Blindly He Goes ... Up

July 24, 2005

Before he climbed to the summit of Mount Everest four years ago, Erik Weihenmayer felt compelled to prove to his disbelieving sherpas that he really was blind. So he pulled down his lower left eyelid, leaned forward and let his prosthetic eye drop into his cupped hand, like an olive into a martini glass. When he offered to remove his false right eye, the head sherpa, Kami Tenzing, protested preemptively, "No, no, no! I believe you!"

But then Weihenmayer's whole life beggars belief. As a fifth-grade teacher in Phoenix he once snatched, from the hand of a girl, the crinkling note she was about to pass. Then he threatened to read it to the hushed class. "The kids knew I was blind," he says. "But I was also their teacher, so they figured somehow I'd be able to read it."

While he can't do that, the 36-year-old Weihenmayer (WINE-mayor) is a skydiver, a paraglider and a marathon runner. He has climbed the Seven Summits (the highest peaks on each continent) and completed Primal Quest, billed as the world's most dangerous endurance race. After climbing Mount Elbrus, the tallest peak in Europe, Weihenmayer skied the 10,000 feet to base camp. He has scaled the rock face of Yosemite's El Capitan, the icefall of Polar Circus in the Canadian Rockies and--upon returning from Everest--the fiberglass Matterhorn at Disneyland.

Weihenmayer was born legally blind. He suffered from retinoschesis, which caused his retinas to slowly split from the inside out, like a wet piece of plywood. By age 13 he was entirely blind. Nevertheless, he became a superb high school wrestler. As a teenager he went on exotic hikes with his father, Ed, a Marine pilot in Vietnam. "We were walking from valley to valley on Kilimanjaro, and Erik suddenly says, 'Is there a new flower here?'" recalls Ed. "And I said, 'As a matter of fact, Erik, there is.' And in front of us, though I hadn't noticed it before, was a whole meadow of beautiful purple flowers."

In 1991 Erik graduated from Boston College with a degree in English and embarked on his teaching career. Two years later he moved from Phoenix to Colorado and decided to join a gym. Traveling to the gym by city bus, he got off at a park whose concrete pathways he could navigate alone. When he found those paths obscured by fresh snowfall, Weihenmayer wound up walking into a duck pond. So he returned to the bus stop and tried again. And again. When he finally did reach the gym, it was closed. "Faced with that kind of frustration," he says, "you can look at life as a nightmare or as an adventure. I chose adventure."

Last year Weihenmayer was climbing a rock face in the Dolomites with his friend Mike O'Donnell when the pair paused to rest, halfway up the 2,000-foot ascent, on a ledge two feet deep and 10 feet long. "You're not gonna believe this," O'Donnell told Weihenmayer when the two were safely seated, "but there's another blind guy up here." He was an Austrian named Andy Holtzer, and last week he and Weihenmayer and Hugh Herr--an American climber with two prosthetic legs--returned to the Dolomites to give a weeklong clinic for novice and disabled climbers. Weihenmayer hikes with two telescoping trekking poles and always climbs with at least one partner who wears a bell. He climbs not because he's superhuman, but precisely because he's human. Weihenmayer didn't climb Everest "because it's there." He climbed Everest, he likes to say, "because we're here."

"I think climbing is built into our human code," says Weihenmayer. "It's why we build skyscrapers. We're a species of Walter Mittys, always striving beyond our reach."

In 2001 he became the first and only blind man to summit Everest, a feat that put him on the cover of Time. "It's the size of the floor of a one-car garage," Weihenmayer says of the 29,035-foot-high peak. And you should have heard the view from up there. "It's loud," he says, "the sound of sound traveling infinitely through space."

Weihenmayer's wedding was on Kilimanjaro, with its purple meadows. He met his wife, Ellen, when both were teachers at Phoenix Country Day School. Their workplace romance was revealed at a faculty meeting, when Erik's guide dog, Wizard--who was trained to walk to the first empty chair in the conference room--strode straight over to Ellen, laid his head in her lap and began panting. The room erupted in laughter and applause. The couple now has a five-year-old daughter, Emma.

In September, Weihenmayer can be seen in Climb Higher, a documentary film about his 2004 return to Everest. In a country where some believe blindness to be caused by karma--payback for previous sins--Weihenmayer led six blind Tibetan teens 21,500 feet up the mountain's north face. In doing so he again added to the fund of human knowledge about what our species can and cannot do. "He is a modern-day alchemist who has turned the lead of his life into gold for the world," says his father of the son who stood atop the planet's tallest peak and saw only one direction to go from there: up.

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Sightless Erik Weihenmayer scales the world's tallest peaks not because he's superhuman, but precisely because he's human.


Eagle (-2)
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