n May 25, 2001, Erik Weihenmayer, BC ’91, summited Mount Everest. He was standing on top of the world—but he didn’t look around.
When Ed and Ellen Weihenmayer first laid eyes on their newborn, they saw a little bit of each other in his face—he had his father’s nose and his mother’s lips, and his ears looked a bit like his older brother’s. But when they looked into his eyes, they couldn’t see that there was a battle being waged. A few months later, while Ed was holding a pint-sized Erik in his arms, he noticed the baby’s eyes were shaking. Thus began the Weihenmayers’ search for an answer as to why his young eyes were twittering. They received extreme recommendations for the unusual condition—one prestigious doctor said they should freeze parts of his eye—and only after 10 specialists did the Weihenmayers get a real diagnosis.
“We were blindsided by Dr. Brockhurst, we had no idea that this was a disease—or a condition I should say—that was going to lead to blindness,” Ed said.
Erik was diagnosed with juvenile retinoschisis, and Ed and Ellen were told that their newborn had about 12 years left to see the world. Their drive home was disturbed by a desperate visit to a church. The couple fell on the pews, and their baby—ignorant of his imminent loss—smiled as his parents pleaded with salty tears.
After their trash bins were flooded with tissues and their eyes were too dry to whine anymore, questions flooded their minds. Erik was about to be the first blind person they had ever met, and they had no idea how to raise him. The Weihenmayers read all the books, then burned them. Despite recommendations, Erik’s parents did not enroll him in a school for the blind—instead his mother marched into his classroom, furious that he had been given an A+ on spelling work that was B- quality, and demanded that he be treated as any other second grader who wrote in orange highlighter and ignored the golden rule: “i before e except after c.”
While other kids grew up on nursery rhymes and excuses, Erik ate the words “don’t quit” for breakfast every morning. And from second grade to sixth, his fading eyes devoured the popping color and bright lights of 1970s Hong Kong, markedly, at that time, not a part of China. During a hike one day, the Weihenmayer family came to a fence with a sign that would elicit a 180 from normal passersby—saying something along the lines of “STOP HERE, DO NOT ENTER”—but Erik followed his Marine father over the barbed wire and thus began their illicit romp in mainland China. A movie montage-worthy scene ensued as they scoured a market in a tiny village, with inhabitants that were fascinated at the sight of Westerners. Eventually though, like every good movie (Titanic wouldn’t have been one of the highest-grossing movies of all time if the ship hadn’t sank), the plot thickened. A squadron of police surrounded the tourists and offered them a firm escort to the border—a service that didn’t come without a fee.
“My dad said it was the best 50 bucks he ever spent because we had this great adventure,” Erik said.
As soon as adventure was shot into Erik’s veins, it coursed relentlessly through his body until he was filled with it up to his eyes. As he pulsed with new excitement, his field of vision became smaller and smaller. His retina’s neurosensory layers never healed their rocky relationship, and their intention to divorce became clearer and clearer.
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It’s a fact of life that people will pay more for an apartment with a view. An apartment on the top floor in Back Bay overlooking the Charles costs millions. People put marble, not linoleum, in their kitchens if they have a choice, and wake up an hour earlier than they have to before work to watch espresso paint a little white cup dark, as they gaze at the city from their castle—the visible proving their worth, their collection of things making it obvious they’ve done something with their lives. They go to brunch and take pictures of their food for 10 minutes before tasting it, letting it get cold so that they can upload it for others to spend hours feasting their eyes on.
For most people, the visible creates the real.
At first, Erik denied the undeniable—his blind fate. There would be no looking out over the city and watching the sun rise. And as day turning to night ended more and more in permanent night, he made up excuses for why he couldn’t see, saying “maybe I didn’t eat enough breakfast” or “I’m just a little under the weather.” He concealed it well though, as his father didn’t even understand the tremendous anger and frustration he was harboring within him until he was editing his first book, Touch the Top of the World—reading the words filled with self-loathing and desperation that marked this part of Erik’s life.
“You don’t really know what to think,” Erik said. “It’s like a brick wall that’s in front of you, and you can’t really see how to get through it, or what’s on the other side.”
Then the day came when Erik couldn’t argue with himself anymore. Stories and postulations could no longer conceal his loss. He wouldn’t be the first human in history to pull a Houdini on destiny, to screw over nature, or to create his own non-metaphoric reality.
“At first you retreat into this senselessness, like a raccoon or something,” Erik said. “You’re cornered and trapped and don’t know what to do, so you just lash out at everyone around you.”
“Eventually I worked through that,” he added with a chuckle.
Erik’s father watched his son plunge into fear—not fear of becoming blind, but fear of not being able to have a dream, and thus fear of having a life lived for nothing. As if being a freshman in high school wasn’t scary enough, Erik went in totally blind, and his classmates only made his life harder. Someone would give the signal for everyone to get quiet when he walked into the cafeteria so that he also walked into utter confusion, and when he finally found a table, he sat alone thinking about what his life was going to be like, and the emptiness that was sure to fill it.
“I wasn’t comfortable with blindness. I wasn’t comfortable being blind. I hated being blind,” Erik said.
He realized he would have to learn to use a cane and read braille. Blindness was as much a part of him as his lungs and his toes, and if he wanted to survive, he would have to learn to live within new parameters—then he could push them.
“People reflect you like a mirror,” Erik said. “The way you see yourself, people see you. … Once I got comfortable with myself, others did too.”
Erik joined the wrestling team, and when things started to look up, tragedy smacked the Weihenmayer family once again—this time, a fatal one. Erik’s mom, who grew up in the epitome of rural Florida, having been crowned “Miss Soybean Queen” in high school, was killed in a car accident.
“Not to get too deep, but when somebody dies, they’re like gone, you know,” Erik said. “Like they’re this corpse, but they’re gone, and it’s so bizarre.”
Erik went into his mother’s closet, crazed by the pain, and smelled her shoes—sniffing her booted, heeled, and open-toed memory. She was buried in Florida, and Erik never stopped trying to feel a connection with her. He recalls visiting her grave site, searching for some sort of spiritual junction.
“It was really hot, and there were mosquitoes, and gnats,” he said.
He sat beside her grave and waited to feel his lost mother.
“My guide dog was sitting there panting, stinky breath in my face, drooling on me … There were noises off in the distance like a lawn mower or something,” he said.
The hot-stickiness of Erik’s dog’s slobber and his own sweat on his leg was not the long awaited union he was hoping for among the headstones. Erik felt frustration, and annoyance—but not his mother’s presence. Then he realized that the connection he was searching for was engulfing him.
“The connection is with the world,” Erik said. “it’s with the stinky breath of my guide dog drooling on me, and you know, that lawnmower off in the distance and the trees and the mosquitoes and the grass and the heat.”
Erik called his mother the dustpan to his father’s broom. The Weihenmayers’ parenting philosophy was to treat Erik as normally as possible—painting his bike ramps orange so he could continue to jump them for as long as possible when he was losing his sight. Ed acted the part of the broom—sweeping Erik out into the world, and Ellen was the dustpan, picking him up when he came home battered and scarred. In the wake of loss, Ed, knowing he could never replace the love of a mother, decided to start taking his family on bonding trips during the summers—an attempt to add glue to their broken pieces.
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After Erik’s senior year of high school, the Weihenmayer family set out to see the vast constructions of Andean dwellers in modern-day Peru. They visited precise stone buildings and a fraction of the approximately 24,000 miles of the ancient Camino Inca, marked by four days of snaky-severity in the Urubamba Valley, to a mysterious city two miles above sea level: Machu Picchu. On the last day of the jaunt, Erik, using trekking poles and listening to someone jingling a bell in front of him, came to the Sun Gate, or Inti Punku, where modern travelers pause in ancient traveler’s footsteps and get their first glimpse of Machu Picchu, thousands of miles below. While most see, Erik hears.
“You learn to use your ears,” Erik said. “Some people call it ‘echo location,’ where you click and you listen to the sound of space … and I could hear the city below me—a rock city. It was a really dramatic sound.”
He could hear the way rock structures tiered down the valley, until the valley morphed into river hundreds of thousands of feet beneath him. From heights that would cause some to cower, Erik felt the wind whipping against his face, and the spirit of Hiram Bingham within him—as if he was finding the lost city for the first time.
ttending a football game was all it took to get Erik chanting “For Boston! For Boston!” for the next four years. He and his guide dog, Wizard, learned how to navigate from class to class on weekdays and from Walsh back to Fenwick on sweaty freshman weekends. He finished off his time at BC in a Mod (“I loved them but they got a little gross.”) and then marched back four years later to Alumni Stadium, where it all began, to give the Commencement speech to the Class of 2003, telling them “A winner plays the game once, a champion understands that the game never ends. Life is an ongoing process of reaching into the dark not knowing what we will find.”
Growing up, Erik took I-84 up from Connecticut (where he moved after living in Hong Kong) straight to Boston to either climb in Newton or visit retinol specialists. His first rock climbing trip sparked an interest—it was a sport like wrestling where he could use his sense of touch to end up on top. His hands loved figuring out the puzzle of the rock face, his body craved the dynamism.
“It was kind of for me the opposite of what I feared blindness would be,” Erik said. “It wasn’t like a prison, it was like freedom … really beautiful you know?”
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So when he got offered a job at Phoenix Country Day School in rock-climbing country (where he taught Meghan McCain English), after getting his master’s degree in middle school education on the Crimson side of the Charles, he grabbed his gear and began his migration to a school that saw him as an asset rather than someone to accommodate, in a direction that’s always driven people mad with excitement. Erik broke away from the East Coast, with its prep schools and chastening winters.
“That was his first bold decision, to go west,” Ed said.
On one of many climbs in Arizona, a bold friend catalyzed the biggest pivot in Erik’s life since his diagnosis—another knife cutting the fabric of his existence, and a new frontier.
“He was like, ‘Hey we should try something bigger!’” Erik said. “And I was like, ‘What, like a little bit higher rock face?’ … We had mostly been doing a one rope length’s climb, but I was thinking maybe a two ropes’ length climb. And, he goes, ‘No, what about Denali.’”
Erik hardly knew what Denali was, and after his friend explained it to him, his confusion morphed to laughter, which soon turned to curiosity.
“I’m very impressionable, so I was like, ‘Well this guy believes it’s possible.’” Erik said. “And I’m very linear, so I was like, ‘How do I create a plan to get from A to Z?’”
So, he set out for the American Foundation for the Blind.
“They sponsored us, and I was like, ‘Oh God, now I’m trapped—I’m committed,’” Erik said.
In preparation for the punishing cold and extreme self sufficiency in Alaska, Erik had to learn how to cook meals, set up tents with gloves on, rope together, and build snow walls—all activities that are hard, but harder given that he was blind and stripping another sense from himself by wearing gloves. The trip was unbelievably hard, especially for a blind person slipping and sliding through boot marks eight hours a day—just trying not to fall.
His team ended up summiting on June 27. As Erik sat in an igloo that had been built in their high camp, catching his breath, he had time to think through what his body had just done.
“I remember … going ‘this is a part of me now,’ like this crazy, severe, austere landscape, and this difficulty, all this challenge—it’s inside of me, somehow I’ve taken it in, I’ve digested it,” Erik said. “You never conquer a mountain, but the thing becomes a part of you. Nobody can take that away from you.”
On the icy ground, a switch flipped. After taking another hit of the sense of adventure he felt trespassing in China, cliff diving in Connecticut, and hiking in Peru, he realized he didn’t want to stop.
“I realized I wanted to keep doing this as long as I could … and that just led to the next adventure and then Everest and the seven summits, and hundreds of mountains all around the world since then,” Erik said.
He thought about making a life for himself in the mountains constantly—as red ink crept onto poorly done homework, and grades were carved onto loose leaf, Erik was thinking about drawing his feet through mountain pathways.
“In some ways it’s kind of preposterous there aren’t that many blind professional adventurers in the world,” Erik said. “It’s not something a venture capitalist would be invested in.”
ne man took a risk on him though: his father. Early on in life, Ed had decided he would act as Erik’s partner, not the parent limiting him beyond his condition. Ed recalls when Erik told him he wanted to train to solo skydive, and despite being the leader of an adventurous family who tandem parachuted and sledded down mountains in India, Ed was concerned. But, before his lips could emit a negative, Erik brought out the blueprints and showed his father his thoroughly contemplated plan, proving to Ed once again that what he needed was a partner, not a discipliner. Nearing retirement, Ed told Erik he would give him the expertise and experiential backup he needed to run a business, to be the first-ever blind professional adventurer.
The die had been cast, and bags darted to be packed—soon Erik and his wife moved to Colorado. His father, being the co-chairman for the American Foundation for the Blind, helped his son present his expensive proposition to the National Federation of the Blind, so that he could receive 90 percent of funding for the cost of his dream. Erik took on a new job title, “vagabond fundraiser,” as he popped from outdoor show to outdoor show, asking for gear and attention, and assembly to assembly, talking his way to more money for his voyage. His wife, who he met at Phoenix Country Day, continued to teach, keeping them afloat. To make matters official, Erik began penning his first book, Touch the Top of the World.
“It was a little premature because I hadn’t actually touched the top of the world yet,” Erik said. “I was investing in myself I guess.”
As people tossed Erik a few bucks and shoes or a pack here and there, they watched him walk to a silent beat, possessed by passion and determination. Those who could look couldn’t keep their eyes off of him.
“Being a blind climber is sort of like being a Jamaican bobsledder,” Erik said.
No matter how many people were rooting for Erik, a single fact cast a shadow over the mission: Most people who attempt to climb Everest don’t. It’s a perfectly lethal cocktail of scalding cold, rationed oxygen, and exalted elevation standing between Nepal and Tibet.
“There’s no valor to being shot against the canyon—success is if you live,” Ed said.
Nonetheless, Erik ascended with a team of 19, led by Pasquale Scaturro, who had already led seven other Everest expeditions. Erik, who claims to love the normalcy of sidewalks, skidded through the ice, wondering if instead of having the mountain within him, the mountain would have him within it.
After climbing Everest, everything exploded. Though his neurosensory layers had long parted, a new splitting occured on the top of the world—the splitting of disability from a blind man’s shoulders. After his worn feet touched the ground—once again confronting busy streets, hardwood floors, and grass—instead of applause Erik heard only the words of Scaturro: Don’t let Everest be the greatest thing you ever do.
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“What I learned is the tricky tenuous process of growth and how easy it is to get sidelined, how easy it is at any step of that journey to get stuck at the side and kind of stagnate,” Erik said.
Not allowing himself to stagnate, in 2014, after training for six years, Erik solo kayaked every inch of the 277 miles of the Grand Canyon. Much more difficult than climbing Everest, requiring more grit, and with a higher mission of proving that his mantra of “what’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way.” Now a professional speaker, Erik didn’t want to be the guy still talking about climbing Everest at his funeral. He set out to reinvent himself with the persistence of the river.
“It was a more immediate fear, just in your face fear,” Erik said. “You can’t stop. There’s no catching your breath.”
Standing before the roaring waters of the Colorado—home to some of the world’s most dangerous rapids (Class V)—Erik, before even getting his toes wet, had to confront a demon trying to destroy him from within, who began planting the idea in his head that he had gotten lucky on the mountains. Humbling and fear inducing, the seedlings of self-doubt were soon over-watered by the whitecaps of the river—never to be made to rise out of the dirt.
Erik made it out of the hell-bent waters alive because he forced himself to let go, to put himself at the mercy of the river’s fast pace and use its energy. Though both the 10-foot tall and lateral waves slammed into him, spitting him out repeatedly, he kept diving back in.
“It’s fun building yourself into something that you weren’t, and I wanted to have that river within me,” Erik said.
Erik doesn’t define himself by personal adventure, though. After summiting Everest, the man on the cover of Time magazine, was invited to climb with Hugh Herr (a double leg amputee who at the time was getting his Ph.D. in bioengineering from MIT and now builds the most sophisticated prosthetic legs in the world) for a film project by Mark Wellman (the first paraplegic to climb El Capitan, who did 7,000 pull ups up the rock face in eight days). They were, as Erik describes, a “full disabled team.” Erik carried Wellman, while Herr did the pitches.
“It was at the top of that rock face for me where No Barriers began because I thought, ‘Okay I want to surround myself with these people like Mark and Hugh,” Erik said. “You get completely shattered in life, some more than others, and how do you kind of rebuild yourself, so you don’t get stuck?”
Erik described how, after failure and trauma, a crust is created around the body, holding it back from moving forward—which is why after Everest he sought to treat a universal ailment: struggle. He wanted to understand the processes that people who face great tragedies use to move forward. Wellman called him a year later with a similar idea, and thus the nonprofit No Barriers began, under the budding idea in science called “neuroplasticity,” or the ability of the brain to change throughout a person’s life.
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At an event last year for Agape Latte Erik talked more about his friend Wellman, who broke his back on a climbing expedition, then conceived of a pulley system, through which he pulled himself up mountains six inches at a time, so he would never have to stop reaching higher. He calls Wellman an “alchemist,” because he managed to transform the weighty lead life had piled on him into gold. He speaks similarly of his friend Herr, who lost both of his legs in a climbing accident, saying “the greatest breakthrough of his life was when he looked at where his legs were supposed to be and instead of seeing loss, he saw a blank canvas.”
“It’s really tricky for people to do,” Erik said. “It’s not turning lemons into lemonade or all of these silly expressions. It’s really saying, ‘My choice is to either let this thing crush me or to figure out a way to harness that energy.”
No Barriers has a curriculum of alchemy and elevation that it brings to people in its annual summits and programming. In 2010, the organization added “No Barriers Warriors” through which veterans from all branches of the military participate in events (like trekking through the Rockies, skiing to the South Pole, and rafting in the Grand Canyon) and conversation about their past, present, and future. No Barriers and the lifestyle it has created will impact 12,000 people next year.
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Erik doesn’t shy away from a challenge or a conversation—he doesn’t half ass either. He’ll talk for hours, his voice perpetuated by some seemingly otherworldly energy. He talks about climbing, working, thinking, literature, his kids, his wife, his friends, his guide dogs, his mistakes—he’ll talk until he comes to a gentle pause and his voice begins to quiver. The quieter he becomes, and the slower words drip from his tongue, the closer you listen.
When asked whether he thinks sight is integral to experience, Erik described hovering 2,000 feet off the earth, on a vertical, frozen waterfall. Feeling nothing beneath him, he floated for a minute, engulfed by the air. Though his mission was to the top, something pulled him to stop, take off his glove, and run it across a mass of ice in front of his face. The trunk of the ice felt like that of a tree because of the atmosphere’s periodic pushing against the ice, causing it to billow down, then drip toward earth.
The ice was smooth as glass, running vertically down, then dropping into space. There were occasional stalactites, and sometimes pockets that he stuck his hands into to feel little crystals of ice growing within. As his canaled fingertips touched the tips of the ice, the ice played a symphony for him, noisily chattering at his stroke.
“I just remember thinking, that’s stunning, like staggeringly beautiful. Just the touch of the ice, the sound of the ice … so yeah, you can get great beauty and connections from your other senses,” Erik said. “I don’t know if one is better than the other.”
Featured Image courtesy of Luis Benitez