Blind Ambition 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

April 22, 2001

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 makeup.
--from Touch the Top of the World, by Erik Weihenmayer

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.

"Mount McKinley."

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."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL GIBBS Ready? Weihenmayer's preparations for Everest have been extensive, but Krakauer warned him not to go. COLOR PHOTO: DIDRIK JOHNCK/CORBIS SYGMA High spirits Last week, at the outset of his Everest ascent, Erik (with Ed and brother Eddie) trekked to the prayer flags at base camp. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: ANDREW COUNCILL/AURORA (2) Heightened awareness Workouts hone his skills and help Weihenmayer develop techniques to compensate for his lack of sight. COLOR PHOTO: ERIC PERLMAN Gripping On rock climbs, Weihenmayer (here in Utah) earned the name Monkey Boy. COLOR PHOTO: ANDREW COUNCILL/AURORA A father's touch Friends call Emma the Gerber Baby.

"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."

"Erik says that blindness is an incredible adventure," says his
father. "That's the mind-set you have to have."

For months after Erik's mother was killed in a car crash, he
would curl up and lie down in her closet.

"On the face of it, it is absurd," says a member of Erik's team.
"A blind guy climbing where so many have died."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)