In a recent post, Why would a blind person climb a 10,000 ft. Mountain?, we wrote about a group of blind Braille Institute students who climbed Mt Baldy in Los Angeles. It was a maximum adventure for those involved, both the students and the sighted guides. Just before they climbed the upper section of the mountain, a laptop was produced and they were shown a video created just for them by a blind mountain climber, Erik Weihenmayer, who gave encouraging words to the group. They went on to achieve something they had never imagined before the adventure began.
As the story was being investigated and written, we learned a good deal more about the climber from the video. We found out Erik has climbed not only Mt Everest, but also the six other highest peaks of all of the continents in the World. That means places like Indonesia, Argentina, Alaska, Tanzania, Nepal, Russia and Antartica, where getting there and back is a significant part of the adventure. Sometime last year, we watched Erik’s movie, Blindsight, about taking six blind Tibetan teens to Lhakpa-Ri 7010 m (23,000 ft) in Tibet, very near Mt Everest. We were also aware that he was competing in a reality television show, Expedition Impossible.
Erik was popping up everywhere in our lives, and we weren’t looking for him. A quick google search produced more links than we could check about climbs in every part of the world. It became clear very quickly that Erik has done far more than the Seven Summits…he has done more than any sighted person we know. It is easy to spend hours just reading about about what he has done and it became clear that he lives a life that goes far beyond the publicity and beyond ‘good enough for a blind guy’. Erik truly lives it and his lack of sight is maybe a footnote to his accomplishments.
Because of our story about the Braille Institute students, we were able to interview Erik earlier this week. Just before we had the interview, Expedition Impossible came to a conclusion and Erik’s team, very appropriately called No Limits, finished in second place (but not by much) to an excellent team. They didn’t “almost win despite Erik being blind”…their greatest obstacle was the severely injured ankle of their teammate, “Ike”. There was nothing about Erik’s blindness that kept his team from beating most of the teams, most of the time.
MA: We read that you were the wrestling captain for your high school in Connecticut. You have a habit of doing things that people won’t understand at face value. Is this your plan or just the way it has worked out?
Erik: “Not a plan except for the fact that I want to live an adventurous life. I want to live an exciting life. I don’t want to be shoved to the sidelines, which requires me to suck it up and have a good approach to adversity. This means learning to problem solve your way through big walls that sometimes pop up in your path. I’m not trying to prove to the world anything.”
MA: For the Braille Institute students in Los Angeles, this was their first time hiking, much less climbing a mountain. Where would you like to see them go from there?
Erik: “I can only answer for my own projects, like where I volunteer and helped found an organization called No Barriers. We use all types of on-the-edge sports and activities to teach people how to shatter barriers and stretch themselves. We teach to build a team around you and trust people and be trusted in return. Whenever you go through the process of doing something exciting and being stretched and maybe doubting yourself, it helps you develop a particular kind of mindset. I mean whatever the process is…it doesn’t have to be hiking, climbing or anything.”
MA: Do you see yourself as an anomaly/outlier or as someone that many could emulate?
Erik: “I don’t think I have any qualities that are better, smarter or any more exceptional than anyone. In a way I’m an anomaly because I do things that other blind people or others with disabilities haven’t done, but I don’t think that leads me to think I’m different from anyone else. I’ve been lucky to be able to be tough, have discipline, be a pragmatist and not worry about things too much. I was on a radio show and a blind guy called in and said, ‘I have been blind for 25 years and it hasn’t gotten easier, but I’ve never found it easy and accepted it and just want my sight back.’ He’s a guy who will die unfulfilled because he’s going down a deadend street. It is a futile exercise to say, ‘what if’. The question you ask yourself is, ‘how do I do the best with what I have around me.’ I don’t think people do that enough. It’s why I’m a pragmatist.”
MA: Do you often provide encouraging words to groups like the Mt Baldy students or was this something different?
Erik: “I thought the idea was very cool project and I applaud the efforts of those who organized it. There’s only one of me, and I’m glad I could take part.”
MA: What do you see as your role in inspiring the blind? Do you hope to inspire the sighted as well?
Erik: “I for sure think that’s the case. On Expedition Impossible, I was racing with my team across Morocco against sighted teams, including NFL players and we were beating them. Most of the comments I got were from families saying, ‘Your show was really inspiring.’ ‘Your courage is inspiring and my kids have a new hero.’ It is more about families and kids and having someone to look up to. It is embarrassing and uncomfortable to be that person but we need that role model in life.”
MA: You just came in second in Expedition Impossible and didn’t end up having the biggest physical challenges on your team. At one point, Jeff Evans commented to you and to Ike, “I can make one complete person from the two of you.” How do you feel about that humor?
Erik: “I grew up with brothers who pounded me into the ground. Jeff is like a brother who doesn’t have to be politically correct with me. There is humor that is demeaning, like a blind comedian I once appeared with. There are always extremes but Jeff respects the hell out of me. There was one guy on the show who was about to be eliminated and said, ‘I should just follow Jeff’s pack like you.’ And I replied, ‘You wouldn’t last five minutes.’ Jeff, Ike and I bust each other all of the time.”
It was great to talk with Erik because he had the best combination of modesty and strength. He didn’t have to search for answers and it was more difficult to keep up with his responses than to get him talking. Erik inspires us and we wish him the best in all he does (which we’re sure will continue to be remarkable).