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No Barriers Podcast Episode 148: Overcoming tragedy with Sebastian “Zuko” Carrasco



Erik spent the last few weeks adventuring in South America with today’s guest, Sebastian Currasco. Together they took on Ecuador’s 2nd highest mountain, Cotopaxi. It was a return to trip for both of them to this snow covered volcano pushing through the clouds just over 19,000 feet. The 2nd for Erik and perhaps dozens for Zuko. However, this time was different in a big way.

When Sebastian’s career as a professional mountain guide ended abruptly (you’ll hear why) his love for the mountains didn’t end with it, but his relationship to them, his family/friends, and ultimately himself went through a complete transformation. After losing the use of his legs in 2015, this former professional mountain climber shares with us how he overcame this tragedy and restarted his life.

Connect with Sebastian:

Sebastian on instagram: https://www.instagram.com/zuko_carrasco

Libre film: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/zukolibre

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Episode Transcript

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
I think when we get this experiences in our life, this hard experience, we always have two choices. We can act as a victim, get stuck on this frustrated on this angriness, and see everything wrong. If we decide not to be a victim and be part of what's happening and changing this as an opportunity, everything starts flowing down like a river. You are able to forgive, you're able to get that frustration out of you. And the big part is being able to accept and be thankful from what you have, not being angry from what you lost.

Erik Weihenmayer:
It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barriers' life. To define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving in to the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. That unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in the summit, exists a map. That map, that way forward is what we call no barriers.

Didrik Johnck:
Mountain climbing, why do we do it? Because it's there? Famously said by George Mallory in the 1920s, when asked why climb Everest. After you succeeded, why go back to the same place again and again? At the end of the day, it's different for each person that takes that first step on that pile of rock and ice. Erik spent the last few weeks of venturing in South America with today's guest, Sebastian Carrasco. Together they took on Ecuador's second highest mountain, Cotopaxi. It was return trip for both of them to this snow-covered volcano, pushing through the clouds, just over 19,000 feet. The second for Erik, he and I climbed to Cotopaxi a few years back with a group of military veterans. For Sebastian, last week's attempt could have been his hundredth. However, this time, was different in a big way.
When Sebastian's career is a professional mountain guide ended abruptly, you'll hear why. His love for the mountains didn't end, but his relationship to them, his family and friends, and ultimately himself, went through a complete transformation. Summits can drive us, but they are elusive and fleeting. Life takes place on the flanks of the mountains, that's where we learn. I hope you get a taste of that process by listening to this conversation between Erik and Sebastian. I'm Producer Didrik Johnck, and this is the No Barriers Podcast.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Everyone, welcome to the No Barriers Podcast. Exciting to be back from Ecuador. And so, we thought one of the interesting podcasts would be to interview Sebastian Carrasco, Zuko, who is from Ecuador and he was sort of the centerpiece for the project that we just got back from, climbing Cotopaxi. Zuko, man, it's great to hear your voice.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Hey Erik, same for me. It's nice to hear your voice, to see you, and really excited to share with you again and with everybody that is listening what we just live and here in Ecuador, we had the true amazing adventure.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah, we just experienced the big adventure.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Big adventure, yes. It was amazing, not just for us, for a lot of people.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah, it was as big as it gets. And by the way Zuko, nobody can see this because this is all audio, but I just got brand new eyes yesterday. I went to the ocularis and got brand new eyeballs, I have prosthetic eyes. So I told him to make them a little greener, can you see on the screen?

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
I can tell they are a little bit different, yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah, a little different, right?

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
They look good. Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah, thanks man. I said, "Make me a little bit more handsome."

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
It looks good on you.

Erik Weihenmayer:
So I can be more like Zuko.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
No, no, you'll always be more.

Erik Weihenmayer:
And Zuko, so your nickname, and the reason I'm calling you Zuko instead of Sebastian, that's your nickname. In Spanish that means like Blondie, right?

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Exactly, yeah. It's the slang word for blonde and it's because I used to be more blonde, now I'm more like a brown style. But when I was young, I was very blonde and I was one of the few in my school that I was blonde. So that's where I got that nickname.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Nice, so Zuko, let's recap the amazing Coto climb. Let's dive right into it, man. Tell us the highlights of that experience that we just finished.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Whoa, it's close to two weeks now. It's going to be two weeks tomorrow, actually. I'm still processing, digesting all of the things that we just live, all of the amazing things.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Right, because climbing's kind of a retroactive sport, isn't it? Like you're there at the high point but I find, at least, like your brain hasn't quite caught up at that moment so it takes a couple weeks to process it all, right?

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Totally, yeah you know so many things, so many people, so many decisions that we had to take. And I'm still looking at the amazing pictures, videos, I'm talking to friends. We're actually having a celebration about Cotopaxi this Saturday because my birthday is on Thursday and I decided to make one big party for the two things, and I would love if you could come. We'll call you and have a beer for you on that day.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Oh, nice, okay, for sure. Okay so Cotopaxi is, I would say, the signature peak of Ecuador. It's not the tallest, but it's like the most famous and it was your dream to get to the top of it. And so, how'd it go? What happened? I was there so I know, but you're telling everyone else.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Yeah well, like you said, Cotopaxi is probably the most famous volcano here in Ecuador. It's the second highest, the highest is Chimborazo. So Cotopaxi, and sorry I will say the numbers in meters because it would be hard for me to translate. Cotopaxi, the summit stands out 5,898 meters.

Erik Weihenmayer:
It's like 19,500 feet, I would say. Something like that.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Yeah, exactly. So, it's still an active volcano and a lot of people say that it's the highest active volcano in the world. It sits in the middle here in the Ecuador Andes. We have the Western range and the Eastern range and Cotopaxi sits in the middle and that's why it gets really good weather. And I think it's probably one of the mountains that has been climbed the most because you can climb it year round. And for me now, it was a big dream to go back. As you know, I was a mountain guide and I climbed Cotopaxi a lot of times, I've probably been on that mountain more than a hundred times. But after my accident, it felt like I haven't climbed. I guess it's a new life and everything is so new for me since I've been in a wheelchair, it's going to be seven years now. I can almost see Cotopaxi from my house and I always wanted to go back.
Since last year, we climbed Cayambe with a group of friends, the next objective had to be Cotopaxi. So we organized this trip, we planned with a group of friends including you, Bob, and Chris. We knew that it was going to take us longer because it is a little bit more technical than Cayambe. The route is more challenging, has more switch backs, we start a little bit lower. So we did this in four days. One night we spent at the hut and then after that we set up two high camps. The second camp, the highest camp, was at 5,550 meters. So, I think it's-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah, like over 18,000 feet.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Exactly.

Erik Weihenmayer:
So, Zuko, just to interrupt. I mean, people don't realize that it's really steep scree the first day and then you get onto snow, and then you get onto an active glacier, which is really tricky. It's not just like a smooth snowfield, it's switch backing on narrow little trails with big drop-offs on one side to the other, navigating up little skinny sections between rocks and scrambles and avoiding crevasses you're on snow bridges. So, I just want to paint the picture for people, it's not just going straight up a ski mountain.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
No, no, totally. And I guess a lot of people are asking their self, "How do I move on this kind of terrain?". So, for this, with my friend Jack, he built this all terrain wheelchair. It has three wheels, one in the front, two in the back. The wheels in the back are pretty fat, up to four inches, I think. For the first section on this scree which is very steep, sandy, and very loose, I couldn't do much. And that's probably for me the hardest part and the part that I felt more frustrated because I had 10 people pulling, pushing this wheelchair, and I couldn't do much than move the wheel once in a while. But for me, it was very hard to see all my friends and all this team of people that were working very, very hard. And I can see mountain guides that have been on that climb so many times that now they were struggling.
For me, that was the hardest part, I think, and getting to the hub because I couldn't do much than just relax and try and help once in a while, or motivate people, talk to them, try to make jokes, feed them, or give them water.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Then when you get to the snow though, you can kick in. You can really start getting active, right?

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Yeah, exactly. Once we got to the snow, we took the wheels out and we put skis on the bottom. So, the wheelchair, it actually transformed on a sled basically. Once we were on the snow, what my friends did, they were fixing lines or fixing ropes. I had a winch on the sled that I can pedal and the rope will feed through so I can pull myself up. But still with this it's very, very hard for me. So, some people were still pushing, some people were still pulling. But the nice thing is that at least I was doing 1% of all the work, I think. For me, it felt really, really hard. But at least I feel like I was doing something.

Erik Weihenmayer:
One of the climbers, or a couple of the climbers, run up with this very heavy rope and they hammer like a metal stake into the snow, and so that now becomes the anchor. So, now there's a line down to you and you're cranking your way up the rope. The device was taken from the idea of sailing, when you reel in a sail or let a sail out, right?

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Exactly, it's a sail winch. But instead of being vertical, we put it sideways and we created these, or we put an axle through this and we put handles that I can crank it with both of my hands. Like you said, they will carry 100 meter ropes. And I will also need a backup rope just in case for the anchor, it will fail or whatever. In each rope length, I will have two ropes. It is a lot of weight carrying these, there's no pickets, all of these heavy ropes pulling me, carrying the gear, because we had to carry a lot of the gear for the camps. So, tents, stove, food, a lot of things.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah, it was hard work for sure, for everyone. And I went to visit your friend, Jack's, workshop, near your house and outside of Quito. It's amazing, this guy Jack, this friend of yours, he builds all this equipment for you. I mean, he kind of builds it from scratch. Like, "Hey, this will work, maybe this won't," then you try and you iterate. So, when he built that sled, did it work immediately or did you have to make some modifications?

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
We did a lot of modifications. We changed the idea two, three times, and he also built my wheelchair that I use for flying on the paraglide. He built a new one base on that other wheelchair, but we always had the doubt if it was going to work better with two wheels in the front or with four wheels. We changed it a lot until we ended up with pretty much the same design without any suspension. We didn't want to carry a second wheelchair for the snow, so he made a system that we can take the wheels pretty easy and put the ski so I can just slide on the snow.

Erik Weihenmayer:
So, you cranked your way to above 18,000 feet, and there's a little section on the mountain that gets a little bit flatter for a moment. And what did you do at that point? This is the cool part. I mean, it's all cool, but this is the coolest part.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Yeah well, I guess I'm just going to talk a little bit before that day because they know why we didn't go all the way to the summit because the two days before, it snow quite a bit, it snow a lot. I think close to a food. The conditions were really hard once I was out of the trail. So, everybody was-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah, cranking your way up in deep snow is double the difficulty.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Yeah, I felt like I was just carrying a lot of extra weight underneath because the snow was piling underneath. So, once we got to the high camp and I realized how hard was, how technical was, and how slow we were moving. I knew that the next day was going to be really hard to get to the summit, because we ended up needing to do a lot of sit racks to get there. So, I told them, "Well, you guys know, as soon as we get the first take off or the first option that I can fly off on the paraglide, we will do it."

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah, because if you don't go in the morning, the weather will close in, the clouds will come in, and you'll be screwed. And then you have to get down the old fashioned way which is lowering, lowering, lowering. I mean, it would take eight hours probably, right?

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Yeah, I think if we would've made it to the summit coming down, I think it would've take us at least one long day, an extra long day to get all the way down. Because they will have to lower me all the way, it's not like they can just walk me. So, it was just hundreds and hundreds of meters of lowering. Once we got to this flat section which is at the base of Yanasacha at 5,750 meters. Yanasacha is this bleak, black wall that you can see below the summit of Cotopaxi.
We can see that the clouds were piled down in the valley, but above that everything was very clear. Gaspar was with you at the summit, my girlfriend, Alegria, was down in the valley and they were telling us all of the conditions. We were hoping that this cloud will lift up so we can fly off and land where we wanted because if we started flying and then we got into the middle of this huge cushion of clouds which was pretty big. Once during the clouds, it's very hard to navigate. So, one of the things I will determine if I was going to fly or not was if it was clear down in the valley, so I can land in a safe way. The clouds started lifting and Gaspar-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah, we were up on the stomach, Gaspar was literally right above you, like a thousand feet above you. He was like air traffic control, he could see the clouds and he was giving advice in terms of, "Okay, there's a fat cloud down there that you want to avoid."

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Yeah, exactly. So, once Gaspar told me that he was able to see the lake down below which is called Limpiopungo, which he was very close from where I was planning to land. We knew that we just had to look for this open spot in the clouds. So, I wasn't the first one and I'm happy that I wasn't the first one to take off because I think I probably will not do it. My friend Pepenico, was the first one to take off, he was in a single paraglider. And as soon as he took off, not even a minute after that, he disappeared into the clouds. We were not able to see him. That was a big concern for me, I was a little bit worried, but we were still getting good recommendations from Gaspar, from Allegria down below.
She was telling us that down below everything was clear and it was good. Jack said, "Okay, we're ready. You're going off." We did one try and I couldn't handle the glider very well on the first try, we had to reset everything. On the second one, I was like, "Okay," very focused and ready to be there. I just remember listening to Jack running at this altitude with lack of oxygen and saying, "Okay, go, go, go, go," then suddenly, all my friends started screaming. I was so happy and I was just on top of these clouds.
To my right it was Yanasacha with this very, very impressive and intimidating. It is very different to see Yanasacha from a thousand or more meters below. But once you are next to it, you can feel the power of that mountain. I think Cotopaxi has a very strong personality, but I was very focused on looking on my flight. I remember making one turn so I can see everybody and seeing the mountain. Then after that, I was just flying through the clouds. I was very worried because I couldn't see where I was going, I was very focused to follow a compass direction that will take me very close from where I wanted to be. And then suddenly, the clouds open and I can see myself way to the south of this lake called Limpiopungo. As soon as I saw that, I was, "Okay, we're good."
So, now I started turning, I can see all the valley, all the roads. Then suddenly, Jack and Gringo, they took off after me and they were on a tandem. They were flying together. They were in front of me, I can see them landing, and then it was time for me for landing and it was just amazing. It was, I want to say close to 2000 meters of difference and this fly, it took me 20 minutes, which was amazing. It was so stressful, so amazing, so beautiful, everything. It made me really, really happy that we were able to do it, it was just amazing.

Erik Weihenmayer:
How do you land on skis? Don't the skis hit the grass and just stop short?

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
No, because like you said, it wasn't grass, it was kind of moss. It was-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Moss.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Yeah, very soft, like a nice white carpet. I always land a little bit on the back of the wheelchair and it's just a matter of holding those breaks until the end to have a very, very soft landing. I remember sliding a little bit, maybe three, five meters, and then the sail or the glider went to the side and I flip over.

Erik Weihenmayer:
And so, Jack, when you were taken off, what I heard down there was that he built like a runway, press the snow out so you'd have a nice toboggan run. Then he basically let go of you, which he said was pretty terrifying, to let go of his best friend because in paragliding, you only have one chance to get it right. I mean, as you said, your first one didn't go so well but that was ahead of time. But yeah, when it's game time, it has to go perfectly. So, you must have been pretty nervous or are all your experience guiding, you're so focused, you're just able to block out the nerves.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Well, I think it's the two things. I definitely was very, very nervous. But for me, I think I have such a strong bond and such a strong relationship with Jack and Gringo. The two of them were the ones that taught me how to fly. I know that if they say, "It's good to go," it's good to go and if they say, "No, it's not safe," I'm not going to do it. And I think those are the only two persons that I trust that I will push my wheelchair. It's not so easy because you need to be really good with the paraglider and you need to be very good handling the wheelchair. So, the glider and the chair are moving at the same rhythm. So, when I saw, because we were on this reach, not very steep, but it was a fairly steep reach. They had to cut into the snow to make maybe, I want to say 50 meter long runway, which was flat enough so the skis can run.
So, I was very nervous but I think it's a matter of, "Okay, if the conditions are very good, I know what I'm doing. I just need to do what I know I can do and I can handle this." And I've done so many flights that it doesn't matter if you fly a thousand meters from the ground or a hundred meters from the ground. The flight, it can change, but you need to control the paraglider the same way. So, I was very focused on that. It's not that I was blocking my fear, my fear is always with me and telling me what I have to do because I think once we ignore our fear or we block our fear, that's when accidents can happen like it happened to me.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah, you must have been psyched when that wing lifted up and you're in the area, and you're like, "Phew, wow, I'm flying."

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Yeah, I think that's when I divided the flight on three parts. I think the most stressful part is to lift up that wing and have it control on the very good conditions. The second part is the actual flight, which it can be the longest and you get turbulence and strong wings. But I have such a secure wing that has never even folded a little bit, so I love it. And the third part of the flight is the actual landing. Once I started flying, I was, "Okay. I'm flying now, I need to focus on the actual fly and enjoy it, but be very, very aware of what's going on and holding those break on a really good way so the wind cannot shake me too much."

Erik Weihenmayer:
Now, how did you learn to paraglide, because I had a little stint paragliding as a blind person. And the way my friends talk, they just say, "Hey, man, let's take it as far as we can. I don't know if a blind person's ever done this before, but let's try to figure it out in a pretty safe way." I imagine it might have been similar for you, your friends and you were like, "Hey, let's see how far we can take this." What was that process like?

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Yeah, and I think it was a long process, it was an amazing process. I think a lot has to be because Jack is pretty much my roommate we live in different houses, but we only live like 30 meters apart. So, before I started flying, Jack was flying almost every other week or every week. He said, "Oh, you should come, you should come, I think you can do this. We need to find a way." And then he went to the States and did a flying course, and that's when he tried this wheelchair. He actually flew on a wheelchair for people with disabilities. And he took a lot of pictures-

Erik Weihenmayer:
So, wait, he rolled off a mountain in a wheelchair just to test it out?

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
But no, not of a mountain, he did it somewhere in... I want to say California, he was doing like a flying course. He was talking to the owners about me and they said, "Okay. Well, this is the wheelchair, do you want to try it?" So, he tried the chair. So one of the hard things for us was the price because one of these wheelchairs, new one, is up to 5,000, and Jack said, "Okay. Well, I'm going to try to build it."

Erik Weihenmayer:
Amazing.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
So, he build it, it's not as spectacular, but it works perfect, it's very safe. The rest of the gear is the same as any person that will use for paragliding. So, during the pandemic, while we were on the lockdown, they said, well Jack told me, "In couple weeks we are going to the coast for a week and that's the perfect place for you to learn how to fly." He built the chair, we took it to the coast. And out of the five days that we spent on the coast, I spent four days just on the coast, on the beach without flying, just learning how to control the wing. That was very, very important. The other thing that was very nice and progressive for me to learn how to fly, was that my friends would pull me with a rope and Jack was pushing me, and the rest was pulling me.
So, I will take off, I will lift myself maybe 10 meters off the ground and I will fly for a little bit, and then I will land. And yeah, it was like a very good practice to learn how to land. So, we did this, I don't know, a hundred times until I felt comfortable. I did a couple flies on tandem, until the very last day was the day to fly by myself. I did three days... Three flights, sorry, and it was amazing. I think the coast is kind of like the perfect scenario for learning because you have constant wind, you have five kilometers of a landing area, so it was very, very amazing.
After that, I went back to the coast maybe five times. So, in total maybe I did over a hundred flies. And then a big step after that was to learn how to fly in high altitude because the wind reacts different, the wind itself is different in high altitude. We did a couple flights around Quito. After that, a year ago, my first flight out of a mountain was in Cayambe, which it was amazing, too.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Which is a peak just under the altitude of Cotopaxi, so it's another serious mountain that you paraglided and you got super lucky with the weather, that experience as well.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Totally

Erik Weihenmayer:
There's a film on that as well, I know.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Yes, the film is called Libra, which means free. You know what, I think they fly itself on Cayambe, it was harder. There was more turbulence and more wind. In Cotopaxi, it was more steady, but in Cotopaxi-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Perfect still day, huh?

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Perfect still day, but navigation was hard compared to Cayambe which was completely clear. But yeah, There was a lot of turbulence and I had to control that wind a lot.

Erik Weihenmayer:
There's a mountain that you paraglide off called Chincapin I know because we climbed it to get acclimatized and you fly right past tall buildings and stuff. It's pretty scary, right?

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
No, actually I haven't done that one because I'm scared of that. I'm scared of the buildings.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Right, you got to avoid buildings.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Yeah. No, I think for somebody that can walk, I think you can land in some other places. But I don't feel ready, I've done another flight near Quito, which is a little bit more safer because you take off and as soon as you take off, the landing is just below you, but you are really high. But maybe one day I will do that fly once I feel more comfortable.

Erik Weihenmayer:
So, maybe this is a dumb question, but if you're in that chair and the wind is really strong. Could it ever pull you over before you lift off? Could it ever flip you forward so you land on your face? I mean, maybe that wouldn't happen but I would be afraid of that.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Well, I guess it could happen, has never happened to me because you always want to land against the wind. I always have to look at where the wind direction land against the wind. So, what had happened to me is that maybe the wind goes a little bit sideways. So, as soon as I land, I start rolling on the wheels and the wind might go to one side and flip me over. But it's just very soft, it's never too hard to damage, yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Sweet. Oh, man, so cool. Well, so glad to be a part of that adventure and there was more to the adventure too because we biked for three days around Cotopaxi in the highlands of Ecuador. Which was just stunning terrain, like beautiful grasslands and little foxes and deer, and all kinds of wildlife, bird life, yeah. Yeah, and rain and mist and cold and big hills. It was really cool, and you have a special bike for that. You have a totally different adaptive hand cycle for that. Yeah, explain that adventure and then also that technology because I think you came to the States to get that hand bike.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Yeah, it's a hand bike that I've been looking into it and maybe from three years ago and I wasn't able to get it because of the price is very pricey.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
But now that I got it, everything I do, like yesterday, I went by myself with my dogs out of my house. It gives me so much independence because I can do so much by myself. It has an electrical engine which assists me with depending on the terrain, depending on the power that I want to put it. I still get a good workout, but I can go faster and I can... That's how I can follow you on the bike. It has two wheels on the back, one in the front, the front wheel is very flat, four inches with a front suspension and rear suspension. So, it's actually three suspensions and it has a pretty strong battery up to a thousand watts, which it lasts for a long time.
I was very happy because on the Cotopaxi loop, I didn't run out of batteries, so that was amazing. And for me to be in this kind of terrain with you guys in the Cotopaxi loop, it was amazing. I remember that day that we went over the past, I almost started crying because the time before, I wasn't there for a long time. And once I got there the first time, it was so, so hard to get there is a very steep grass, a lot of mud, a lot of rain, a lot of suffering and to be-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Crossing Rivers, by the way. Deep rivers, yeah exactly.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Lots of rivers. And yeah, there's no way together if you're not walking or on a bike or maybe in a huge tractor with lots of power. So, to be able to be there, it was like in the Cotopaxi as well, but to be there with my bike, with all my friends, it was a very, very clear example of breaking barriers. Because it was something I never thought I was going to be able to do it again. And I think that's how important this technology help us and it gives us the opportunity to be free, to be independent, to enjoy life in a different way.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah, I mean, what you're saying is such an important point. Like maybe people with who are able bodied, don't quite get that. The idea that these technologies and your friends just open up this beautiful opportunities for you to be up there in the Highlands, or be up on Cotopaxi, pushing your limits as hard as you can. And you get me on a little bit of a soap box because the se-motor on your bike, I think it's really brilliant. Because I mean let's face it, being blunt, arms aren't as strong as legs. So, like if you go out riding with friends and you don't have that motor or that assistance, you're going to be miles behind. So, the electric motor enables you guys to go at the same pace and have this beautiful day with your friends, with your girlfriend, you know what I mean? And you're one of the gang, you're one of the group. And isn't that just as important as being independent, as being part of something as human beings and feeling connected?

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Totally, no, yeah. I think that's the way that we want to be part of society because before this I had a pretty similar hand bike. The design was very similar, but without any se-motor. So, when I went out with friends, it was very frustrating for me because they will go walking and they will walk faster than me. So, I hope for a certain point, it will be frustrating for me and kind of boring for them. But now we are at the same level, we are sharing the experience at the same conditions. I can go faster or I can even help people, like I've been out with my girls and sometimes the terrain gets so hard or a little bit difficult. So, I tow them a little bit with my bike and they're on their bike. So that I think it makes me feel really good with myself. It gives me a lot of confidence and that I can be... It's not that I always get help, now I can help a little bit to other people.

Erik Weihenmayer:
That feels good, yeah.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
It feels good, exactly.

Erik Weihenmayer:
I don't want to dismiss your resume because you climbed Kilimanjaro too, which is pretty badass. How is that different from Cotopaxi? Was it harder? Was it easier? And then, sorry, but the part two of that question is I remember you saying Kilimanjaro was cool, but I really wanted to go back to Cotopaxi because, I don't know, maybe that was like a kind of terrain being on the glacier that you miss. But compare and contrast those two experiences.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Well Kilimanjaro, when I did it was the hardest thing I ever done it since my accident, or even after my accident. I think it's eight day expedition out in Africa, which takes three days together. We needed to do a lot of work to get all the money to get there. I really enjoy it being for so long in the mountain and starting at so low. But yeah, I think I was missing that part of a mountain. I think being on a glacier, seeing this fantastic terrain when the glacier is all news, no.
So the amazing thing about Kilimanjaro is that it opened new doors for my new objectives. And after Kilimanjaro, I started thinking about these new climbs. And yeah, and I guess the amazing thing about Kilimanjaro is to just realize that we can do a lot of things as a group, as a team to spend so many days with a group of friends. To be in a new mountain time, I've never been in Kilimanjaro I've never been in Africa. Cotopaxi was harder because of the terrain, the conditions, I guess I did a little bit more on this time. And I was pulling more, I was stronger and Kilimanjaro I did get a lot of help. But I wasn't pulling as much on as I did now in Cotopaxi like. It took me like 10 days to recover after such a strong effort. I was taking long naps, I wasn't training completely, I was eating a lot. I don't know if it was the same for you?

Erik Weihenmayer:
Oh, heck yeah. Yeah, all these mountains. Like you lose weight and you just are exhausted afterwards. As much emotionally and intellectually as you are physically exhausted, right. Because the accomplishment, it's been achieved. So, now you let your guard down and you're like, "Phew, I'm tired."

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Exactly, all of that adrenaline comes down and then-

Erik Weihenmayer:
A lot of people think you're the impetus behind all these ideas, but I think Kilimanjaro was like one of your friends who suggested it to you and you were like, "Huh, I don't know if I can do that." And that's funny because that's the way it is for me. People think it's my idea to climb all these mountains. A lot of times it's at a garage party and you're drinking a beer or two and somebody goes, "Let's go blah, blah, blah." And you're like, "What? Oh, okay."

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Totally, yeah. I remember when my friend Gisela asked me about the, or told me about this project. I was like, "Oh, she's crazy, no." In my head there was a lot of the, "No, no it's not possible. It's so far I don't have the money, I'm not ready." But in my heart was the real feeling of, "I want to do this. So I don't know how, but we are going to get this done."

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah, that's fascinating because there is a big difference between the heart and the mind.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
It is, yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:
The mind's like, "What? I don't think so." And the heart's like, "Yeah, I want to do this so bad."

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Yeah, totally. And I think the amazing thing about these climbs and these adventures is that, and I'm sure it happens to you, that once you do one or once you get to the summit of Cotopaxi you can see other summits. You can see other mountains, other projects and you start thinking about this because I think that's the main things what I enjoy about life and sharing this with people and my friends is that it's almost like an ever ending adventure.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah, and you were a professional guide all over South America, all over the world before your accident. So, that's where you really had a love for mountains. Hundreds, probably a sense of Cotopaxi and mountains all over South America, as well as all over the world, right?

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Yeah, I became a full month guide. I was almost ready to finish my certification, but I was a full-time guiding for 10 years. So, I guided a lot in, of course, here in Ecuador, a lot in Peru, a lot of expeditions in Bolivia. I did five trips to Aconcagua, I did a couple trips to Denali. I wasn't lucky enough to go to the Himalayas, but that's on the list still.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Still on the list, good.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Yeah, I would love to be just at the base camp of one of these big mountains. I think that would be amazing.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Heck yeah. I mean, I think honestly getting to like, say base camp of Everest, would be easier than Coto. You know what I mean, because it's a trail?

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Yeah, totally. And yeah, maybe finding a small peak around there or just sharing that experience, that whole trip. I think as a mountain, as a climber, there's so many things that I still want to do. I'm very passionate about rock climbing, that's one of the things that I really miss and I'm very happy to talk to friends about their climbs and the experience. But if I really feel that climbing emotion, that's something that it can make me cry really. That's because I really miss that feeling and it's so deep in myself, but I cannot put it in a drawer and close that draw. But when I open that drawer, I still feel that I love feeling that boy from climbing big rocks and big faces. So, that's still one of the next plans, we'll see how that comes up. It's just fine-

Erik Weihenmayer:
To climb El Captain, right?

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Yeah, I really want to do it. I think I actually was reading your book a couple years ago and I saw your friend is Mark.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Mark Well man, who is the first paraplegic to climb El Captain in the eighties.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Exactly, like so-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah, I'll introduce you to Mark. He'd love to talk to you by the way, he's a great guy.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
I would love to talk to him and just hearing his experience and the system and everything. I think it will be amazing.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah, I'll set that conversation up. Well, when you had your accident, Zuko, the irony is that you weren't even in the mountains. You were doing like a teamwork seminar with a company and so yeah. Miscommunication and you fell and broke your back. Is it C seven, so you're pretty high, right? You don't have AB muscles.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
No, yeah. It's I don't have any feeling or control from my chest down. It's actually C five, C six. So, for doctors or as a clinic... As a doctor point of view, I'm considered a quadriplegic. My friends call me, I'm a fake quadriplegic because I'm independent. I live alone with my daughters that are not here. They come and spend one week with me, one week with their mom. And I lost a lot of the strength in my hands, but I have enough to just become or to be independent. But yeah, like the irony or the silly way it happened is that I wasn't even rock climbing, I wasn't in the mountain. I think I was too confident about the system and myself, and that's how it happened. I thought I was on belay, my friend actually didn't have me on belay, and I jump into the boy from, what is it over 12 meters, so close to 40 feet.
And I landed, broke my neck. I never got unconscious, but everything, it was instant. I couldn't move anything, I couldn't even move my arms at the beginning. And after that, after a year and a half it was like a lot of therapy. Therapy to become stronger, to learn how to do things in a different way, how to dress, how to go to the bathroom, how to shower, how to feed myself. At the very beginning, maybe for close to a year, I needed somebody to help me out with everything. But yeah, one of the things that I really wanted to get back was my independence and that took a while, and I think it was a hard process. Of course, I didn't want to accept it at the beginning, I couldn't see my life without the mountains, I couldn't see my life without rock climbing. I didn't want to be a dad on a wheelchair.
My second daughter was born only a week before my accident and my first daughter was only two years and a half old. And I view myself with them like climbing mountain, climbing peaks, teaching them how to ride a bike, taking them out for camping, and so many things that I thought I couldn't do it on a wheelchair. So that's why it was really hard to accept that and really hard to accept this new condition. I think it took me a while, it was a long process for sure.

Erik Weihenmayer:
How did you accept it? Because obviously... Okay, I can't see you, but my friends have described you and they said, you're always smiling, you're always laughing. Now I know there's a big difference between the way you look and the way you feel internally. But you seem so positive, it's almost like you just snapped your finger and you're like, "Okay, I'm going to move forward and freaking crush this life." But I'm sure it wasn't like that, I mean, I'm sure it wasn't like that, that's impossible, right? So what had to change, not physically, but in your mind. Was there a mindset shift or something specific that you remember?

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
It was definitely a big mindset change that I had to go through and kind of the problem, or the frustrating part at the beginning was that the doctor said that I didn't have a spinal cord injury. They said that my spinal cord has swollen and as soon as this inflammation will go down, I will start recover of and moving and feeling everything again. So I thought, "Okay, this is just a matter of time and recovery." So after a year and a half, I realized that I couldn't feel or move my legs or anything. So that's when I got into this very dark moment, I was very depressed. I didn't try, but I thought about it and I thought the solution for this, it was killing myself. But it was something I couldn't even do it. I was very angry with myself because the accident, it was my fault.
I was very sad because of all of the things that I've lost. I was very frustrated because I had so many projects in mind as a climber, as a guide, as a parent. One of my big projects was to build my own house, even though I'm not a builder, but I wanted to become a part of that building my house and building that. So, as soon as I realized that I wasn't going to walk again, I wanted to kill myself. I remember thinking, "But how I'm going to do it? Nobody is going to help me with this because I rely on people for everything." And I don't know if I had the courage to do it.
I don't think I would ever try it. And of course the first thing that came up, it was my daughters. To look after them, to live, to enjoy them. But how I accept this and how this changed on my head, I think it started with forgiveness. I think the hardest part was to forgive myself for that accident or the mistake that I did and to forgive my belay partner because even though he wasn't a hundred percent responsible, he had a part of it. So, but I couldn't forgive him if I didn't forgive myself first. So, as soon as I forgive myself, I was able to forgive him. And one of the big things that helped me out to accept this, it was this sport. When I tried the hand cycle for the first time and I realized that I was able to do things, to have a different life, to set new objectives and be able to accomplish them.
This really helped me out. So it started with a really small race, which was only like 10 miles, but I really doubted that I could do it. I thought I wasn't physically able to do it. And when I did it I was so happy. It was like getting to a summit and I was very happy to share this with people. And it was a huge motivation for me also to see how other people was inspired on me. They would see me on a wheelchair and they will come and congratulate me and say, "Thank you." But I wasn't doing it for them, this is something that it just happened you know.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Right, it's like an after, it's a secondary result of you just wanting to live again.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Exactly, yeah. And I think after that, when we get this experience in our life, this hard experience. We always have two choices, we can act as a victim, get stuck on this frustrated, this angriness and see everything wrong. But if we decide not to be a victim and be part of what's happening and changing this as an opportunity, everything starts flowing down like a river. You are able to forgive, you're able to get that frustration out of you. But the big part is being able to accept and be thankful from what you have, not being angry from what you lost or being angry from what's happening. You know, a lot of times we ask ourselves, "Why this is happening to me." And I think the question is what I'm going to do with this that just happened to me.
And I think a big part of that is to be thankful with life. And for me, it was just to be thankful that I had a second chance. Thankful that I can live and enjoy my daughters. Thankful that I can be independent. And there's so many things that we can be thankful for sure, and it just up to us to decide what do we want to do.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Beautiful, and I read one of your articles. You said the biggest battles are in our head, so do you still have some days where you're battling in your head?

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Totally, yeah. I think every day and that's what I tell people that not because I climb these many peaks, I've done so many things. It's not that life is still easy. I think life is still full of surprises and I think we create these battles and sometimes what we don't accept what life has given to us. But if we take what life has given to us and accept it and go with the flow of life, sometimes it's not easy. I didn't want to become a paraplegic of course, but it's up to us if we want to accept that you know.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah, one of the things I know you're thankful for are your friends. God, I mean, look, you're amazing, dude but your friends are freaking amazing. I mean, you got the best friends. One, like when they do these big adventures with you, what do you think they're getting out of it? And two, why do you think you attract such good people into your life? And don't be modest because a hundred percent there is something within you that attracts these awesome people into your life.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
You know what, I've always asked myself like, "Why are these friends doing this for me? What have I done?" It's not that I'm paying them or it's not that they are looking to become famous, of course not. And the other day a friend came to me, a really close friend, he's actually one of my first climbing partners. And he said, "We don't only do this for you, we also do it for ourselves because we love to be in the mountains with other friends. We love to take out the best of us and that's how we do it once we are here with everybody." And I think, I don't know, it might be... I've been good to my friends like I've helped them, I've been honest to them and I think I always try to be the best with everybody. And with my friends, it's like my brothers, and I think that's one of the things, that's why they do it, that's why they help me.
And I think a lot of this also comes to empathy. I think, through what happened to me, it make them realize that it can happen to them. And if it happened to them, I think that's the support they want to have from everybody. I don't think they do it, I'm pretty sure they don't do it because... How do you say sadness or-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Right, or sympathy.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Sympathy, no. They do it because empathy and they want to share the mountain again with me. With all of them, I've shared all of this climbing experience and you know, now we are climbing brothers because we share this mountain and you don't understand it until you share that. Even though we couldn't share the summit, but we live that together. And that creates a very strong bond between climbing people. And that's why I think I'm still friends with Bob and people that I don't see them, but I only chat. I think it's the mountain, I think climbing mountains is very hard. It takes you out of your comfort zone, but it pulls the best of you for sure.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Well, I mean, I'll analyze myself from an outside standpoint and that is back to gratitude. I mean, I think there's the kind of energy that comes from you that's so positive, that shows this gratitude, this thankfulness, this appreciation for your friends. And I think that just attracts people. I've been really lucky in that way as well. I feel so fortunate that... You know, if you had been this angry bitter guy, I don't know if your friends would've stuck with because eventually they'd probably give up.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Totally, no, yeah, totally. I remember being in this point after my accident and I remember saying, "Okay, well when I walk again, I will be happy." Or I remember going out for shopping and I can see people seeing me with a lot of sadness and I hated that. And I knew that I could accomplish a lot of things through victimizing myself, but that's not going to last long. As soon as you victimize yourself, you become angry, you make people feel bad. And that's what people don't like. When you are thankful, like the way you are saying, you attract a lot of people. And it is just this amazing energy. And I love to have my friends around, and especially in the mountain, because it creates such an amazing energy. We discuss from different things and we laughed a lot, we enjoy that a lot. So, I think it's like you said yeah, it's exactly that to be thankful with them and with life and they want to be part of it.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah, well it's awesome. If people, Zuko, want to learn more about you, get involved in your adventures, watch your films, what's the best thing for people to do? We'll have all that in the show notes for sure, but why don't you tell us.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
For now the best way is through Instagram. My Instagram account is Zukor score, Carrasco. And Zuko is spelled set Z-U-K-O. For now that's the best option I have. My films are in my bio and I'm trying to post all of my adventures. Yeah, now with Cotopaxi, there's so many great shots and so many things to tell that I'm trying to put up a picture every other day.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Well, you had this rad video of you paragliding off the mountain, but I heard because of the regulations of paragliding on Cotopaxi, that one disappeared off your Instagram.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Yeah, I had to hide that for a little bit. I think something good is going to come up because we are changing that regulation on the park. And I think this is the best, one of the good things that it's going to come out after this expedition, that we are going to change that because we are not creating any impact on the environment. I think that they are just afraid because it's a new sport.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Of course.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
So, I think we are going to change other and it's going to be for good.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Awesome. Hey, Zuko, man, I'm so proud to be your friend and to be part of your community, part of your rope team, as we say at No Barriers and can't wait for the next adventure friend.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
The same to you, Erik. I definitely part of that team and looking forward for the next adventure.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Awesome. Everyone, No Barriers to you. Thanks Zuko.

Sebastian 'Zuko' Carrasco:
Thank you. Thanks everybody.

Didrik Johnck:
The production team behind this podcast includes producer Didrik Johnck, that's me. Sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler Potman. Marketing and graphic support from Stone Ward and web support by Jamlo. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan band for our intro song Guidance. And thanks to all of you for listening. We know that you've got a lot of choices about how you can spend your time, and we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com., that's nobarrierspodcast.com. There's also a link to shoot me an email with any suggestions for this show or any ideas you've got it all. Thanks so much and have a great day. (music)



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