Future Reflections                                                                         Spring/Summer 2003

(back) (next) (contents)

The Courage to Dream

by Erik Weihenmayer

from the book

Touch the Top of the World:
A Blind Man’s Journey to Climb Farther than the Eye can See
by Erik Weihenmayer, copyright 2002
Published by the Penguin Group, Penguin Putnam, Inc.
ISBN 0-525-94578-4 (hc.); ISBN 0-425-28294-2 (pbk.)

The following article is an excerpt from Erik’s book, Touch the Top of the World, and is reprinted with the permission of the author.   The book may be purchased in print or audio formats from any local bookstore or from <Amazon.com>. A Braille copy of the book can be purchased from the National Braille Press (www.nbp.org or call (800) 548-7323). It can also be borrowed in audio cassette format from your regional library for the blind and physically handicapped, and it will soon be available to borrow in Braille, as well.

From the Editor: On May 25, 2001, in an expedition sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind, Erik Weihenmayer became the first—and only—blind climber to reach the top of Mount Everest—the tallest peak in the world. Erik made the cover of TIME magazine, and the story of the crew’s amazing climb—the largest group to ever summit on the same day (nineteen team members), the oldest man in history, the first father and son, the first blind man—made headlines all over the world. At the age of thirty-three—twenty years after he lost his sight at the age of thirteen—Erik was a world-renowned hero.

However, Erik did not set out to become a hero. In the Everest chapter of the 2002 edition of his book, Touch the Top of the World, Erik states:

“I don’t climb mountains to prove to anyone that blind people can do this or that. I climb for the same reason an artist paints a picture: because it brings me great joy. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit my secret satisfaction in facing those cynics and blowing through their doubts, destroying their negative stereotypes, taking their very narrow parameters of what’s possible and what’s not, and shattering them into a million pieces.”

But before Erik could blow away the stereotypes of others, he had to first face his own fears and limited notions of what blind people could do. Erik was born with retinoscheses, a degenerative eye disorder that would gradually lead to blindness by the age of thirteen. Early on in his childhood, Erik showed a penchant for adventure. Buoyed by his own spirit of independence and encouraged by his loving, and determined, parents, Erik refused to let his slowly deteriorating vision stop him—he also refused to “… accept myself as being blind.” He scraped his knees learning to ride his bike just like other boys, and, unlike most kids of any age, explored the streets of Hong Kong before he was ten.

However, after several years of steadily degenerating and unstable vision—his middle school years, the ones that, in his book he describes as living “between blindness and sight”—his vision drops to the point that … “There could be no more lying to myself. The truth was brutally clear.”

Erik meets blind children at events all over the country and encourages them to pursue their dreams.   Here he talks to John  Vickers of Texas at a National Library of Congress book fair.
Erik meets blind children at events all over the country and encourages them to pursue their dreams. Above, he talks to John Vickers of Texas at a National Library of Congress book fair.

Despite this realization, however, adjustment does not come easily or quickly for Erik. His natural adventuresome spirit is transformed into rebellion against everything that smacks of blindness—especially his white cane. Erik describes his defiant denial of blindness in the chapter titled “Helplessness.” As recalcitrant as he is, however, his family and the other adults in his life who care about Erik will not give up on him. The following excerpt is from the chapter “A Faint Recognition.” Erik is, at this point, somewhere in the middle of his freshman year in high school. Angry and bitter; he is, nevertheless, also beginning to understand that blindness does not have to mean the end of his dreams. Here is the story in Erik’s own words:

Independence didn’t come in leaping strides but in tiny successes, almost imperceptible. It came in the discovery that I could match my socks by putting safety pins in different locations, in the pride of an A paper written on my speech-adapted computer, and in the confidence that came from knowing my surroundings by the clues I felt through the end of a white cane. Although small, they gave me the courage to dream a little bigger.

During a free period, I sat in the cafeteria, thinking about my midnight outings with Chris and what Jerry had said about help. I had almost been thrashed by a van full of angry drunken seniors, and the unbelievable part was that I hadn’t been caught. I had been standing on the side of the road, my pale butt glowing in the dark like a second moon, when they had poured out after me. When I had finally waddled away, my pants around my ankles, my cane tapping in front of me, I had heard the fastest boy’s breath behind me, but he hadn’t caught me.

My escape was a little unorthodox, but it had done the job. The cane was what had really saved me, and if it could save my hide from an almost unavoidable thrashing, then why couldn’t it work right here in school? A week earlier, Mrs. Mundy had made a tactile map of the cafeteria and had forced me to carry it. I leafed through my notebook and found the map. It was still fresh and untouched. I studied it for a long time, then practiced maneuvering around the empty tables. My book served as a tray, balanced in one hand while the other tapped my cane along the floor.

When lunchtime came, I took my tray from the counter, turned right until my cane gently tapped the wall. Then trailed the wall until I felt the soda machine protruding. I knew the gap between two tables was a few feet away. I turned left, using the light tap of metal chair legs as my guide. Then, in front of me, over the bustle, I recognized the voices of my friends. Working my way around the table, I subtly touched the back of each chair until I found one much lighter. Here, I carefully placed my tray, making sure it was fully resting on the table. Finally I sat down; a secret sigh escaped from my lips. Mitch, sitting in the next chair, grasped my cane. “Hey! That thing really works,” he said.

“I guess it does,” I replied smiling, beginning to believe it myself.

In Braille class, Mrs. Mundy Brailled an article and told me to read it for homework. “You’ll read it out loud for me tomorrow,” she said. Of course, I didn’t read it that night. The next day I stumbled through it aloud, reading it listlessly with the speed of a first grader. As I slowly began to understand the story under my fingers, I learned that it was about minor-league baseball players struggling to make it into the big leagues. Since Little League, the characters had dedicated their lives to making it in the majors, despite their knowledge that their chances were less than minuscule: one in one hundred thousand. Their struggle was like salmon swimming upstream. Usually my frustration was directed toward Mrs. Mundy for forcing me to waste my time deciphering complicated patterns of dots, my brain hardly bothering to recognize the meaning of the words. Today, however, my frustration was directed at my own stumbling inept fingers. I pushed them along, wanting to know if they would make it. Mrs. Mundy had outsmarted me. How hard had she worked to find a subject I’d be interested in? She had presented me with articles about politics and science, but this one had taken hold. It was about people striving for something, and the fascinating part about it was that they knew what they were striving for. They were moving in a direction. I realized that there was more to Braille than just raised dots; there were stories about people dreaming, and those stories made the gigantic leap from my stumbling fingertips all the way to my brain.

In the winter, all the freshmen tried out for different teams. I didn’t want to be left behind. Prior to my going blind, I wasn’t allowed to participate in any contact sports; my weak retinas might break away faster. Now that I was totally blind, there were no limitations; there was no more risk of me losing my remaining sight. In a sordid way, going blind had set me free. I was finally allowed to try out for wrestling. As I tapped my cane down the empty hallway toward the wrestling room, I wondered if I would be any good. When informally wrestling my brother Eddi in the garage, by feeling an ankle or a wrist, I could intuitively sense where the rest of his body was positioned. And with that knowledge, I thought I could join the team. However, my five-foot-nine, 114-pound body worried me more than my blindness: not much of a wrestler’s physique. Squeezing one bony bicep and then the other, I almost walked into a wall.

On the first day of wrestling practice, freshmen line up to face off against the captain, usually to be pinned in quick succession. I was third in line. “Ready, wrestle!” I heard, and then almost instantly, “Pinned, seven seconds,” as the first freshman’s squirming shoulders were forced to the mat. The second victim was pinned in nine seconds. Then I was up. My legs turned to Play-Doh, and I felt ready to puke. I didn’t have to do much work because I felt the strong, callused hands of the captain closing on my wrists, dragging me weakly to the center of the mat. The next moments merged together into a frenzied blur. Immediately after shaking hands, my legs were swept from under me and I landed on my back. Miraculously, I fought to my side before I was driven back again. I flopped on the mat like a fish out of water, struggling futilely. Soon the weight of my opponent crushing the air out of my lungs was too much. I heard the coach slap his palm squarely on the mat and pronounce, “Pinned, twenty seconds!” Without a pause, the captain continued up the line, demolishing each gasping opponent. No other match lasted more than ten seconds. I got up and staggered off the mat.

Coming to the first practice, I had worried about my teammates babying me. Instead, the captain had done the greatest thing he could possibly do: he had shown me no mercy as he ground my spindly body into the mat. My ribs were bruised; it hurt to breathe, but through the pain was a proud sense of elation. For the first time since I had gone blind, I no longer felt like “the blind guy.” I was the blind guy who stunk at wrestling, but stunk ten whole seconds better than any other freshman in the line.

An hour before the team’s first match, our coach learned that the varsity wrestler at my weight, one of his stars, would not be able to wrestle due to injury. He asked me to fill in, even though, in private, he remarked that sending me out to wrestle was like throwing chum to a school of sharks. I sat on my team’s side of the gym conjuring up ferocious images of my opponent. When my turn came, the captain took me by the arm and led me to the center of the mat. I shook my opponent’s hand and noticed the grip. It was softer, unlike my captain’s grip, which was hard, callused, sinewy, and could snap all the fragile bones in my hand.

The match was almost even, our two bodies flipping, driving, tumbling all over the mat. In the last few seconds of the final period, my tired opponent slowed down, enabling me to get out to his side and drive my arm under his armpit and over his neck in a half nelson. I got to my toes, chest driving into his side, my arm like a lever, cranking him up and over. When his body began to lift up and roll, I could hardly believe it. I expected him to suddenly reenergize, clamp down on my arm, and break my grip. Maybe he would even spin around me and score two points for a reversal. But he kept on turning toward his back, and my arm, buried deep in his armpit and around his neck, kept cranking. My arm strained. It began to tingle and go numb. I could no longer feel if any force flowed through it. Then, he was on his back, and I was driving the full force of my weight on top of him. A second before the final buzzer, I heard the whop of the mat as the ref yelled, “Pinned!” The entire gym erupted in cheers. The applause filled the room and, over the roar, I picked out the excited screams of my parents. Even my mother, who found it so hard to watch her son being bloodied and slammed against a wrestling mat, was cheering. Afterwards she told me that she had been nervously chewing her long hair and squeezing her hands together so tightly, she had fingernail marks in her palms for a week. Enveloped by the cheer of the crowd and surrounded by the pungent sweat of my teammates, I knew without a doubt that I was on the right path. Maybe, I had found the person that I had been before blindness, but when I settled on that idea, the implications disturbed me. In order to reclaim that person, I felt I would have to go back through the past, through the pain, frustration, and loneliness. How could I go back through time and erase all of that? Maybe it was better to follow the advice that my granddad had given my mother once, to look straight ahead and never look back. Maybe the best course was simply to set myself in motion, to propel myself forward, and somewhere along the way, I might stumble upon a new person, or even many new people, who would take my soul, which still felt a bit empty, and cram it full of newness and full of joy.

Postscript: Erik did move forward. He weathered the early, tragic death of his mother; went on to finish school, eventually taught middle school, and coached a school wrestling team. But for that story, you need to read the book—and it is worth reading. After the Mount Everest Expedition (which is described in the 2002 edition of the book), Erik completed climbs of all Seven Summits—the highest peaks on each of the seven continents (he is one of fewer than 100 individuals to accomplish this feat). The documentary of the Everest Expedition, Farther Than the Eye Can See, is now playing nationwide with much of the proceeds going to non-profit organizations such as the National Federation of the Blind. Erik is in much demand as an inspirational speaker at school, corporate, and non-profit organization events. Despite the demands of being a celebrity, Erik never loses his focus on the importance of family—he remains close to his father; is a devoted husband to his wife, Ellie; and is the proud father of two-year-old Emma. He also continues to seek out ways to fulfill his ambition to live a life of adventure. As this issue goes to press, Erik is embarking on a climb of Mount Huntington and other nearby peaks in Alaska. In 2004, he will compete as a member of a four-person team in the Eco Challenge; the most arduous adventure race in the world.

Yes, Erik Weihenmayer is, in all ways, a worthy hero. But there is another blind hero in this story, too. In the new afterward to his book, Erik describes how the Everest Expedition came into being. Essential to expeditions of this nature is a sponsor; someone or some entity to pay the bills. In the book, Erik explains how that problem was solved:

“I had an idea for sponsorship: the National Federation of the Blind, a consumer group of blind people fifty thousand strong and with chapters in every state. Their mission was simple and revolutionary, at first angering the bureaucratic establishment of blindness professionals: blind people working on behalf of themselves, taking their destiny into their own hands. When I visited their headquarters, the president, Dr. Maurer, was immediately elated. ‘Our goal has been to associate blindness with a sense of adventure, to wipe the dust off the image of blindness. If you are successful, the sighted world won’t envision a blind person pining away in a dark room anymore, but standing on top of the world.’”

Because two blind men—Erik Weihenmayer, blind adventurer and mountain climber, and Marc Maurer, leader of the largest organization of the blind in the world—had the courage to dream, a blind man stands on the top of the World, and no one will ever think of blindness in quite the same old, dusty, dark way again.

(back) (next) (contents)