With a Little Help from His Friends

June 17, 2001

He was so close to reaching his goal he could taste it. Twelve
days after becoming the first 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.

"O.K.," said Evans, who went on to summit.

Then there was Weihenmayer's favorite bellboy, Alexander, back in
crampons a year after nearly dying from a fall during a training
climb on Ama Dablam, another Himalayan peak. A few weeks before
the final push up Everest, Alexander had confided to Ed
Weihenmayer, Erik's father, his fears that he would not be strong
enough to summit. On summit day, however, no one on the team was
stronger than Alexander--with one possible exception.

"We underestimated Erik," says Scaturro. "The dude just ran away
from us."

"I get the praise for overcoming blindness," says Weihenmayer.
"But everyone on the team overcame something to get there. When
we summited together, it was like we weren't different. We had
this great bond to connect us the rest of our lives."

Overhearing this, Alexander cannot help adding a poignant
sentiment of his own: "Did Erik tell you about the holes we all
cut in the bottoms of our backpacks? You know--so his legs could
stick out while we carried him up the mountain."

COLOR PHOTO: DIDRIK JOHNCK/CORBIS-SYGMA

"Everyone on the team overcame something," says Weihenmayer.
"When we summited, we had a bond to connect us for the rest of
our lives."

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)