Everest Climber Erik Weihenmayer on Surmounting Adversity
[Updated 3.20.17] Check out Weihenmayer’s latest book No Barriers.
We spoke with Erik Weihenmayer, one of the world’s most amazing athletes. Weihenmayer’s message of relentless empowerment and optimism is contagious – especially if you ever have the honor of speaking with him. His attitude also sheds light on how he claimed the title of the first blind person to summit Mt. Everest, which is arguably (and incredibly) one of his less impressive accomplishments.
Besides kayaking the Colorado River and climbing Mt. Huntington, Erik Weihenmayer is changing thousands of lives through his No Barriers programs. No Barriers, No Barriers Youth, and No Barriers Warriors are dedicated to helping people overcome the barriers in their lives – whether those are physical, emotional, psychological, socioeconomic, or otherwise. In the second part of this exclusive interview, Weihenmayer shares his perspective on his famous Everest climb, his inspiration, the loss of his eyesight, and the personal importance of No Barriers.
Innovation & Tech Today: Tell us about planning your Everest trip. What was your first thought when you reached the summit?
Erik Weihenmayer: It was one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done – a No Barriers moment. As far as preparing for the trip, one of the most important things was finding someone to lead the team. That person was Pasquale Scaturro. He’s been to the Himalayas a bunch of times, and he had great connections there. And he believed in this. Pasquale used to have dreams of us summiting Mt. Everest. He would wake up with tears in his eyes. He knew if he could get me to the summit, it would be the most challenging thing he had ever done. It inspired me because I knew there were a lot of people who wouldn’t touch our project with a ten foot pole.
It was a good lesson on the kind of people who you want to surround yourself with. The key to this type of achievement is finding the right people and going through the preparation process.
I think by the time I got to Everest, I was more prepared than most people on that mountain. I also had a team of good friends. Nobody on the team was paid to be there. We were just a group of guys that wanted to take care of each other.
When I finally got to the summit with my team, it really overwhelmed me how much everyone really stepped up. The National Federation for the Blind sponsored us, so it was really an achievement for blindness. What some people don’t know is that 70% of working age blind people are unemployed to this day. And those in the Federation really stepped up and helped us – car washes, bake sales, and more. When I attended their yearly event in Atlanta, 5,000 blind people gave me a standing ovation. I was so proud to be a sort of symbol for them.
I&T Today: It sounds like the camaraderie of the team and overcoming adversity is a big part of the experience – not just getting to the top.
EW: Absolutely! The success of the climb is all about doing things well and together. I was climbing with Mike Gibbs on Mount Huntington recently. Mike and I have been climbing since the 90’s. (We are all on the over 40 team. I think Dave Schuman is 45. I’m 46, and Mike is 48. We’re all the old farts!) When you are hanging on that bivy, you take your crampons and boots and hang them so carefully. You really have to strap it in. If you lose a boot up there, you are so hosed!
I&T Today: You guys are like The Expendables.
EW: [Laughs.] We are like that!
I&T Today: Who inspires you, Erik?
EW: Definitely my parents. I’m very lucky to come from a family where both my parents were adventurous. My dad was a Marine; he flew A4s in Vietnam. My dad would have gotten an exemption from the draft because he graduated from Princeton, but he signed up. My mom also had an adventurous spirit. She travelled the world for her business.
There was a show called That’s Incredible! I used to watch when I could still see a bit out of one eye. I loved it. It was always something scientific or out of this world.
One episode focused on Terry Fox, who lost a leg to cancer. It was a paradigm shift for me. After he lost his leg, he decided he was going to run across Canada. He ran thousands of miles on a clunky prosthetic leg above his knee.
This was all before they had the new prosthetics that are available today. Seeing that made such an impact on me because I thought you were supposed to retreat, dig your heels, and focus on survival in these situations. But Terry did the exact opposite.
It took me years to understand why he did what he did. Instead of allowing that darkness to crush him, he grabbed it and converted it into something else. He used that energy to propel himself forward.
Maybe there are barriers that you will never break through – like me being blind. I’m not going to be sighted. Ever. But you know, sometimes when you confront those barriers, you find hidden strengths you never may have discovered without the barrier itself.
I&T Today: Would you say the loss of your eyesight has been a gift?
EW: Absolutely. 100%. Before I was blind, I was a normal kid. I played baseball and basketball, and I loved those sports. But, the only reason I turned to climbing was because I couldn’t do them anymore. Climbing put me on an entirely different trajectory that I never would have known existed without having gone blind. People ask me, “What would your life be like if you could see?” How would I know that?
I&T Today: Space travel for civilians isn’t that far off. Have you ever thought about exploring the final frontier?
EW: I have, actually. We have a board member at No Barriers who wanted to sponsor a couple people to go on what they called ‘vomit comet’ – planes that bring you to microgravity for a couple minutes. It’s fascinating how quickly technology is evolving with new frontiers being available. That’s a little different, but it would be pretty exciting to take a trip into space.
I&T Today: Tell us about No Barriers.
EW: No Barriers USA has been a big part of my life. Increasingly so. And it’s really exploded. We went from experiences where we had a couple dozen people to our most recent, which had over one thousand people.
It’s so cool to be a part of this community and be surrounded by people searching for that No Barriers life. I’ll be sitting at a table with a kid who has socioeconomic challenges, who never left the pavement, and he’s looking to go on his first hike. Maybe it’s a blind kid. Maybe it’s a person who had three strokes and thinks they are totally out of the game. Or a person who has struggled with obesity and has literally lost 100 pounds to be there. Or maybe a person with a full heart transplant. Maybe a CEO who is looking to bring that No Barriers message back to their team.
We also bring in “Pioneers,” or people who have broken through these barriers, because the best way to teach this stuff is through people who have done it. So, we bring in dozens and dozens of them. We have people who have 3D-printed prosthetic limbs on computers and distribute those to developing countries. There will be someone experimenting with exoskeletons, or someone with one arm who kayaks. You name it.
This is a wonderful melting pot of people who are all sharing and getting stronger as a community. No more of this waiting around for ideas to plop in your lap. It’s a great thing to be part of such a proactive community.
I&T Today: What does it mean to live a No Barriers Life?
EW: It’s about developing a map you can look at in terms of your No Barriers Life. You can figure out what those elements are that every human confronts along the big journey. It’s about building some tools that you can access. It’s about a mindset. It’s been really fun to be able to think about making a bit of ground in terms of what that looks like – and being able to pass that off to people. No Barriers has really exploded.
Kelsey Elgie Domier
and Charles Warner