reasonable risks, while his mother, Ellen, impressed on him the need to exercise caution. As Erik wrote in his autobiography, I was the broom, sweeping him out into the world. She was the dustpan, collecting the shattered pieces and putting them together again."
Erik fought hard to stay in the sighted world, racing through the woods with his friends, playing basketball in his driveway long after the backboard had become invisible, blended into the hillside behind it. He liked to jump his bike over a ramp set up in the driveway by his two older brothers, Mark and Eddie. However, the ramp, too, began to disappear. So his father painted it Day-Glo orange. Erik lied to himself about his deteriorating vision. The sun was in his eyes, he'd say when he didn't see someone. The hall lights were too low. The print in his school books was too small.
Then one day when he was 13, Erik walked right off the end of a dock. He landed in a swamp, and it frightened him into accepting the truth. "Once he went blind and accepted it, he had a whole new platform from which he could grow," his father says. "Erik says that blindness is an incredible adventure, and that's the mind-set you have to have."
Rather than dwell on things he couldn't do -- hit a ball, drive a car, ride a bike -- Erik focused on things he could do. "The glass is always half full," his father says. "He's intrigued by how a blind guy gets through something. He has his own secret systems."
Athletic and wiry, Erik found he could wrestle. "That was a great sport for me," he says. "It saved me." He was exposed to rock climbing for the first time by the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Mass. He was 16, weighed 120 pounds and could do 40 pull-ups; his was a perfect physique for the sport. He earned the name Monkey Boy from his climbing instructors as they watched him clamber up rock faces at a camp he attended in North Conway, N.H. Erik loved the sense of independence that climbing gave him, the texture of the rock, the feeling of movement, the logic of the cracks and crevices that provided him handholds, and the delicious ache in his muscles at the end of the day.
That same summer, while he was away at wrestling camp, Erik learned that his mother had been killed in a car crash. It was a far worse blow than losing his vision. In the coming months his father would return from work to find Erik curled in Ellen's closet, where he could smell her clothes. "I'm thankful he didn't just shatter," Ed says.
Ed was looking for a way to keep the family from drifting apart. Erik was studying the Incas in school, so his father suggested they hike the Inca Trail in Peru. Using a cane, 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 his love for adventure and the wilderness. In the following summers the Weihenmayers trekked through Spain, Pakistan and Papua New Guinea. "The reason we went on these treks," says Ed, "had almost nothing to do with Erik's being blind and everything to do with trying to provide cohesiveness for the family, which we were in danger of losing after Ellen died. She'd been the glue. You spend three weeks together in the wilderness and you can't help but bond."
Not long after graduating from Boston College, Erik landed a job teaching at Phoenix Country Day School, where he met his future wife, who was also teaching English at the school. In the surrounding desert hills Weihenmayer rediscovered his passion for rock climbing. He did dozens of one-day climbs over myriad textures: basalt, granite, sandstone, limestone. Over the next few years he honed his skills. When his climbing partner, Sam Bridgham, suggested they try something more difficult, Weihenmayer asked what he had in mind.
It was a quantum leap from the type of climbing he'd been doing, but Weihenmayer 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. He had found that by using telescoping trekking poles he stumbled less over unseen obstacles. It was like having four legs instead of two.
Some of Mount McKinley's greatest dangers are the snowfields where thin bridges of snow hide deep crevasses, and Weihenmayer learned to use the poles to test for thickness before taking a step. He learned how to build a snow cave against the elements. He discovered that by hanging small bear bells on the climber ahead of him, he could follow confidently without having to ask directions. When Weihenmayer 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.
In fresh snow Weihenmayer used his poles to find the tracks the climbers ahead of him had made, and took care to step directly in their footprints. On ridges and along steep drop-offs, 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 1,000-foot death fall to the left. One mistake during that quarter-mile traverse would have been fatal. He made it, though. By complete coincidence, his team of six climbers, which had been sponsored by funding from the American Foundation of the Blind, summited McKinley's 20,320-foot peak on Helen Keller's birthday.
The McKinley ascent took 19 days and left Weihenmayer with a sense of accomplishment unlike any he'd ever known. He loved the camaraderie of long hours in the tents, the teamwork of the climb, the endless jokes. He would visualize the views that his partners described -- peaks lit by alpenglow; upside-down ice cream cones -- and they, in turn, discovered that being forced to articulate the beauty of the mountains at sunset, after a snowfall, at first light, helped crystallize these sights in their memories. "Climbing with Erik heightens my senses," says Jeff Evans, 31, an emergency-room assistant at a Denver hospital who has ascended McKinley, Aconcagua and Yosemite's El Capitan with Weihenmayer. "You have to be aware of things you might otherwise take for granted."
Evans is also part of the Everest expedition, and the question he's most often asked is whether he's at greater risk climbing with Weihenmayer than with a sighted climber. "I don't feel that way at all," Evans says. "Erik's very strong in the mountains, and we create an atmosphere of safety when we climb. He understands gear placements and rope techniques, and he'll climb faster than 50 percent of the climbers out there. That's a consideration on Everest, because they say only the fastest 20 percent will summit. A lot of people think it's absurd for us to try. On the face of it, it is absurd. A blind guy climbing where so many have died. Ed Viesturs, who's probably America's top mountaineer, questions whether a blind man should be on that mountain. But you don't know unless you go. Erik realizes that anytime you take on a place like Everest, the odds are against you. We all have loved ones at home. We all want to come back with all our fingers and toes. We won't exceed our parameters of safety." (As of press time Weihenmayer and his team had completed the 10-day trek into base camp and were preparing for their initial ascent. You can follow their progress at www.2001Everest.com.)
Weihenmayer has assembled a world-class team led by 47-year-old Pasquale Scaturro, a veteran of seven Himalayan expeditions. They plan to cache extra oxygen at 27,500 feet and attempt the final ascent with no fewer than four climbers, including Erik. "I'm a very conservative climber," Weihenmayer says. "I want to summit, and I like the pioneering aspect of being first. For me, though, the process is more fun, the moments of bliss that connects you with who you are. The summit is just a symbol that on that day you brought an uncontrollable situation under control."
Issue date: April 23, 2001
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