29,029 feet high. 5 1/2 miles above sea level. 256 recorded fatalities to date. When you hear about someone actually beating the odds by climbing Mount Everest and making it out alive, your first thought is probably “Wow.”
How about discovering that this person is blind?
Wait…is that even possible?
Meet 45-year old Erik Weihenmayer. He said it was possible – and he proved it.
Video courtesy of Intel
May 25th, 2001 was the day Erik made his lack of sight irrelevant. He became the first blind man to reach the summit of Mount Everest, at age 32 – just 19 years after losing his sight to a retina disease called retinoschisis at age 13.
Erik is also 1 of only 118 people on the planet who have climbed the infamous Seven Summits.
Think about it – he’s hiked every single foot of these ridiculously high and dangerous mountains without his sense of sight. Pretty remarkable.
1. Mount Everest – Nepal – 29,029 feet
2. Mount Aconcagua – South America – 22,838 feet
3. Mount McKinley – North America – 20,322 feet
4. Mount Kilimanjaro – Africa – 19,341 feet
5. Mount Elbrus – Europe – 18,510 feet
6. Mount Vinson – Antarctica – 16,050 feet
7. Mount Kosciuszko – Australia – 7,310 feet
How does a guy who can’t see accomplish something this monumental?
According to Erik, he has learned to focus on taking the treacherous uphill journey one step at a time – literally.
“No matter how big the mountain is, it is climbed step by step, moment by moment. If you can relax and let go. You’re not just going through the motions. You’re aware of every moment. You’re excited. You’re celebrating every moment. At the end of every day I would celebrate. I told myself that no matter how high I make it up the mountain, I have to celebrate that as my summit, and that has to be success. And when I did that, it was a turning point.”
Erik’s early life
After going blind in his youth, Erik did his best to adjust to his new life – a life without sight. Living in Iowa, he learned to wrestle, and eventually took home the National Junior Freestyle Wrestling Championship.
Unfortunately, this victory was followed by a devastating blow at age 16. His mother, Ellen Weihenmayer, who he was extremely close to, was tragically killed in a car accident. Erik perservered through this loss and was introduced to rock climbing at a blind skills camp he attended while in high school.
Eager to get a college education, Erik graduated from Boston College, majoring in English. He went on to become a middle school teacher and wrestling coach in Arizona, feeding his passion for climbing with summer trips to Spain, Pakistan and Peru.
Climbing higher peaks
Over the next few years, one climb led to another. Erik soon found himself going from local hills in Arizona to higher peeks, beginning with Mount McKinley.
Knowing that he would need some guidance to successfully complete this treacherous climb, he began intensive training, which included improving his climbing skills, visualizing his path and working with guides to practice responding to verbal and physical cues.
Ready to literally and metaphorically climb past his perceived limits, Erik began the grueling journey up his first of 7 summits with a team of 6 partners. After 19 days, he had reached the top.
This victory gave him the confidence to move on to 6 other mountains across the world in the coming years. Erik proceeded to climb all 7 summits, which includes the ultimate: Mount Everest.
When I reflect on this story – when I really let it sink in – I’m absolutely blown away by this man’s character, as well as his physical ability to survive such dangerous and physically challenging conditions.
There seems to be something about Erik’s interior life that is quite different than the average person’s. His lack of sight has allowed him to tap into something deeper within himself that can’t actually be seen, but can only be felt.
Despite his blindness, he has made the conscious choice to turn his life into an exciting adventure that’s full of new experiences on the highest mountaintops all over the world. Erik chooses to experience nature through his other senses, inspiring countless others along the way through his non-profit No Barriers, whose mission is “to unleash the potential of the human spirit.”
“Through transformative experiences, tools and inspiration, we help people embark on a quest to contribute their absolute best to the world. In the process, we foster a community of curious, brave and collaborative explorers who are determined to live the No Barriers life.”
I’ll leave with you with some parting words Erik offers when asked about his experiences:
“Rock climbing helps me to understand that a lot of life is just reaching out into the darkness. You don’t know what is there. I’m reaching out, and I’m looking for that hold, and I know it’s out there, and I don’t have much time to find the hold, and I know I’m going to fall, my fingers are going to give out, but I’m hoping and I’m praying and I’m predicting I’m going to find what I’m looking for.”
Ways to support Erik and other blind adventurers
- Purchase and read his book: Touch the Top of the World: A Blind Man’s Journey to Climb Father than the Eye Can See
- Purchase and watch his award-winning documentary, Blindsight
Video courtesy of Youtube and the film “Blindsight”