January 30, 2012

Erik Weihenmayer Conquers Horizons He Can't See

Erik Weihenmayer has climbed the 7 highest peaks all around the world.  That's pretty cool, but even more thrilling when you learn that Erik is blind. 
Erik was born with a disease called 'Retinoshisis' that causes blindness.  There is no cure.  He wore thick glasses and learned to read.  By the age of 13, Erik's eyesight was gone.  He didn't want to use Braille or a cane, thinking he could live just as he had when he was sighted.  He tried to play ball, but realized quickly that he had to be able to see to catch.  So he went into wrestling.  After a few years of wrestling, he made it to the National Junior Freestyle Wrestling Championships in Iowa when in High School.  He decided to use a guide dog at that point and enrolled in Boston College, where he earned a degree in English.  He became a Middle School teacher and a wrestling coach and got married. 
Erik got a taste of mountain climbing at a summer camp for the blind when he was sixteen.  He hiked with his father and loved it.  Soon after, his mother died and his father took Erik and his brothers on an expedition across Peru, Pakistan, Spain and New Guinea to give them some bonding time.  Erik fell in love with climbing.  Over the next few years, Erik climbed Mt. McKinley in 1995, El Capitan in 1996 and got married on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in 1997.  Yes, he married his wife at 13,000 feet elevation!
He kept climbing, reaching the top of Argentina's Aconcagua in 1999, Canada's Polar Circus in 2000, and Antarctica's Mount Vinson.  Now he had conquered the highest mountains in several continents and set his sights on the rest.  In 2001, he struggled to the top of Mt. Everest.  Like the other climbs, it was dangerous, but because of a bad storm that came up, they almost had to abandon this climb.  He arrived bloody and sick from the altitude, but he had made it!  He is the only blind man to ever make it to the summit. 
He reached the top of Australia's Mt. Elbrus and the seventh peak, Russia's Mt. Kosciusko in 2002.  All told, Erik climbed to the top of the tallest peak in each of the 7 continents!  And he did it without his sight.
For blind people, navigating in the controlled world is the easiest.  If you never move your furniture, you can count on it always being in the same place.  City blocks are generally the same size, so you can plan for curbs after so many steps.  And curbs are all about the same height.  In nature, things vary and have no uniformity.  For Erik to choose mountain climbing as his field of expertise is amazing.  A fellow climber said, "Watching Erik scramble up a rock face is a little like watching a spider make its way up a wall," according to Time [Magazine]. "His hands are like antennae, gathering information as they flick outward, surveying the rock for cracks, grooves, bowls, nubbins, knobs, edges and ledges, converting all of it into a road map etched into his mind." 
The real irony is that most mountain climbers do it for the view at the top.  Erik does it for other reasons, as he can't see the view.  He said, "I like doing things that are new and thrilling. Blindness is just a nuisance." In climbing, "you just have to find a different way of doing it."  Erik has written books and speaks motivationally.  He has also led expeditions for the blind. 
Erik shows us that doing hard things makes us stronger.  We can do the hard things in our lives.

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