Blind climber attains inspired heights
- Paul Duchene
- Portland Tribune - Features
Erik Weihenmayer has scaled Mount Everest, among other feats
Erik Weihenmayer's attempt on Mount Everest generated a lot of heat, even as he battled the icy 'death zone' above 24,000 feet, where 125 mph winds and temperatures of 40 below zero are common.
Veteran climbers thought the sightless Weihenmayer would put his team at risk, and he received letters pleading with him to abandon his quest, termed 'Blind Ambition' in one magazine story. More than 150 climbers have died on Everest since 1921; their bodies remain there, too difficult to remove.
But Weihenmayer proved his doubters wrong. He reached the 29,028-foot summit May 25, 2001, and went on to scale the highest mountains on each continent.
He's in Portland to talk and show a film of his Everest expedition, 'Farther than the Eye Can See,' and sign copies of his book, 'Touch the Top of the World.' Weihenmayer's appearance benefits the Oregon branch of the National Federation of the Blind, which sponsored his 10-man expedition to the tune of $250,000. Four other members of his team are expected to be on hand.
'People who had never met me said I was crazy. I heard tons of rumors through the climbing community, but anybody who knew me or had climbed with me was 100 percent supportive,' he says.
Weihenmayer has been completely blind since the age of 13 from retinoschisis, a disease in which the retinas become detached and split.
He lectures and was a recent commencement speaker at his alma mater, Boston College. And he still climbs worldwide, having just returned from an attempt on the west face of Mount Huntington in Alaska (he'll try the Sunshine Ridge on Mount Hood while he's here he's already climbed Hood four times).
Weihenmayer has cycled across Vietnam on a tandem bike and is preparing for a two-week South Africa Eco-Challenge adventure that will make 'Survivor' look like day camp.
But Everest, on the border of Nepal and Tibet and the world's highest mountain, was definitely the big one, he says. Being fit was far more important than being blind, which wasn't as much of a disadvantage as you might think.
'We started for the summit at 9 p.m. My friends couldn't see anything, either. I told them to suck it up. And crawling across ladders tied with Kmart boat twine I didn't have to look down into gaping holes.'
The scariest part was the Khumbu Icefall, a jumbled collection of boulders below the glacier, Weihenmayer recalls.
'The boulders ranged from baseballs to as big as buildings, and they were constantly moving,' he says. 'We had to thread our way through 10 times to shuttle loads. It was total chaos; I was jumping ice crevasses where I couldn't feel the other side with my ice ax, and I knew I had to land in footsteps chipped out of the ice or risk shattering kneecaps. It was terrifying, and I started hearing the voices of the naysayers. But you have to stay focused, disciplined, and I did.
'Team dynamics are incredibly important. You can't be getting into fistfights at 24,000 feet.'
At 34, married and the father of a 3-year-old daughter, Weihenmayer knows he'll have to slow down sometime, and that means more lectures.