"People have the inner resources to become anything they want to be.
Challenge (in a person's life) just becomes the vehicle for
tapping into those inner resources," begins Eric Weihenmayer. "Life isn't meant
to be easy. It is meant to be exciting and challenging. But you've got to understand that
it's never going to be easy."
Thirty year old Weihenmayer lives in Colorado and thrives on
challenge. He is a marathon runner, a long-distance biker, a sky diver, and a well known,
highly experienced rock and mountain climber. He has climbed the highest peak on three of
the world's seven continents and scaled the Nose of El Capitan. He plans to attempt an
ascent of Mount Everest, the world's highest peak, in 2001.
Eric Weihenmayer says climbing is a "sensory
Erik Weihenmayer is also totally blind.
Erik grew up one of three boys in an
active, athletic family. One brother was captain of the high school baseball and
basketball team, another was a weightlifter. His father had flown fighter planes in Viet
Nam and his mother owned her own business.
"Some people look to celebrities like
Michael Jordan. I couldn't care less about people like that. For me, it's my family,"
he says. "My dad encouraged me do go out and do things. He knew that part of life was
trying things and falling on your face...that was just part of the equation."
Erik shares a story of being 12 years old
and in the process of going blind. He would ride his dirt bike down the family driveway
and, making like a junior Evel Knievel, launch himself off a homemade ramp, fly through
the air, and attempt to land on another ramp some distance away. Erik's dad watched him
struggle, seeing him sometimes miss a ramp, and day after day bringing his bloody knees
and elbows back to the house.
"Instead of stopping me from doing
that," Erik recounts, "he spray painted the ramps bright orange so that I could
see them for another 6 months."
I had expected this story to be about what
a daredevil he was as a child. Instead, the point of the story that Erik makes speaks
volumes about the character of his father and what he understood about his son.
Weihenmayer concludes saying, "May dad
was always trying to help me find a way to make things happen, rather than being another
barrier in my life. Rather than limit me, my parents worked hard to create
Weinhenmayer was born with a genetic eye
disease called retinoschisis. Born with 20/200 vision, he could read with thick glasses
and catch a basketball that was bounced to him. But at the age of 12 his vision began to
further deteriorate until, at the age of 14, he was totally blind.
It isn't easy being a young adolescent in
any case, let alone an active boy who has lost his sight. "Looking back on it, I know
there was a lot of anger (inside me). I fought using a cane, fought learning Braille,
fought anything that would label me as a blind person. I didn't want to be known as The
Blind Kid. I wanted to be known for doing or being something 'cool'," he remembers.
As a result, he floundered emotionally and academically. "I flunked math my freshman
year of high school because I hadn't learned Braille."
But also during his freshman year he
discovered high school wrestling and found that he could compete with sighted people on an
equal level. "I had some success," Erik said, "and that did something for
my self confidence. I began to think that maybe I could go out and learn some of these
things...maybe blindness isn't such a big deal. So I started using my cane and learning
Braille. I began to find legitmate things that I could do as a blind person and it sort of
turned my life around." In Weihenmayer's senior year he placed 2nd in the state
championship finals He adds, "Accepting myself as I am with all my strengths and
weaknesses was really a starting point."
Weihenmayer discovered rock climbing at the
age of 16 at the Carrol Center for the Blind. He had immediate love for the combination of
athletic ability, intellectual challenge, and sensory input he experienced.
"Experiencing nature so directly through your senses, feeling all of the different
textures on the rock with your hands, the feeling of the wind coming off the rock face,
and listening to all the sounds. For a blind person," he explains, "it was like
sensory overload." Climbing became his passion.
Blind people had been rock climbing for
years, following other climbers who lead the way and placed clips and bolts into the rock.
Secured by ropes attached on one end to the clips and bolts, and on the other end to the
blind climber, climbing was an exhilirating but safe sport similar in many respects to the
"Ropes Course" that many team-building activities use. It is a great way to help
people realize that they can do more than they thought they could. But blind climbers had
never "taken it to the next level", as Weinhenmayer puts it, and become lead
climbers. Until Erik Weihenmayer.
"I am not the best climber in the
world but I do climb with some of the best," says Erik. "I just want to be an
asset to the climbing team and be a real part of the reason that a climb is
Weihenmayer recalls a climb in Yosemite as
he was training for the 3,000 foot climb of the Nose of El Capitan ("El Cap" to
rock climbing enthusiasts). The Nose is the most difficult route up one of the most famous
and difficult most rock faces in America.
As Erik describes it, "We were
training for the Nose of El Cap, climbing a different rock face of maybe a thousand feet.
It's generally a long one day climb and we 'topped out' in the dark. The only problem was
that my climbing partner had forgotten his helmet light."
Erik became the lead climber on a descent
in which neither climber could see, but one of them had some extraordinary experience on
his side, and both had confidence in his abilities. Weihenmayer was able to guide his
sighted partner down the rock face in the dark by actually placing his partner's feet in
the holes. Once they reached the narrow trail, a sheer dropoff awaited any misstep. Erik
continued to take the lead, relying on the firmness of the path under his feet to keep him
safe, just as he had always done. Now he was doing it for two.
"It's a tremendous experience to be
the leader when you are the person best prepared for the job. And in this case, I was able
to use my abilities to make our climb, especially the descent, successful. I was able to
make my 'weakness', if you want to call it that, my greatest strength."
The challenges that rock and mountain
climbing present are a very accurate metaphor for the challenges of life and Erik has
discovered that he is a climber. Erik says, "Some people look at what they've got and
then make decisions about what they want to do. I think about what I would like to do with
my life and then figure out how I can get myself to rise to that level."
In 1968, a year before Weihenmayer was
born, Robert Kennedy concluded many presidential campaign speeches with these so similar
and now familiar words, later echoed at his funeral by his brother, Ted. "Some men
see things as they are and say, 'Why?'.I dream of things that never were and say, 'Why
When the time comes for people to remember
Erik Weihenmayer, he wants to be remembered as a great climber, a good friend, and a
loving husband. He wants to be remembered as an encourager:: someone who, through
their actions, gave others courage. And he wants to be remembered as a person who
shattered people's beliefs in the limitations they place on themselves.
So far, I think he's three-for-three
Eric Weihenmayer lives with his wife near
Denver, Colorado and leads several climbing expeditions a year. He also speaks to schools,
civic, and business audiences across the country. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Reiman is the
Editor-In-Chief of Incredible People. You can contact him at mark@IncrediblePeople.com