Blind since he was 13, the mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer has reached the highest peaks on all seven continents.
Reaching the summit of Mount Everest is a triumph for any climber, but for
Erik Weihenmayer, the accomplishment is even more impressive. That’s because he is blind. Born with a rare eye disease, Mr. Weihenmayer lost his sight at age 13 and later discovered a sense of freedom through climbing. Over the years, the 50-year-old has reached the highest peaks on seven continents and also kayaked the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
When Erik Weihenmayer finished his first climb, he thought, "This is what I want out of my life." Credit: Skyler Williams
A former schoolteacher, Mr. Weihenmayer co-founded
No Barriers, a nonprofit organization that teaches outdoor skills to those with physical challenges. Earlier this month, No Barriers staged its annual summit in New York, with many of the workshops taking place on the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.
The following are edited excerpts from a conversation with Mr. Weihenmayer.
How did you develop an interest in climbing?
Growing up in Connecticut, my Dad would drive me three hours to Massachusetts once a month to this adventure program for the blind. They took us to New Hampshire and we rock climbed on these beautiful granite rock faces. It was very tactile. That’s what I really loved about it. You can feel all these little knobs and cracks and fissures and little dishes in the rock. So you’re problem-solving with your hands and feet as your eyes. You had to put your body in all these cool, acrobatic positions to get yourself from point A to point B and you’re trying to solve this puzzle that’s embedded in the rock. I loved the great adventure and mystery and full engagement. I got to the top and I could hear the valley below me. I could hear the wind blowing through the trees. And I thought this is so stunning. This is what I want out of my life.
How you navigate without sight?
I’ve been really fortunate to attract really awesome friends and mentors. On a big mountain, they’re hiking in front of me and a lot of times I can hear their crampons crunching in the snow, so I can just follow them. When we’re on a rock, they’re jingling a bear bell and I’m using two trekking poles to feel my way. And then when I get in more technical terrain, I’m just feeling my way up the rock face or an ice face. So I’m just doing it by sound and by touch.
In 2012, Erik Weihenmayer trained at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, N.C., before kayaking the Grand Canyon. Credit: Travis Dove for The New York Times
What are the challenges and rewards of travel?
I love to not know exactly what’s around the corner. It’s all new. From travel and adventure, there’s some struggle. I’ve come home from trips just feeling broken from carrying huge packs. On Everest, the Sherpas are superstitious. They’re Buddhists and they feel like there’s karma. If you’re blind, you’ve made your own luck. If you climb a mountain, you’ll bring devastation down on people and it’ll be bad luck for them. We were having a little trouble finding Sherpas to support us and one guy, Ang Pasang, said, “I think you make your own luck.” I remember on the top of the south summit, I thought, he’s broken this idea of karma to connect his fate to mine. How courageous. I do think that when you go into these unknown experiences with an open heart you come away with great gifts that affect the trajectory of your life and enable you to have insight into human beings — what we can do and how much we can aspire to do.
What are your favorite places?
Nepal is so diverse and I really like the people. I also love Peru. It’s got really huge adventure, great mountains, amazing Inca culture, and it’s not that far away.
Why did you bring No Barriers to New York?
We’ve always used the outdoors as our setting for this journey of transformation that we bring people on. I think No Barriers is a message we all need right now. There’s just so much anxiety in the world and one of the best messages of No Barriers is to turn inside and really grow what we have and lean in and get strong.
This article first appeared on www.nytimes.com. The original can be read here.