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INTERVIEW BY ANNA MARIE MURPHY

Blind by 13, Erik Weihenmayer '91 has climbed the highest peaks on five continents. Last May he stood atop the summit of Mt. Everest.


You pop over the Hillary Step, which is maybe a 50-foot rock face--you kind of bellyflop your way onto it. You traverse around more rocks, and then you're on a broader ridge. It's not so steep at that point--sort of like a blue run on a ski slope. You go through a little layer of talus [rock debris], and maybe half an hour later it flattens out and you're on a little hump of snow. The top of Everest. I've been told that to your left, to the west, is a very steep rocky ridge that drops away. To your right is just nothing. . . Tibet. And in front of you is another broader ridge that goes down less steeply from the north side. There are prayer flags lying on the ground flapping in the breeze. You can hear them. The snow is almost like ice. You hear the wind howling and, all around, you can hear just space. The sound of open space is beautiful.

I've been climbing since I was 16, not to prove to the world that blind people can do it, but for the reason that painters paint--happiness. I used to be a basketball player and I used to love all sorts of ball sports. I found I could use my hands and feet and I could scan my way up a rock face. I could predict what was above me through what was under my hands. I've always been like that--if I could figure something out I could get the courage to do it.

Mountains are such a powerful place. They make you feel connected with the world. You have to live by their laws. If there's a storm, you have to go down. You have to listen to your body. You have to constantly be assessing your performance, how your brain is working. In a sense, it's a lot like going blind. When I went blind, for a long time I tried to fight it and tried to beat it and deny it. None of that worked. The best thing I've found is just to accept it, to live by certain rules. Not by other people's rules of blindness or other people's expectations, but to live within the parameters, understanding, Okay, I'm blind now, I need to move on. And that's the way the mountains are. You've got to live by certain rules that are bigger and more powerful than you, in order to succeed.

On the mountain, there's a lot of waiting. You need tons of rest. Your body doesn't recover very fast and you don't want to push it; if you get cerebral edema or pulmonary edema, you're going down for a long time. You want to gradually teach your body how to suffer a little bit more, a little bit more. That's called acclimatization.

You can't get impatient. That's what stops people a lot of times. They get impatient. They get scared. They start envisioning bad stuff happening, and they start getting homesick. That's when people bag it.

One of the coolest things I've ever seen on a mountain happened as I was coming down from the summit of Everest. A teammate, Mike O'Donnell, was sitting in the snow, kind of out of it. We were worried about him, and I said, Mike, you know it's not worth it, man; come down with us. And he said, "No, I'm fine. I'm fine. I'm so close." And he really was; he was a hundred feet from the summit. He said, "I need water." Eric Alexander, who was hiking with me, pulled out his water, his last half-quart of water. Mike pounded it down, drank it, and got up. He made the summit.

A mountain is beautiful and I love mountains, but that's only half of the equation. It was a bunch of great friends on the summit of Everest, slapping each other on the back and hugging and crying. Everyone had worked hard, sacrificed their jobs or their health; or overcome fear and doubt. You get to the top and there's this bond. It always connects you.

Photo: Weihenmayer on Everest
Photo by Didrik Johnck / Corbis Sygma


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