He was so close to reaching his goal he could taste it. Twelve days after becoming the first I blind climber to summit Mount Everest, an hour before his connecting flight left Los Angeles for Denver and home, Erik Weihenmayer approached a McDonald's in the terminal. "I smell that grease," he said, "and I want some."
It was gently pointed out to him, as he prepared to pay for his Quarter Pounder with cheese, that the bills he'd extracted from his wallet were rupees. "Hey, maybe they'll take 'em," he said.
As the members of this historic expedition (which put a record 19 people atop the planet) trickled out of customs at LAX earlier this month, Weihenmayer's mates spoke not only of his grit but also of his wit. Listen to Eric Alexander, whose job it often was to walk ahead of his blind friend, ringing a bell.
"I'd crack a joke or something, and he'd say, 'Your job is not to be funny. Just ring the bell, boy.' "
Alexander's revenge took various forms. He liked to jab his defenseless friend with a trekking pole—payback for the scores of times Weihenmayer had accidentally gored him. Nor was it beneath Alexander to count Weihenmayer's stumbles. "That's 42," Alexander told him one day. "You can't climb for beans."
Once out of one another's earshot, of course, each has only nice things to say about the other. "He was the unsung hero of the expedition," said Erik of Eric. The truth is that while Weihenmayer's fame is secure, all the guys who helped him achieve it are likely to remain unsung. So it was nice to see Weihenmayer, safely back at sea level, shining a figurative spotlight on the guys who helped him reach the roof of the world.
There was Pasquale Scaturro, expedition leader, who on May 23 urged the team to delay its summit push from Camp 4 for 24 hours. While some team members were strong enough to press on, others needed rest and water. It was a conservative, patient decision—and possibly the smartest thing the group did during its seven weeks on the mountain.
There was Base Camp manager Kevin Cherilla, lord of the Love Dome, as the communications tent was known. In addition to lifting the team's spirits with his high-energy radio dispatches, the Pittsburgh native may have salvaged the summit for Weihenmayer. Huddling above the Balcony, in a fierce wind-and snowstorm, the team was ready to turn back. From Base Camp, Cherilla told them the sky was clearing above them. Press on, he advised. They did, and sure enough, the weather calmed.
There was Brad Bull, whose 64-year-old father, Sherman, would become the oldest person to climb Everest. Brad summited 75 minutes after his old man, having chosen, along with Jeff Evans, to wait behind to dig out some fixed ropes that a recent storm had buried beneath several feet of ice and snow. That exhausting work at 28,000 feet helped ensure the team's safety on its descent.
There was Weihenmayer's longtime climbing partner, the superintense Chris Morris, nodding as Evans announced, after digging out those ropes, that he was thrashed and turning back. Evans, afflicted with epic diarrhea, was on his way to dropping 30 pounds in two months. When he stopped talking, Morris looked at him, and that was enough to change Evans's mind. "Let's go," said Morris.