The Performer: Blind mountain climber Eric Weihenmayer

On risk-taking, defying expectations, and being the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

When he was 14, Colorado-based Erik Weihenmayer lost his sight to a rare disease called retinoschisis. On May 25, 2001, at 32, he became the first blind person to summit Everest. He has since climbed hundreds of thousands of vertical feet all over the world. In 2003, he co-founded No Barriers, a non-profit that promotes innovative assistive technologies for people with disabilities. More recently, he co-wrote The Adversity Advantage: Turning Everyday Struggles into Everyday Greatness. Weihenmayer spoke with Canadian Business reporter Jacqueline Nunes.

Erik Weihenmayer’s greatest climbs

Elevation: 29,034 feet
Summited: May 2001

Elevation: 22,841 feet
Summited: January 1999

Elevation: 19,330 feet
Summited: August 1997

Elevation: 20,320 feet
Summited: June 1995

How did going blind affect you as a kid?
I wasn’t afraid to go blind. I was afraid that I was going to be pushed to the sidelines and my life would be meaningless. I still had aspirations of living an adventurous life. I was stubborn. I wasn’t learning Braille. There was this one day, I wasn’t using my cane, and I was walking down a dock. I could still see just a little bit out of one eye, and I thought the dock was going one way, but it wasn’t. I stepped off the dock, did a flip in the air and landed on my back on the deck of a boat. Sometimes in life, you need those shocks. I remember thinking, “Hey, you’re going to kill yourself if you don’t start to live as a blind person.”

What changed for you once you shifted your attitude?
Well, I realized that once I learned how to be a blind person, I could start to push the limits a bit. I also decided I was going to try anything that was in front of me. So when I got this newsletter from a rehab centre in Boston that was taking blind kids climbing, I signed up. I didn’t know anything about rock climbing. But when I climbed my first rock face, to me it was full-on adventure. Those vague ideas of what I thought was an adventurous life – this was it. I’d found it.

What is your technique?
It’s touch. I use my hands and feet as eyes, scanning across the rock face in a systematic way, looking for holds. Climbing ice is trickier because it can be unstable and you have big, heavy, sharp metal tools in your hands. If you swing your tool in the wrong spot, you’ll knock down a giant chunk of ice. I can’t climb like sighted climbers, swinging at good, blue ice and not at the rotten, white ice. Instead, I use my hearing: When I find a weak spot in the ice, or a concave spot above a bulge, I tap one tool, feeling the vibration through the ice and listening. Good ice makes a thunk sound. Thin ice sounds tinny. Rock has a solid, echoey sound.

How much do you rely on your partners?
When I started out, I was just doing what my partners told me to do. They’d say, “The next handhold is up and to the left,” and I’d move my hand up and to the left. But as I got more experienced, I wanted to see if I could be more independent. I wanted to be part of the reason why the team was succeeding. I didn’twant to be a sack of potatoes getting dragged up the rock face.

What inspired you to take on Everest?
[In my early 20s], I was living in Phoenix, working as an elementary school teacher, and a buddy of mine said, “Hey, let’s go do something big.” What he had in mind was Mount McKinley in Alaska, but we were only rock climbers in the desert. We didn’t know anything about mountain climbing. So we trained for two years and basically failed at everything we tried. We started with the highest peak in Arizona, Mount Humphreys, which isn’t a very big mountain. We didn’t make it to the summit. I lost a glove. My buddy was like, “If you lost a glove, you’d lose your hand on McKinley.” He gave me a little lecture, and I got mad at him. We stormed down off the mountain and didn’t talk for three days.

What was it like to summit McKinley?
I’m 41 now, and I did McKinley at 25. But when I look back, it’s still the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve done harder climbs. But that peak was a mental step-up for me. There were a couple of days that were so hard – you’re carrying a 60-pound pack, and it’s grinding into your internal organs and crushing your spine. But I learned that so much about suffering is in your mind; it’s a learned skill. If you’re going to do anything big in the mountains, suffering is going to be part of the equation. So now it’s actually part of my skill set; I can suffer with the best of them.

What motivates you?
I’m in a unique position: when I set out to do a big climb, nobody blind has ever done it before. So, there’s an exciting element of being first. When I climbed Everest, that definitely changed people’s perceptions about blindness. It changed my perceptions, too, because I didn’t know if I could do it. Even when I was standing on the peak, after fighting through a hundred obstacles and struggling with a lot of doubt, my brain couldn’t fathomthat I’d actually gotten there.

How do you evaluate risk?
There’s a difference between a risk and objective danger. The first time I went to climb Lhosar, a 3,000-foot ice line in Nepal, there were car-sized daggers of ice hanging down the face. The line is so narrow, it’s like a gun barrel; there’s nowhere to escape falling ice. And it was too warm; it shouldn’t be 50 degrees when you’re climbing ice. So that’s objective danger. And sometimes I need a sighted friend to look at a rock or ice face and help me make those decisions.

Many sighted people would never take the risks you do. How do you feel about that?
Once, at a talk I did at an insurance company in Kansas City, a guy came up to me afterward and said, “I was looking at all your stories and all those crazy slides you had up there, and I thought to myself, why’d they bring this guy to our company? Just to make us all feel like shit?” At first, I was surprised. But then I thought, maybe feeling like shit is a good start. It could be a starting point in growth. There are people who say they could never do what I do. But I think they could. I don’t think there’s any difference between me and the next person, except the decisions that I’ve made.

People look to you for inspiration. Who do you look to?
When I was 12 or 13, I saw Terry Fox on That’s Incredible! What blew me away was that not only did he do something really cool, but he defied what the traditional reasoning would be. He was in the hospital, he’d just lost a leg to cancer; most people would say, “I’m just going to dig in and survive.” But Terry didn’t think just about surviving. He thought, “OK, I’m less than what I was – I’m one leg less – but I’m going do something more than what I would have done with two legs.” I love that kind of thinking. It’s so unorthodox. Terry went out and he did something totally amazing, and his legacy is unbelievably powerful to this day.