Skiing Is Believing
Erik Weihenmayer's plan to ski Elbrus this spring is no blind
This is an article from the Jan. 21, 2002 issue
Erik Weihenmayer, like all great adventurers, is keen on raising
the stakes of his accomplishments. Given that last May he became
the first blind man to summit Mount Everest, that puts him in a
tight spot. What on earth does he do for an encore?
Weihenmayer says he plans to scale the highly treacherous
Nemesis and Weeping Pillar ice walls in Alberta this March.
That's impressive but we already know he's a first-rate ice
climber. He says he expects to complete his ascents of the seven
continental summits by going up Europe's Mount Elbrus in June
and Indonesia's Carstensz Pyramid in September. Well and good,
but each peak is more than 10,000 feet shorter than Everest.
Then Weihenmayer drops the big one. "After we get to the top of
Elbrus, I'm going to ski down from the summit," he explains.
Say what? Even for an expert, sighted skier, Elbrus's varying
conditions, changing terrain and thin air--the summit's at about
18,500 feet--make for a daunting run. Weihenmayer, 33, began
skiing only five years ago, and in the words of Eric Alexander,
who will guide him down Elbrus, "Erik's at about an intermediate
level." Weihenmayer is less kind. "On grooved trails I'm not
bad," he says. "But when it comes to backcountry skiing, I'm a
Elbrus, which is in southwest Russia, is distinctly backcountry.
Although nearly all of the summit run--which covers about 6,000
to 7,000 vertical feet depending on snowfall--is above the tree
line and no steeper than a mid-level black diamond run, it's a
rough, undulating surface that gets battered by winds off the
nearby Black Sea. "You had to ski on a lot of blue ice up there,
and there was snow swirling all around," says Glen Poulsen, a
ski guide in the Sierra Nevada who descended Elbrus in 1987.
"When you heard a gust coming, you hit the deck immediately. If
you didn't, you'd get blown right off the mountain. I mean
Those perilous conditions are only one reason that, of all the
ventures he has planned for this year, Weihenmayer concedes "the
skiing makes me most nervous." As a climber Weihenmayer needs
assistance, but his fellow ascenders are often more like helpful
companions than constant guides; Weihenmayer can cover great
stretches simply by following the bearbell clanging on the man
in front of him. On skis, however, he depends on a guide for
continual and precise directions. A minor miscommunication can
have major consequences. Skiing in Breckenridge two years ago,
Weihenmayer received a guide's instruction to turn a fraction of
a second too late. He flew off the trail, landed on hard ice and
badly bruised himself.
"This won't be easy, and there'll be some falling," says
Alexander, who anticipates that the descent will take about
three hours. "If it were a mogul run up there, I'd be less
confident. But Erik's an excellent athlete and he's determined.
I think he can do this."
Alexander, a professional ski instructor who skis a body length
behind Weihenmayer when guiding him, recalls the first time the
two of them hit the slopes together, last month. "Remember, I'm
the guy who helped Erik get from the summit of Everest back down
to Camp 4," says Alexander. "I helped him over Hillary's Step
and over a lot of ground that, if he could have seen where he
was, he might have been terrified. He was fine. We get out on
our first bunny hill together, and he's as scared as a little
boy, asking me whether I know what I'm doing. It began with,
'You know how to get on a chair lift, right?'"
That day they began their ongoing mission: to develop a smooth
and subtle communication. "For example, when it's time to stop,
I need him to say 'annnnd stop,'" Weihenmayer explains. "That
way I can start slowing down on the 'and.' If he just says
'Stop!' man, am I going to pull up short. Same thing with
turning. There's a huge difference between 'turrrrrrn lefffffft'
and 'turn left!' You not only have to trust your guide, you have
to understand the inflections in his voice."
Weihenmayer and Alexander plan to ski 30 days between now and
June, breaking training for Weihenmayer to do his ice climbs as
well as numerous public appearances. In addition to improving
Weihenmayer's chops and, as Alexander says, "getting him to
relax more on skis," they'll precede some of their runs with
high-altitude snowshoeing in order to build stamina. In the
spring they'll ski glaciers at Mount Hood in Oregon and Whistler
in British Columbia. "There's no predicting what it'll be like
on Elbrus," says Alexander, "but we want to mimic the conditions
as best we can." --Kostya Kennedy
Among those who were not named to the U.S. Olympic snowboarding
team on Sunday (page 72) was 15-year-old prodigy Shaun White,
who was vying for one of three spots on the men's halfpipe
squad. The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, however, still
has one remaining spot on its seven-member men's team, which it
will award to either a halfpipe or slalom specialist sometime
after Jan. 24.... Tommy Caldwell (left), one of the world's top
climbers, cut off his left index finger in a table-saw accident.
Although doctors couldn't reattach the finger, the injury won't
prevent Caldwell, 23, from making a climbing trip to France in
March. Had doctors been able to reattach the severed digit,
Caldwell says, the rehabilitation might've prevented him from
climbing for a year.... Few surfers made waves quite like Miki
Dora, who died earlier this month at age 67. Known to some as
the King of Malibu, to others as the Black Knight of Surfing,
Dora was less an elite competition surfer than an A-list surfing
celebrity. He spurned contests (and mooned judges at a rare one
in which he did appear) and instead made a name for himself in
the Gidget movies. "Miki was the Muhammad Ali of surfing,"
fellow surfer Allen Carter told the Los Angeles Times. "He had
dragonfly reflexes and this extraordinarily graceful style."
A new Warren Miller film takes the ski bum to some familiar
places and some exotically unexpected ones
The best parts of Cold Fusion are much like the best parts of
the 51 Warren Miller films that preceded it. Viewers feast upon
spectacular shots of skiers (and snowboarders) soaring off
moguls and plummeting off small cliffs. As Kurt Miller, the
movie's producer, says, "Why not give viewers what they want?"
The film, which debuts on Jan. 27 on the iN DEMAND pay-per-view
service (the DVD is due out in the fall), yields unexpected
treats as well. The cameras follow skiers to exotic locales,
including a trip through the Kenyan jungle--past giraffes and
hippopotamuses--and into the mountains to find new snow. A
couple of daredevil stunts ratchet up the action. Skier Mark
Chojnacki, for example, completes a quad-quad (four flips, four
twists), a maneuver so dangerous it's banned from Olympic
Those feats, though, are icing on top of the thrilling skiscapes
that Miller fans adore. In the movie a snowboarder describes the
feeling of stepping off a helicopter onto a peak and "just
knowing that something big is about to happen." That's how
you'll feel when you sit down to watch Cold Fusion. --K.K.
Justin Kirkbride of New Mexico survived not one but two crash
landings within a 24-hour period last week. On Jan. 9
Kirkbride's single-engine Cessna went down in the mountains of
southern Colorado, injuring the two passengers he was flying.
Uninjured, Kirkbride hiked for six hours through thick snow
before he made contact, via cell phone, with a rescue team,
which dispatched a helicopter to pick up Kirkbride and fly to
the crash site. After finding the downed plane, the search team
crash-landed when its main rotor struck a tree. Nobody on board
was seriously hurt, and on Jan. 10 the rescue workers, Kirkbride
and the two injured Cessna passengers (both of whom survived
despite the cold and the lack of survival gear) were picked up
by another chopper.
Days (plus 14 hours) that France's Olivier de Kersauson needed
to sail around the globe in a crewed yacht, a world record that
Great Britain's Ellen MacArthur says she will attempt to break
next year. MacArthur, who last winter made the second-fastest
solo circumnavigation in a yacht (94 days, four hours), will
have up to a dozen crew members on her maxi-catamaran.
For more adventure, go to siadventure.com and check out these
--African safari: an affordable vacation in Namibia
--Transworldmatrix.com: your source for extreme sports
--Gear guide: Load up for the ski season on skinet.com