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The Braille Monitor–March, 2001 Edition


He Overcomes Challenge, by Thousands of Feet!

by J. Michael Kennedy

Erik Weihenmayer in the shadow of Ama Dablam
Erik Weihenmayer in the
shadow of Ama Dablam

From the Editor: On Friday, January 5, 2001, the following story appeared in the Los Angeles Times. It sets the stage for the NFB 2001 Everest Expedition, which is scheduled to begin with the team's departure from the U.S. for Khatmandu on March 23. Here it is:

At the moment a thirty-two-year-old adventurer named Erik Weihenmayer is in Antarctica, climbing the 16,066-foot Vinson Massif, the tallest mountain of the frozen continent.

If he succeeds, it will be another step toward his goal of climbing the tallest peak on each of the world's seven continents. He's already climbed those of Africa and North and South America. And in the spring Weihenmayer will join a team of nine other experienced climbers to tackle the world's tallest peak, Mt. Everest.

What sets the Golden, Colorado, resident apart is that he's blind. Not just legally blind, but lights-out blind. Even so, he has developed himself into a world-class climber by dint of superb conditioning.

"Believe me, it's not tokenism," said Everest climb leader Pasquale Scaturro of Lakewood, Colorado. "No one treats Erik like he's a blind climber. He gets really ticked off if we do."

Scaturro, the veteran of two previous Everest expeditions, should know. He spent weeks last year with Weihenmayer as they attempted to climb Nepal's 22,486-foot Ama Dablam, only to be turned back by brutal weather 2,000 feet from the summit.

Scaturro speaks with awe as he describes Weihenmayer's athletic abilities, honed by years of punishing workouts that allowed him to push the limits of sightlessness.

Besides mountaineering the former-schoolteacher-turned-motivational-speaker is also a skydiver and skier, long-distance biker and marathoner, wrestler and scuba diver, ice and rock climber.

Weihenmayer has received numerous awards, including induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. Last summer he delivered the pledge of allegiance at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. And next month--just weeks before the Everest attempt--Penguin Putnam/Dutton will publish his autobiography, titled Touch the Top of the World.

Born with a rare and incurable eye condition called juvenile retinaschesis, Weihenmayer's sight began to diminish gradually even as his mother Ellen sought to find some form of treatment. And just as he was going completely blind at age thirteen, his mother was killed in an auto accident.

Ed Weihenmayer, Erik's father, recalled those years after his wife's death as difficult for the family, but particularly for Erik, who was angered by the darkness that had engulfed him. But the elder Weihenmayer, a former Air Force attack pilot and Wall Street broker, did not let his son wallow in self-pity.

Instead he set him on a path of goals normally reserved for the very fit and sighted. The two of them, along with two older brothers, hiked the mountains of Peru and the rugged trails of northern Spain. It was, as Ed Weihenmayer put it, a way to bond the family "to create the kind of glue" that his wife had provided.

But the son soon surpassed the father in athletic accomplishments, with minimal tools employed to compensate for blindness. Lead climbers wear a tiny bell so Weihenmayer can track their positions.

Scaturro recalled that, on last year's climb of Ama Dablam, the Sherpa guides refused to believe that Weihenmayer was blind. "They'd jump out in front of him, waving their hands, trying to make him flinch," said Scaturro, a geophysicist specializing in oil and gas exploration.

And what makes Weihenmayer try these things? "It's because he's got the same sense of adventure that we all have," Scaturro said.

 And what about Everest? Again, Scaturro is quick with a reply about the ascent, which will be along the same route described in Into Thin Air, the bestseller about an ill-fated expedition.

"He's ultra-prepared," said Scaturro, who has reached the summit of Everest once. "Everest is no technical challenge for this guy. He's probably way more qualified than 80 percent of the people who climb Everest."

The Ama Dablam climb last year and the Everest expedition this spring are sponsored by the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind. Barbara Pierce, the organization's director of public education, said the idea is to show people that blindness and adventure can be combined, that the bottom line is that ten experienced climbers will make the assault on Everest. It's just that one will be blind.

"It's so important to get the world to recognize . . . this bold attitude about the human capacity to be victorious in the face of challenge," she said.

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