Erik: It's easy to talk about the triumphs, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle.
Erik: My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I'm an adventurer. I've climbed Mount Everest and the Seven Summits, the tallest peak on every continent, and I happen to be blind. And I can tell you it's been a struggle to live what we call a "no barriers" life--to define it, to push the parameters of what it can mean. And part of the equation of this life is understanding this process of growth that we're all striving for--to dive down into that experience and illuminate the elements, those universal elements that we have to harness along the way, like way points on a trail, like holds on a rock face, that lead us forward towards change, towards growth, towards transformation. And that unexplored terrain between those safe dark places that we find ourselves in and the summit, is a map that we can use to navigate our lives. It's a far messier, grittier map than we're led to believe, with more flailing and bleeding along the way, but there is a way forward. That map is what we call "No Barriers".
Erik: This is the No Barriers podcast.
Dave: Hi, this is Dave Shurna, and I am the executive director of No Barriers, sitting here with Jeff Evans and Erik Weihenmayer and, let's get this started, Erik. What are we doing here?
Erik: Our first podcast. This is exciting, guys.
Jeff: Christening room.
Erik: I know, yes. Yeah, so-
Dave: Tell us a little bit about why we're here. What do you want to accomplish here?
Erik: God, where do I start? My name is Erik Weihenmayer, and I am an adventurer and a climber. I happen to be blind, so it's sort of--being a blind climber is sort of like being a Jamaican bobsledder.
Erik: I was a teacher for six years. I had an idea to be a full-time climber and adventurer, which I've been doing the last twenty years. I climbed Mount Everest in 2001, with the guy that's sitting in front of me, Jeff, who we're gonna learn more about later, but that experience was so transformational that that led to this amazing climb that I did with these two guys, Mark Wellman and Hugh Herr.
Erik: Mark Wellman is a paraplegic. He's my hero because he climbed El Capitan, basically seven thousand pull-ups up the rock face. Just amazing. And Hugh Herr is a double leg amputee, and he climbs with these prosthetic legs. And the three of us were like these Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We climbed together. And then, at that experience, I realized that we'd been sold the wrong ideas--that when I looked at people who excelled, like Mark and Hugh, that they didn't do it in the traditional ways that TVs and books always make it look like, that it was much grittier. It was much bloodier. There was much more struggle along the way. And so I thought, "I don't understand what that map looks like." And No Barriers, the podcast and the theme, the message that we're gonna be diving into, all grew from that first experience, because I wanna understand. Like Mark and Hugh and me, we'd all been crushed, and we had to reemerge. What does that process look like?
Erik: I realize that most people in the world aren't physically disabled like the three of us, but they have invisible barriers. And so what is the process look like for people as they go from those places that they don't want to be, and they climb to the summit, whatever that looks like for each person? I wanted to understand what that gritty map is that we build and navigate with our lives. And so I'm here fleshing out this subject with amazing people that we are going to interview, because I've gotten to meet people in our No Barriers programs and experiences that have taught me so much about this topic, and I thought "We gotta highlight these people! We gotta understand what makes them tick."
Erik: So Jeff and Dave and I are gonna be doing that, and Jeff is my good climbing partner, we've been climbing together for 25 years, and we climbed Everest together. And when I met Jeff he was just a dirtbag. Well, he's still kind of a dirtbag, but--
Jeff: I'm still a dirtbag.
Jeff: You can't really divert too much from that.
Erik: But Jeff, even though you started as a dirtbag, you've done some amazing stuff, and you've really grown and had your own No Barriers story. Tell us a little bit about that.
Jeff: Well, when you and I met, we were both very raw, and I think we met at the right point in our lives where we were just seeking. We were looking for adventure first and foremost, and then looking for allies to share it with. We met at a very fortuitous time, and we've obviously... golly, man, I mean, we've done a lot, you and I. I've had some of the best and worst moments of my life standing right next to you.
Jeff: And I think that in a way, maybe that's sort of the take-home for me personally, while you and I have been such good friends and partners along the way, but also, my understanding of the human condition. I used to not want to admit it to your face, but now that I'm older and more mature and I can pat you on the back, is that you've taught me a lot. You've taught me a lot about life; in a way, you've asked me to ask questions of myself, and that's the extension of why I'm here, is that in turn, by asking questions of myself, I wanna ask questions about other people. I wanna understand who they are. I like that grit that you speak of. I like the determination, and I like how folks deal with adversity in this map that gets laid out in front of them, and all these variables that play into where we are--societally, biologically, emotionally--and I think that honestly, that was sort of the impetus behind you and I starting the Warriors program. Maybe you could tell the listeners just a little bit about that and how it came to be.
Erik: Well, because it's hard to brag on yourself, I'm just gonna brag about you, because even though Jeff did start out as a dirtbag, he was a smart dirtbag and he had a No Barriers Story of his own, and he went on to climb mountains with me and also went back to medical school to get a physician assistant degree, working in emergency rooms all around the country, and then now being one of the foremost high-altitude medical experts in the world. I can't imagine having anyone next to me in the high mountains, Jeff, who I'd want more than you, because I've seen you save people's lives, putting them in hyperbaric chambers and administering IVs on mountains.
Erik: Jeff, you helped us start the No Barriers Warriors program. The tenth-year anniversary of our Everest climb, we decided we're gonna do something really cool. What were we gonna do? Were we gonna do a Disney Cruise reunion? Nah, maybe not; let's do something big. So we decided to climb Lobuche, twenty thousand feet, in the Himalayas, and we all got together and then we decided "Well, let's have some other people whose lives have been transformed. Let's see if we can bring together some other people whose lives might be transformed by the mountains, like us." And so we brought together a team of injured soldiers. Talk about the team just a little bit, Jeff, and the culmination of that experience, that first No Barriers Warrior experience.
Jeff: We knew, I think, intrinsically, that the mountains provide this great backdrop. It's got all the ingredients that you need to have an experience that's both rich and transformative. You've got built-in adversity, the potential for a massive shitshow, but you also have this rally point, which is this summit. It can be figurative, it can be literal, but whatever it is, we rally around it, and it creates a sort of call to action. We knew that. We knew that the stage would be there for us, and so we took the chance and gathered up a group of injured veterans, in a way to say thank you to them, but also to give them the tools that we discovered, personally, along the way, and help them regain their momentum.
Jeff: We hand-selected a group of folks, we took of for Nepal, and sort of set the table. We had a fair bit of adversity, but the mountain did what we wanted it to do, which was be sweet and loving and also be angry and mean. And in experiencing that, it gave us the opportunity to talk about these things, sort of distill out the learning points that can come from that, and create a loving atmosphere, create an atmosphere of fellowship. And I think that community that exists in the mountains was a big stepping stone for us, and I think another extension for us going forward. Did you even anticipate then--I mean, this was seven years ago, right?
Erik: Look, let's be honest, we didn't know exactly what we were doing. And that's a good message for our audience here, and that is that a lot of times when you start an idea, it's just a little seed of an idea. That's what we had with our Warriors program, and now it's blossomed into incredible stuff, I mean, hundreds and hundreds of vets that we work with, and getting to know them and getting to know their stories, and we are gonna interview a lot of veterans on this podcast.
Erik: Dave, I wanna introduce you, because you are the Executive Director of No Barriers. You do the real work. You lead our team and put together all these amazing, transformative expeditions behind the scenes. I met you... you came to me out of the blue and asked me if I'd help you start a program for kids, and we started out with blind kids and deaf kids teaming up with sighted and hearing kids. That's all fallen into the melting pot of No Barriers. Tell us how you got into this club.
Dave: I think that my role from the beginning, as one of the powers of the organization and the executive director, has always been to build the infrastructure around this global movement that we want to create. My role is to create this organization that can take this message that you guys are alluding to here and bring it to as many populations around the world as possible.
Dave: We've been doing that work for nearly fifteen years now, and so as I think about this podcast and what we're here together doing, I was at an event a couple months ago where Richard Saul Wurman was speaking, he's the founder of TED, and he said "Nobody ever writes a book or creates a script for a movie 'cause they know what the heck they're talking about, and if they tell you they do, they're lying. They write the book to learn what it is that they might already know and to discover new things." So when I think about this podcast, I think the same thing; we've been doing this work for fifteen years, with youth, with Warriors, with companies, with women, and this is partly to understand what makes people come to this movement. And as we bring in guests and learn from them, what can we take away from individuals who have overcome great odds, overcome barriers in their lives and achieved that purpose-driven life we all seek? What can we take away from that and learn and apply to our own lives?
Dave: I'm here to create that organizational infrastructure, to do that with as many people as possible, and I can't wait to learn from individuals to help us do that work better.
Erik: We're gonna be bringing a lot of amazing people to the world--a lot of people that haven't been highlighted in traditional podcasts, from business leaders to youth who struggle to veterans to people with physical challenges, all who have had some difficult things happen to them in their lives and have figured out little bits and pieces of that map that we all wanna walk.
Erik: I just wanna lastly say that I think we're gonna try to be different, because when I went blind--it was my freshman year in high school--I remember realizing that when you look out on the world, it can kinda lead you astray. I was blaming and attacking and reacting and responding, and saying "Why me?", and I realized that I was looking in the wrong place--that what I had to do was to turn inward and find out what I could grow inside myself, and how I grew that thing and nurtured that thing and used it to blaze into the world. I think, if we succeed, what we're gonna do is really dive down beneath the surface of people and try to understand what that internal landscape looks like--how they go from those places that they wind up and they don't necessarily wanna be there, to the summit, to that incredible place of purpose and fulfillment that we're all looking for. What are the way points along the way? Let's identify those so that we can dissect this No Barriers life and we can all learn. Dave, what do you say?
Dave: I think that's why we're all here. One of the things I loved about our conversation when we thought about starting this podcast was: We've heard lots of podcasts, we've met lots of people, and one of the things we feel is missing is, no one really dives deep into talking about the struggle. It's often glossed over. I think that this podcast is going to be partly about discovering what we can learn from that struggle we all go through in our lives as we're trying to be purposeful.
Jeff: The reality is it's not pretty. I think that we've all agreed that there's gonna be moments when we want to ask those questions that allow people to dance around that darker space and explain how they got... how they rose from it, and the tools that they used to be able to come out of it, and I think that's an important thing. You're right, the podcasts I listen to, I'm not sure if I hear that very frequently, and I wanna hear that, I wanna know that. I don't wanna get bogged down in the mire, but I wanna know what that mire looks like and how they got out of it, because to me, that's the true definition of transformation.
Erik: And Jeff, you told me something I like. You said, "Growth is volcanic," and I love that. So get ready for some volcanic and explosive storytelling, full of grit, full of flailing, full of some blood, either physical or psychological--
Jeff: Metamorphic, if you will.
Erik: --because that is what it's all about, No Barriers to everyone.