Adventure: Blind To Failure

Mountaineers scoffed at the notion that ERIK WEIHENMAYER, sightless since he was 13, could climb Everest. But a killer peak is no obstacle for a man who can conquer adversity

By Karl Taro Greenfeld/Kathmandu Monday, June 18, 2001 in Time Magazine  See the Time Magazine Print Edition Here

Cover of Time Magazine with Erik climbingWhen he saw Erik Weihenmayer arrive that afternoon, Pasquale Scaturro began to have misgivings about the expedition he was leading. Here they were on the first floor of Mount Everest, and Erik–the reason for the whole trip–was stumbling into Camp 1 bloody, sick and dehydrated. “He was literally green,” says fellow climber and teammate Michael O’Donnell. “He looked like George Foreman had beat the crap out of him for two hours.” The beating had actually been administered by Erik’s climbing partner, Luis Benitez. Erik had slipped into a crevasse, and as Benitez reached down to catch him, his climbing pole raked Erik across the nose and chin. Wounds heal slowly at that altitude because of the thin air.

As Erik passed out in his tent, the rest of the team gathered in a worried huddle. “I was thinking maybe this is not a good idea,” says Scaturro. “Two years of planning, a documentary movie, and this blind guy barely makes it to Camp 1?”

This blind guy. Erik Weihenmayer, 33, wasn’t just another yuppie trekker who’d lost a few rounds to the mountain. Blind since he was 13, the victim of a rare hereditary disease of the retina, he began attacking mountains in his early 20s.

But he had been having the same doubts as the rest of the team. On that arduous climb to camp through the Khumbu Icefall, Erik wondered for the first time if his attempt to become the first sightless person to summit Mount Everest was a colossal mistake, an act of Daedalian hubris for which he would be punished. There are so many ways to die on that mountain, spanning the spectacular (fall through an ice shelf into a crevasse, get waylaid by an avalanche, develop cerebral edema from lack of oxygen and have your brain literally swell out of your skull) and the banal (become disoriented because of oxygen deprivation and decide you’ll take a little nap, right here, in the snow, which becomes a forever nap).

Erik, as he stumbled through the icefall, was so far out of his comfort zone that he began to speculate on which of those fates might await him. For a moment he flashed on all those cliches about what blind people are supposed to do–become piano tuners or pencil salesmen–and thought maybe they were stereotypes for good reason. Blind people certainly shouldn’t be out here, wandering through an ever changing ice field, measuring the distance over a 1,000-ft.-deep crevasse with climbing poles and then leaping, literally, over and into the unknown.

The blind thrive on patterns: stairs are all the same height, city blocks roughly the same length, curbs approximately the same depth. They learn to identify the patterns in their environment much more than the sighted population do, and to rely on them to plot their way through the world.

But in the Khumbu Icefall, the trail through the Himalayan glacier is patternless, a diabolically cruel obstacle course for a blind person. It changes every year as the river of ice shifts, but it’s always made up of treacherously crumbly stretches of ice, ladders roped together over wide crevasses, slightly narrower crevasses that must be jumped, huge seracs, avalanches and–most frustrating for a blind person, who naturally seeks to identify patterns in his terrain–a totally random icescape.

In the icefall there is no system, no repetition, no rhyme or reason to the lay of the frozen land. On the other hand, “it is so specific in terms of where you can step,” Erik recalls. “Sometimes you’re walking along and then boom, a crevasse is right there, and three more steps and another one, and then a snow bridge. And vertical up, then a ladder and then a jumbly section.” It took Erik 13 hrs. to make it from Base Camp through the icefall to Camp 1, at 20,000 ft. Scaturro had allotted seven.

A typical assault on Everest requires each climber to do as many as 10 traverses through the icefall, both for acclimatization purposes and to help carry the immense amount of equipment required for an ascent. After Erik’s accident, the rest of the National Federation of the Blind (N.F.B.) team discussed letting him stay up in Camp 1, equipped with videotapes and food, while the rest of the team and the Sherpas did his carries for him. No way, said Erik. No way was he going to do this climb without being a fully integrated and useful member of the team. “I wasn’t going to be carried to the top and spiked like a football,” he says. The next day he forced himself to head back down through the icefall. He would eventually make 10 passes through the Khumbu, cutting his time to five hours.

Sometimes, when Erik is giving a motivational speech for one of his corporate clients, such as Glaxo Wellcome or AT&T, a fat, balding middle-aged middle manager will approach him and say, “Even I wouldn’t do that stuff.” Erik calls it the Even I Syndrome. And he has to resist an impulse to say, “You’re fat, out of shape and you smoke. Why would you even think of doing any of this stuff? Just because you can see?” Erik is not impatient or smug, but he tires of people assuming that sight will trump all other attributes and senses combined.

By all accounts, Erik is gifted with strong lungs, a refined sense of balance, a disproportionately powerful upper body, rubbery legs and flexible ankles. His conditioning is exemplary and his heart rate low. He is stockier than most mountaineers, who tend toward lanky, long muscles. But he possesses an abundance of the one indispensable characteristic of a great mountaineer: mental toughness, the ability to withstand tremendous amounts of cold, discomfort, physical pain, boredom, bad food, insomnia and tedious conversation when you’re snowed into a pup tent for a week on a 3-ft.-wide ice shelf at 20,000 ft. (That happened to Erik on Alaska’s Denali.) On Everest, toughness is perhaps the most important trait a climber can have. “Erik is mentally one of the strongest guys you will ever meet,” says fellow climber Chris Morris.

Everybody gets sick on Everest. It’s called the Khumbu Krud, brought on by a combination of high altitude, dirty food, fetid water, intestinal parasites and an utterly alien ecosystem. On Erik’s team, at any given moment, half the climbers were running fevers, the others were nauseated, and they all suffered from one form or another of dysentery, an awkward ailment when there’s a driving snowstorm and it’s 30[degrees] below outside the tent. You relieve yourself however you can, in the vestibule of your tent or in a plastic bag. “It can be a little bit gross,” says Erik. “But if you go outside and take your pants down, you’ll have two inches of snowpack blow into your pants in about 10 seconds.”

Scaling Everest requires the enthusiasm and boosterism of a physical-education teacher combined with the survival instinct of a Green Beret. You have to want that summit. And if you whine and bitch along the way, your teammates might discard you before you get there. Erik, beneath his beard and quiet demeanor, was both booster and killer. “He was the heart and soul of our team,” says Eric Alexander. “The guy’s spirit won’t let you quit.”

Erik walks through these Kathmandu streets with remarkable ease, his red-tipped cane searching out ahead of him, measuring distance, pitch and angle. You give him little hints as he goes–“There’s a doorway. O.K., now a right–no, left, sorry”–and he follows, his stride confident but easily arrested when he bumps into an old lady selling shawls, and then into the wheel of a scooter. The physical confidence that he projects has to do with having an athlete’s awareness of how his body moves through space. Plenty of sighted people walk through life with less poise and grace than Erik, unsure of their steps, second-guessing every move. And certainly most of the blind don’t maneuver with Erik’s aplomb. As he takes a seat in a crowded restaurant, ordering pizza, spaghetti, ice cream, beer–you work up an appetite climbing Everest–he smiles and nods as other diners ask, “Hey, aren’t you the blind guy…?”

With his Germanic, sculpted features and light brown hair, Erik looks a bit like a shaggy, youthful Kirk Douglas. He is a celebrity now: strangers ask for his autograph, reporters call constantly, restaurants give him free meals. But is his celebrity the circus-freak variety–of a type with the Dogboy and the two-headed snake?

At its worst, Erik fears, it is. Casual observers don’t understand what an achievement his Everest climb was, or they assume that if a blind guy can do it, anyone can. And indeed, improved gear has made Everest, at least in some people’s minds, a bit smaller. In the climbing season there’s a conga line to the top, or so it seems, and the trail is a junkyard of discarded oxygen tanks and other debris. But Everest eats the unready and the unlucky. Almost 90% of Everest climbers fail to reach the summit. Many–at least 165 since 1953–never come home at all, their bodies lying uncollected where they fell. Four died in May. “People think because I’m blind, I don’t have as much to be afraid of, like if I can’t see a 2,000-ft. drop-off I won’t be scared,” Erik says. “That’s insane. Look, death is death, if I can see or not.”

Everest expeditions break down into two types: those like Erik’s, which are sponsored and united by a common goal, and those like the one described by Jon Krakauer in Into Thin Air, in which gangs of climbers pay $65,000 each for the opportunity to stand on top of the world. But as conditions become more arduous, these commercial teams start squabbling, blaming weaker members for slowing them down and sometimes even refusing to help teammates in distress.

Many pros wouldn’t go near Erik’s team, fearing they might have to haul the blind guy down. “Everyone was saying Erik was gonna have an epic,” says Charley Mace, a member of the film crew. (Epic is Everest slang for disaster.) Another climber planned to stay close, boasting that he would “get the first picture of the dead blind guy.”

For Erik, who knew almost as soon as he could speak that he would lose his vision in his early teens, excelling as an athlete was the result of accepting his disability rather than denying it. Growing up with two brothers in Hong Kong and then Weston, Conn., he was always an athletic kid, a tough gamer who developed a bump-and-grind one-on-one basketball game that allowed him to work his way close to the hoop. He was, his father Ed says, “a pretty normal kid. While bike riding, he might have run into a few more parked cars than other kids, but we didn’t dwell on his going blind.”

His blindness was a medical inevitability, like a court date with a hanging judge. “I saw blindness like this disease,” he explains. “Like aids or something that was going to consume me.” Think about that–being a kid, 10, 11 years old, and knowing that at some point in the near future your world is going to go dark. Certainly it builds character–that mental toughness his fellow climbers marvel at–but in a child, the natural psychological defense would be denial.

When he lost his vision, Erik at first refused to use a cane or learn Braille, insisting he could somehow muddle on as normal. “I was so afraid I would seem like a freak,” he recalls. But after a few embarrassing stumbles–he couldn’t even find the school rest rooms anymore–he admitted he needed help. For Erik, the key was acceptance–not to fight his disability but to learn to work within it; not to transcend it but to understand fully what he was capable of achieving within it; not to pretend he had sight but to build systems that allowed him to excel without it. “It’s tragic–I know blind people who like to pass themselves off as being able to see,” Erik says. “What’s the point of that?”

He would never play basketball or catch a football again. But then he discovered wrestling. “I realized I could take sighted people and slam them into the mat,” he says. Grappling was a sport where feel and touch mattered more than sight: if he could sense where his opponent had his weight or how to shift his own body to gain better leverage, he could excel using his natural upper-body strength. As a high school senior he went all the way to the National Junior Freestyle Wrestling Championship in Iowa.

Wrestling gave him the confidence to re-enter the teenage social fray. He began dating when he was 17; his first girlfriend was a sighted woman three years older than he. Erik jokes that he is not shy about using his blindness to pick up women. “They really go for the guide dog,” he explains. “You go into a bar, put the guide dog out there, and the girls just come up to you.” He and his friends devised a secret handshake to let Erik know if the girl he was talking to was attractive. “Just because you’re blind doesn’t make you any more selfless or deep or anything. You’re just like most guys, but you look for different things,” Erik says. “Smooth skin, nice body, muscles–that stuff becomes more important.” And the voice becomes paramount. “My wife has the most beautiful voice in the world,” Erik says. Married in 1997, he and his wife Ellie have a one-year-old daughter, Emma.

Erik first went hiking with his father when he was 13, trying to tap his way into the wild with a white cane and quickly becoming frustrated stubbing his toes on rocks and roots and bumping into branches and trunks. But when he tried rock climbing, at 16 while at a camp for the disabled in New Hampshire, he was hooked. Like wrestling, it was a sport in which being blind didn’t have to work against him. He took to it quickly, and through climbing gradually found his way to formal mountaineering.

Watching Erik scramble up a rock face is a little like watching a spider make its way up a wall. 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. “It’s like instead of wrestling with a person, I am moving and working with a rock,” he explains. “It’s a beautiful process of solving a puzzle.” He is an accomplished rock climber, rated 5.10 (5.14 being the highest), and has led teams up sections of Yosemite’s notorious El Capitan. On ice, where one wrong strike with an ice ax can bring down an avalanche, Erik has learned to listen to the ice as he pings it gently with his ax. If it clinks, he avoids it. If it makes a thunk like a spoon hitting butter, he knows it’s solid ice.

Despite being an accomplished mountaineer–summiting Denali, Kilimanjaro in Africa and Aconcagua in Argentina, among other peaks, and, in the words of his friends, “running up 14ers” (14,000-ft. peaks)–Erik viewed Everest as insurmountable until he ran into Scaturro at a sportswear trade show in Salt Lake City, Utah. Scaturro, who had already summited Everest, had heard of the blind climber, and when they met the two struck an easy rapport. A geophysicist who often put together energy-company expeditions to remote areas in search of petroleum, Scaturro began wondering if he could put together a team that could help Erik get to the summit of Everest.

“Dude,” Scaturro asked, “have you ever climbed Everest?”

“No.”

“Dude, you wanna?”

Climbing with Erik isn’t that different from climbing with a sighted mountaineer. You wear a bell on your pack, and he follows the sound, scuttling along using his custom-made climbing poles to feel his way along the trail. His climbing partners shout out helpful descriptions: “Death fall 2 ft. to your right!” “Emergency helicopter-evacuation pad to your left!” He is fast, often running up the back of less experienced climbers. His partners all have scars from being jabbed by Erik’s climbing poles when they slowed down.

For the Everest climb, Scaturro and Erik assembled a team that combined veteran Everest climbers and trusted friends of Erik’s. Scaturro wrote up a Braille proposal for the Everest attempt and submitted it to Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind. Maurer immediately pledged $250,000 to sponsor the climb. (Aventis Pharmaceuticals agreed to sponsor a documentary on the climb to promote Allegra, its allergy medication; Erik suffers from seasonal allergies.) For Erik, who already had numerous gear and clothing sponsors, this was the greatest challenge of his life. If he failed, he would be letting down not just himself but all the blind, confirming that certain activities remained the preserve of the sighted.

He argued to anyone who would listen that he was an experienced mountaineer and that if he failed, it would be because of his heart or lungs or brain rather than his eyes. He wasn’t afraid of physical danger–he had made dozens of skydives and scaled some of the most dangerous cliff faces in the world–but he was frightened of how the world would perceive him. “But I knew that if I went and failed, that would feel better than if I didn’t go at all,” Erik says. “It could be like [the wrestling] Junior Nationals all over again. I went out to Iowa, and I got killed. But I needed to go to understand what my limits were.”

Oxygen deprivation does strange things to the human body. Heart rates go haywire, brain function decreases, blood thickens, intestines shut down. Bad ideas inexplicably pop into your head, especially above 25,000 ft., where, as Krakauer famously wrote in Into Thin Air, climbers have the “mind of a reptile.”

At that altitude, Erik could rely on no one but himself. His teammates would have to guide him, to keep ringing the bell and making sure Erik stayed on the trail, but they would be primarily concerned about their own survival in some of the worst conditions on earth. Ironically, Erik had some advantages as they closed in on the peak. For one thing, at that altitude all the climbers wore goggles and oxygen masks, restricting their vision so severely that they could not see their own feet–a condition Erik was used to. Also, the final push for the summit began in the early evening, so most of the climb was in pitch darkness; the only illumination was from miner’s lamps.

When Erik and the team began the final ascent from Camp 4–the camp he describes as Dante’s Inferno with ice and wind–they had been on the mountain for two months, climbing up and down and then up from Base Camp to Camps 1, 2 and 3, getting used to the altitude and socking away enough equipment–especially oxygen canisters–to make a summit push. They had tried for the summit once but had turned back because of weather. At 29,000 ft., the Everest peak is in the jet stream, which means that winds can exceed 100 m.p.h. and that what looks from sea level like a cottony wisp of cloud is actually a killer storm at the summit. Bad weather played a fatal role in the 1996 climbing season documented in Into Thin Air.

On May 24, with only seven days left in the climbing season, most of the N.F.B. expedition members knew this was their last shot at the peak. That’s why when Erik and Chris Morris reached the Balcony, the beginning of the Southeast Ridge, at 27,500 ft., after a hard slog up the South Face, they were terribly disappointed when the sky lit up with lightning, driving snow and fierce winds. “We thought we were done,” Erik says. “We would have been spanked if we made a push in those conditions.” A few teammates gambled and went for it, and Jeff Evans and Brad Bull heroically pulled out fixed guidelines that had been frozen in the ice. By the time Base Camp radioed that the storm was passing, Erik and the entire team were coated in 2 in. of snow. Inspired by the possibility of a break in the weather, the team pushed on up the exposed Southeast Ridge, an additional 1,200 vertical feet to the South Summit. At that point the climbers looked like astronauts walking on some kind of Arctic moon. They moved slowly because of fatigue from their huge, puffy down suits, backpacks with oxygen canisters and regulators and goggles.

With a 10,000-ft. vertical fall into Tibet on one side and a 7,000-ft. fall into Nepal on the other, the South Summit, at 28,750 ft., is where many climbers finally turn back. The 656-ft.-long knife-edge ridge leading to the Hillary Step consists of ice, snow and fragmented shale, and the only way to cross it is to take baby steps and anchor your way with an ice ax. “You can feel the rock chip off,” says Erik. “And you can hear it falling down into the void.”

The weather was finally clearing as they reached the Hillary Step, the 39-ft. rock face that is the last major obstacle before the true summit. Erik clambered up the cliff, belly flopping over the top. “I celebrated with the dry heaves,” he jokes. And then it was 45 minutes of walking up a sharply angled snow slope to the summit.

“Look around, dude,” Evans told the blind man when they were standing on top of the world. “Just take a second and look around.”

It could be called the most successful Everest expedition ever, and not just because of Erik’s participation. A record 19 climbers from the N.F.B. team summited, including the oldest man ever to climb Everest–64-year-old Sherman Bull–and the second father-and-son team ever to do so–Bull and his son Brad.

What Erik achieved is hard for a sighted person to comprehend. What do we compare it with? How do we relate to it? Do we put on a blindfold and go hiking? That’s silly, Erik maintains, because when a sighted person loses his vision, he is terrified and disoriented. And Erik is clearly neither of those things. Perhaps the point is really that there is no way to put what Erik has done in perspective because no one has ever done anything like it. It is a unique achievement, one that in the truest sense pushes the limits of what man is capable of. Maurer of the N.F.B. compares Erik to Helen Keller. “Erik can be a contemporary symbol for blindness,” he explains. “Helen Keller lived 100 years ago. She should not be our most potent symbol for blindness today.”

Erik, sitting in the Kathmandu international airport, waiting for the flight out of Nepal that will eventually return him to Golden, Colo., is surrounded by his teammates and the expedition’s 75 pieces of luggage. Success has made the group jubilant. This airport lounge has become the mountaineering equivalent of a winning Super Bowl locker room. As they sit amid their luggage, holding Carlsberg beers, they frequently raise a toast. “Shez! Shez!” shouts a climber. That’s Nepali for drink! drink! “No epics,” a climber chimes in, citing what really matters: no one died.

In between posing for photos and signing other passengers’ boarding passes, Erik talks about how eager he is to get back home. He says summiting Everest was great, probably the greatest experience of his life. But then he thinks about a moment a few months ago, before Everest, when he was walking down the street in Colorado with daughter Emma in a front pack. They were on their way to buy some banana bread for his wife, and Emma was pulling on his hand, her little fingers curled around his index finger. That was a summit too, he says. There are summits everywhere. You just have to know where to look.

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