Climb Every Mountain: The Blind Climber Planning to Stand on Top of
From the Editor: On Monday afternoon, July 5, a remarkable young man addressed the 1999 convention of the National Federation of the Blind. His name was Erik Weihenmayer, and with the help of the NFB he was making plans to climb Mt. Everest in the spring of 2001 as part of a team of world-class climbers. This is what he said:
In 1996 my friends and I climbed a rock face, actually the tallest exposed granite monolith in the world, called El Capitan. It's 3,300 feet of overhanging rock in Yosemite Valley in California. The scariest part of the climb was actually sleeping on the ledges. They were maybe a foot-and-a-half wide, and even though you'd lash yourself to the side of the rock face, you'd still roll over in the night, and, with half your body hanging off a thousand-foot cliff, you wouldn't sleep very well. Since I knew I wasn't going to sleep very much, I decided to entertain myself. I had brought a box of Tic Tacs up the mountain with me, and my friend Jeff had made the mistake of falling asleep on a ledge maybe ten feet below us with his mouth open. So my friend Sam actually got a beam on Jeff's open mouth with his headlamp (Sam was on my ledge), and then he tried to direct my throws so that I could drop Tic Tacs into Jeff's mouth. That's how we entertained ourselves. Jeff woke up a few times in the night gasping for breath with a minty fresh taste lodged in the back of his throat.
In 1995 we climbed Mount McKinley, which is a twenty-thousand-foot peak, the tallest peak in North America. It's also one of the coldest mountains in the world. If you spit near the top of Mount McKinley, your spit will be frozen by the time it hits the ground. It took us twenty-one days with no showers, but we summited on Helen Keller's birthday, which was really special. Just last January my friend Rick Morris and I summited a peak called Autencaugua (23,000 feet) and the tallest peak in South America. We had this great system that I devised; I thought I was so smart. I connected these bells to Chris's pack and to his ice ax so that, as he climbed in front of me, I could follow him. But, when we left at four in the morning and got up to about 21,000 feet, this horrendous wind screaming off the Pacific Ocean was blowing straight in our facesmy finger tips were cold; my feet were cold. I couldn't hear the bells anymore, and I thought I was going to have to turn back. But Chris was really smart, and every five minutes or so, knowing I couldn't hear the bells, he'd put his fingers in his mouth and whistle at the top of his lungs. So for three or four hours we played this bizarre game of Marco Polo on the mountain.
When I got to the top of the mountain, it was amazing; I touched this metal cross that somebody had dragged up there and planted on the top. Though blindness might have slowed me down in certain situations on the mountain, I try not to see it as disappointing or sad or tragic. I see my blindness as something that makes my life an adventure. I know that you folks do the same. Many of you who are in this city for the first time and try to find a restaurant downtown know that our lives can be quite an adventure.
I embraced this spirit of adventure when I was in high school. I went out looking for a summer job, and I decided that I could be a dish washer. I went out to a restaurant and asked for a job, and the person said, "Erik, we'd love to hire you, but our kitchen is way too small. You'd bump into things; you'd break things; you wouldn't know how to put things away. We'd love to hire you, but it would be dangerous, so we can't." I went to a bigger restaurant with a really big kitchen this time, and I asked them for a job. They said, "We'd love to hire you, Erik, but our kitchen is way too big. You wouldn't know where to put things away. You'd lose your way in the kitchen, and it might be dangerous." So I thought, now I can't go wrong. I went to a medium-sized restaurant with a medium-sized kitchen, and I asked for a job, and they said, "Erik, we'd love to hire you, but our pots are way too hot; our dishes come in too fast. You wouldn't be able to keep up." And I never got a job that summer, but I did learn something very valuable which has helped me in my life: people's perceptions of blindness are often more limiting than blindness itself.
You see, before that I thought that, with my own actions, with my own individual efforts, and with the strength of my own will, I could shape people's perceptions about me. I learned that sometimes it takes more than just one person's individual efforts. Sometimes it takes all of us working together, with an organization like the National Federation of the Blind providing a foundation and the necessary leadership to enable all of us simultaneously bashing our heads against these barriers to find the force to break through and feel the sun on our faces.
I think sometimes those external barriers transform into internal barriers, which are the most powerful of all. I learned about these on a training climb for Mount McKinley. We got up to a glacier called the Mere Glacier. It was getting really cold. A storm was coming in, and I was assigned to set up the tents. I had a major problem because I had never set up this kind of tent before. I had always set them up with someone else. I found that, when I laid this tent out in front of me and tried to orient the sleeves and loops and corners of the tent with thick mountaineering gloves on, I was blind in two ways. I couldn't do it. Finally my friends had to come bail me out and set the tent up for me. I was frustrated and embarrassed. Later I went back to Phoenix, where I lived at the time, I took the tent to a field near my house, and I worked with my thick mountaineering gloves on, breaking it down and setting it up and breaking it down again. I could hear cars slowing down looking at this idiot out in the field in 105-degree weather in a tank top and mountaineering gloves, setting up a winter mountaineering tent. But by the time I got to Mt. McKinley, I could set up tents in any conditions.
Sometimes there is a very blurry line between the things we cannot do and the things we can do. I've had a lot of fun over these last years as a blind adventurer, sort of blurring that line even further. In 1995 I had seen a lot of blind people who had gone skydiving tandem with a person attached to them, but I had seen only a few go solo, and I really wanted to do that. I found that as a blind person I could actually skydive as safely as any sighted personeven if those people are crazy in their own right.
I found that I could attach computers to my ears which would beep at certain altitudes in my helmet. I could attach two radios around my neck with which I could communicate with a person on the ground. So I could jump just as safely as anyone else. The first time I actually went solo, though, I had a jump master in the air and I said, "If I don't hear my computer in my ear, swoop in and pop me on the helmet." Well I got something called sensory overload, which means you forget some of the commands that you've set up beforehand, and she swooped in because I didn't hear my first computer beep. She popped me on the helmet. I was so excited to be solo skydiving for the first time that I popped her back on the helmet. She popped me again, and I popped her back and said, "Thanks, I'm really having a great time." The third time she popped me really hard, I realized what an idiot I was being, and I pulled my chute.
Before I became blind, I remember seeing this picture of a person climbing a frozen waterfall. He was a tiny speck against a massive white wall. When I became blind, I decided that a blind person could learn how to do this, but I was told by an expert that you can't indiscriminately swing your sharp ice tools (which attach you to the wall) at the ice face. You'd knock giant chunks of ice off which would come down and kill you. This is a bad thing in climbing. But I found through trial and error that I could tap my ice tools very lightly against the face and by listening for a certain sound, a certain pitch, I would know whether it was going to be a safe hit or whether it would be a hit that would shatter ice on top of me. See, people thought you had to be able to see to ice climb; they didn't know that there were other ways of doing it.
Just recently we climbed a thousand-meter wall of ice called Polar Circus in the Canadian Rockies, and halfway through the climb I took my glove off and ran my hand across the surface of the ice. It was as cold and smooth as a window on a winter's day. I had to take a deep breath because of the beauty I was feeling at the tips of my fingers. Many sighted people believe that the human eye is the only pathway to beauty, but we know that's just not true.
Before I climbed El CapitanI didn't want to climb it as a token blind person, where you're dragged to the top of the mountain and spiked on top like a footballI wanted to climb it an honest way. I didn't want to be a token. I had always followed a rope so, if I had fallen, I would have just dangled. Now I went out and learned how to lead. It's called taking the sharp end of the rope. What enables a team to get up a rock face is that each person takes it in turn to lead the team up the crack system. Your hands and feet are jammed into cracks, and you take various sized pieces of metal gear off your harness and jam them into the crack. As you go a little higher, you take your rope, which is hanging below your harness, and clip it into those pieces of gear. If you fall, you hope those pieces of gear will lock against the crack so you won't fall very far. If you place them incorrectly, you'll fall hundreds of feet, which is another bad thing in climbing. I learned to lead. I led about a thousand feet, about a third of El Capitan.
Now it's actually kind of fun. I was leading on a rock face near my home in Colorado, I popped out from a crack, and there was a person about fifteen feet to my right. He was leading his own route, and he looked over at me and said, "Where you headed, dude?" (That's the way climbers talk.) I just came right out and said, "I'm blind, and I've never actually been on this route before. There's supposed to be a ledge up there somewhere." He laughed and climbed a little higher. Then he stopped and said, "Wait, you mean like you can't see?" I said, "No, I can't see anything." He laughed again, and I heard his gear belt jingling as he climbed a little higher. Then he stopped again and said, "You mean like it's all black?" I said, "Completely."
All of us do the things we do because we love to do them, because of our passion for that activity. But I would be lying if I didn't admit that a tiny bit of the fun for me is tweaking people's sensibilities a little, shaping their perceptions about what's possible and what's not.
Each of you knows that the best way to shape people's perceptions about blindness is to take the sharp end of the rope, to embrace that pioneering spirit of adventure, and demonstrate the capabilities of blind people through our actions. You know what I'm talking about, whether you're the first blind lawyer to set up a private practice in your community or the first blind teacher to be hired in your school district or the first blind person in your college to take a high-level finance class. In many ways each of us is a pioneer embarking into uncharted territory. Who understands this philosophy, this pioneering spirit, better than the National Federation of the Blind? Throughout its history it has been providing the foundation and leadership for all of us to fulfill our dreams. That is why the NFB has chosen to sponsor this 2001 climb of Mt. Everest once and for all to prove without a doubt that, given the right opportunity and skill and mindset, and backed by the most powerful blindness organization in the world, a blind person can climb to the top of the world.
I believe that, if a blind person is seen succeeding safely on an arduous peak like this one, it won't just shape people's perceptions of blindness; it will shatter them. The exciting part is that, when those perceptions are rebuilt, many, many blind people will find themselves living their lives with greater opportunity. Part of the fun of climbing for me is that you're roped together. When you're traveling up a glacier, you have these little holes in the snow called crevasses. They can be hundreds of feet deep. They can be thirty feet across. Many times there is just a little frozen snow bridge linking one side to the other. So roped together, one by one, the team crosses over the bridge. As each person crosses, the other teammates get ready to throw their ice axes into the snow to arrest the person if he or she pops through the snow bridge. It's pretty exciting, but it's scary at the same time. Climbing solo is a really good way to wind up being frozen in the bottom of a crevasse. We know that climbing solo on a mountain isn't the best way to cross a glacier. We know as well that climbing solo is not the best way to improve the lives of blind people.
On this NFB rope team, even though we move in sync, each of us is fulfilling unique and vital functions on the team. If you can envision fifty thousand, a hundred thousand blind people all moving together on one mission, toward one dream, but each fulfilling a unique and vital function on the team, then you can envision the scope and the power of the NFB. It will take each of us working together, helping each other, each person doing what he or she can, that will enable us to climb this mountain into first-class citizenship. We will shape and shatter and rebuild what it means to be blind in this world. I want to end by saying that I'm very proud and very honored to be joining this illustrious rope team with such pioneering legends as Dr. tenBroek, Dr. Jernigan, and Dr. Maurer. I am proud to be working with each of you as we prepare for the historic climb in 2001. Wish us good fortune.
P.S. from the Editor: He made it!
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