Erik Weihenmayer Biography
Chronology, Further InformationSELECTED WRITINGS BY WEIHENMAYER:
American mountain climber
Ninety percent of climbers who attempt Mount Everest—at 29,035 feet, the world's highest mountain—do not make it to the summit. In 2001, Erik Weihenmayer managed to accomplish the grueling and dangerous trek to the "top of the world," making history in the process. Weihenmayer, who suffers from a retina disease, is completely blind. An accomplished mountaineer, Weihen mayer has reached the top of each of the Seven Summits—the highest mountains on each of the seven continents. "I like doing things that are new and thrilling. Blindness," Weihenmayer told People, "is just a nuisance." In climbing, "you just have to find a different way of doing it."
Weihenmayer was born in 1969 and grew up in Hong Kong and then Weston, Connecticut with his parents, Ed and Ellen Suzanne Baker Weihenmayer, and two brothers. A slight irregularity in his eyes when he was an infant alerted his parents to seek medical attention. He was diagnosed with a rare retina disease and, by the time he was three, it was clear that he would be blind before he was a teenager. He wore thick glasses and learned to read, but was legally blind. His parents made sure their son grew up as normal as possible and taught him to be self-sufficient. He played football, one-on-one basketball, and loved to ride bikes, under the careful watch of his father. He was completely blind by the time he was 13.
At first, Weihenmayer refused to use a cane or learn Braille, insisting he could live as he had. Incapable of playing ball anymore, he learned to wrestle, and as a senior in high school went all the way to the National Junior Freestyle Wrestling Championship in Iowa. He soon found that his guide dog was a good lure for women, and began dating at age seventeen. He graduated Boston College as an English major, and became a middle-school teacher and wrestling coach. He married his wife, Ellie Reeve, on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in 1997. The two have a daughter, Emma, and live in Golden, Colorado. Weihenmayer now works as a motivational speaker.
Weihenmayer first hiked with his father, and fell in love with rock climbing at age sixteen at a camp for the blind, where they called him Monkey Boy. After his mother was killed in a car crash, his father took him and his brothers trekking in Peru, Spain, Pakistan, and Papua New Guinea to bond. He began mountaineering in his early 20s. For the blind, environmental patterns are the key to making one's way through the world; city blocks are roughly the same length, curbs are the same height, and household furniture remains in the same place. In climbing, there are no patterns. The natural landscape of mountain, ice, and rock is entirely patternless.
"Watching Erik scramble up a rock face is a little like watching a spider make its way up a wall," according to Time. "His hands are like antennae, gathering information as they flick outward, surveying the rock for cracks, grooves, bowls, nubbins, knobs, edges and ledges, converting all of it into a road map etched into his mind." An accomplished climber, Weihenmayer is rated 5.10, with 5.14 being the highest. "It's like instead of wrestling with a person, I am moving and working with a rock," he told Time. "It's a beautiful process of solving a puzzle." He climbed Alaska's Denali (Mount McKinley) in 1995, California's El Capitan in 1996, Kilimanjaro in 1997, Argentina's Aconcagua in 1999, Canada's Polar Circus in 2000, and Antarctica's Mount Vinson. He follows the shouts of the climbers in front of him, who call out hazards and wear a bell and a rope attached to Weihenmayer. He is an exceptional leader under conditions that challenge the most talented mountaineers—in the dark. Weihenmayer also enjoys skydiving. Strangely, he is mildly afraid of flying.
In 1999, almost as soon as Weihenmayer met Pasquale Scaturro, a geophysicist and mountaineer who had led seven Everest expeditions, the two began setting up an expedition. They put together a nineteen-person team of experienced climbers and friends of Weihenmayer's. The National Federation of the Blind (N.F.B.), pledged $250,000 to sponsor the climb. Aventis Pharmaceuticals, which manufactures the allergy medication Allegra, sponsored a documentary of the climb; Weihen mayer suffers from allergies. All of his existing gear and clothing manufacturers backed the climb. Confident of his mountaineering experience, Weihenmayer felt sure that if he failed, it would be because of his heart, lungs, or brain—not his eyes.
The N.F.B. team arrived in Lukla, Nepal, in March 2001 to begin the trek. At the start of the climb, Weihenmayer was so sure on his feet that some Nepalese Sherpas believed he was lying about his sight. He convinced everyone when he removed one of his glass eyes, and offered to remove the other. Climbing Everest is physically, mentally, and emotionally grueling for the best climbers, under the best conditions, and many considered Weihenmayer foolhardy. By the time they ascended from Base Camp, the lowest camp on the mountain, to Camp One, Weihenmayer looked awful—he was suffering from the altitude and was bloody from getting hit in the face with a trekking pole. But it looked worse than it was and Weihenmayer and the team continued up to Camps Two, Three, and Four, the final stop.
At Camp Four, preparing to head for the summit, a storm came in that almost dashed their hopes. After a break in the weather, they continued to push on to the South Summit, with a 10,000-foot vertical fall into Tibet on one side, and a 7,000-foot fall into Nepal on the other. South Summit is often where climbers turn back. Hillary Step, a 39-foot rock face, is the last obstacle before reaching the true summit of Everest. Because of an approaching storm, Weihenmayer only had a few minutes at the top to soak it all in. After returning home, Weihenmayer added a chapter, titled "Everest," to his autobiography, To Touch the Top of the World, which was originally published before his climb.
On June 13, 2002 Weihenmayer reached the top of Russia's Mount Elbrus, number six on his list. On September 5, 2002, Weihenmayer reached the top of his seventh, Australia's Mount Kosciusko. Because there is some debate whether Australia or Australiasia is the seventh continent, some climbers argue that he must still summit Indonesia's Carstensz Pyramid to join the Seven Summits, which he plans to attempt in 2003. "What Erik achieved is hard for a sighted person to comprehend," according to Time. "Perhaps the point is really that there is no way to put what Erik has done in perspective because no one has ever done anything like it. It is a unique achievement, one that in the truest sense pushes the limits of what man is capable of."
SELECTED WRITINGS BY WEIHENMAYER:
Touch the Top of the World: A Blind Man's Journey to Climb Farther Than the Eye Can See, Dutton, 2001.
Sketch by Brenna Sanchez
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