Erik Weihenmayer is not only an accomplished mountaineer but also the first blind person to reach the peak of the mighty Mt. Everest. The vision loss this natural-born athlete began to experience at thirteen hardly deterred him from intense physical activity: skiing, kayaking, rock climbing — nothing is off limits for Erik. Weihenmayer has been featured on the cover of Time for his mountain-climbing feats and has started his own organization, No Barriers, which seeks to bring together people with challenges (whether physical or mental), empowering them as a community. In this interview, Katie Grimes, managing editor of Exceptions Journal, talks to Weihenmayer about his approach to climbing, his inspirations, and the diverse challenges of living with limited vision.
Katie Grimes: What draws you to extreme sports, mountain climbing and whitewater kayaking in particular?
Erik Weihenmayer: Well I think for me, there’s kind of a fun challenge in things like climbing a mountain or kayaking white water. We all kind of dream about big things, and I think that’s common with everyone. But then you get the sort of Walter Mitty factor. I don’t know if you’ve read The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; he sort of wonders and dreams, but he’s just living this old, boring life. You wonder if you’re having these grand thoughts, but you don’t really have what it takes to get there. We all sort of set our sights on big things in our lives, and it’s really fun when those things haven’t been done before. Like me being blind, they haven’t been done before by a blind person. It has an extra fun charge to it. I think what happens then, as you go for those things: one, you never commit in the first place because you don’t think it’s real, or barriers get in the way and sidetrack you. They become like New Year’s resolutions, where you go for a week and then quit. For me the key is, you know with something like kayaking the Grand Canyon, how do you commit to the process and then sort of embrace the barriers along the way? You have to commit to that process and find a way through no matter what.
KG: What do think allows you to break those barriers?
EW: I think because I’ve sort of gotten some knowledge in my life, some insight into what that universal no-barriers process looks like. So, as you go forward, I think about creating a vision. That sort of vision sort of emerges, it’s more of an internal vision of how you want to live your life and what kind of decisions you want to make and just what kind of person you want to be. It’s very different from ‘I want to climb Mt. Everest.’ It’s more like the values, and how you want to live and make decisions according to those values. As you go along, you can’t just beat your head against the wall in the same ways because then you don’t get through the wall, you just bleed. So how do you innovate and be smart about it? How do you harness challenges along the way? And how do you not even trust the mind? Because the mind sometimes wants to sabotage you; the mind is really tricky and chaotic, so the mind tries to turn you back. I think it’s really sort of getting inside into the process of doing bigger things, so that you know what you’re going to experience. You’re prepared. It’s not that you’re more prepared to experience those things, but you’re more prepared to know what you will experience along the way. And you know you are just one person who struggles with doing these big things out of billions of people who have all been struggling for thousands and thousands of years. And we’re all struggling with the same things. So I think understanding what those things are is really freeing.
KG: Can you describe your process for climbing and kayaking blind, and how has it developed over the years?
EW: Well, I’d have to write a book on the subject. Let’s just take kayaking. All the systems, you develop a lot of those with your team and through struggles, through failure, through bleeding. Where does he guide me from? Does he guide me from the front? Well we try that. The guide looks back, he turns sideways, he gets hit by waves, he gets flipped, and now he’s not guiding me anymore. So where does my guide go? So let’s put him in the back. And how does he command me? What do I need to know in the middle of giant rapids? What kind of commands do I need to know very quickly? And then sort of working together to figure out how I predictably respond or as predictably as possible respond to what he’s telling me to do. And it’s not too much information because you get overloaded. Trying to figure out what is important, trying to go through that experience. You learn kinesthetically as a blind person so you have to learn by going into the storm, feeling what’s under your boat and hearing the patterns of the river, and developing a map in your mind of holes and [boils] and whirlpools and seams and eddies, how those sound and feel. And then as we get into bigger rapids, I can’t hear my guide, so let’s develop radio. We went on a three year search for the right kind of radio and finally came away understanding that we needed a Bluetooth waterproof radio that communicates in real time. And then what happens beyond one guide if he gets flipped or something, do we want other people in the water? How do you lay that structure out, in terms of your team?
All in all, you could write a textbook on that kind of thing. It’s more than just being inspired; it really takes a lot of time and commitment to develop these systems. And a blind person, a lot of times, well you’re doing some things independently. But if I’m skiing or kayaking, I have a guide usually, so it’s more like synchronized kayaking or synchronized skiing.
KG: In the blind community, some people are born without vision, some experience vision loss over time, and others lose sight abruptly and unexpectedly. Where do you fall on this spectrum and how has this affected your experience?
EW: Well I went blind at thirteen just before my freshman year of high school. I had a taste of sight, and that’s very different from being blind from birth. Maybe there’s a little less questioning? I don’t know. For me, it interrupts your life, becomes kind of a painful transition. You go through all the classic symptoms of frustration and denial and ultimately kind of acceptance, finding a place for blindness. And trying to push the parameters as much as you can. A lot of that for me was about learning tools that were different from sighted people. Embracing those tools and then building that foundation, trying to push the envelope.
KG: From talking to various people, it seems that sometimes people with limited sight have to balance two kinds of challenges: the physical challenge of navigating the world and the social challenges of other people’s assumptions about disability. How do you approach those challenges?
EW: That’s a great question. I don’t have the perfect answer because that’s something every blind person struggles with. But I definitely think that’s an accurate statement, first of all. So you have the challenge of being blind: things become more difficult because you don’t have eyes. Then you have the challenge of connecting with people. It’s not about just seeing blackness or seeing darkness or not seeing anything at all — that’s just a glimpse of the challenge. The broader challenge is what it limits access to. So you’re not now accessing things with your eyes. Eyes are powerful. You have to work harder to really make sure you have access to the world, to connections with people: Braille board games, Braille cards, other visual stuff. You’re trying to compete with sighted people, and if a sighted guy and a blind person are competing for a job, you have to work doubly hard to make sure you are qualified, that you have a good foundation. So I think that’s a challenge. It is the way it is though.
And then people’s perceptions: so of course, people perceive you based on one thing they know about you, that’s natural. So it’s a hurdle, an uphill battle, to convince them that you can do that job or the task. Or maybe sometimes it’s a Catch-22 because you don’t know if you can do the job because no one has given you a chance. And so you’re stuck. I think it’s a simple matter of, as best you can, trying to surround yourself with people. Divide people into two categories: they’re either naysayers or believers. So surround yourself and build your team and support systems with believers. And there are enough believers out there that you don’t have to waste time with the naysayers. Really try to connect with those believers who are all about possibility, all about ‘hey, I’ll give you a chance to prove yourself. We’ll push this together as far as we can, we’ll see how far we can go together.’ Those are the sort of people you really want to analyze and try to connect with.
KG: You talked about these people that you surround yourself with. Could you briefly describe the communities you are a part of? Your climbing community, your blindness community, etc.?
EW: Well, I’m glad I applied for a job as a teacher. There were a lot of teachers and principals that I interviewed with that said you’re qualified, but I could never convince my board to trust a blind person in a classroom. I had a few people, maybe three people, who said “hey you’re qualified.” It’s not like, as a teacher, blindness is first and foremost, but still being blind is almost like a cool thing. It’s interesting, interesting for the kids. So anyway, I would say that that’s an example of those kind of people that I was fortunate to connect with so I could get a job. Same thing goes in the climbing world. Trying to find people that say, “I don’t know how far we can take this together, but let’s go out and climb, and we’ll see what we can build together.” I’ve always had climbing partners where we just go out and test each other, and they sort of got excited about climbing with a blind person. It was fun for them. Maybe they’d reached a point in their climbing career where they were sort of stagnating, and so climbing with me was really helpful for them: it helped open their eyes in new ways, helped pushed themselves. I was always fortunate in that regard.
And then also, in the last ten years, I’ve founded an organization called No Barriers; we’re all about community. One of the fundamental parts of the winning equation of No Barriers is bringing together people, most of whom have challenges. This doesn’t mean they’re blind: but maybe they’re deaf or missing legs or in wheelchairs, or they’ve had psychological trauma or sexual trauma, or they’ve lost a loved one, or they’ve gone into a dark place and they just can’t climb their way out. Thousands of people in this community, we’re all gaining strength from each other. Your cup gets filled because you realize you’re all in this boat together, and you’re trying to break through barriers in different ways. And you’re getting knowledge inside, of course, into innovation and ideas, and you’re just fundamentally inspired by being a part of that community. You kind of get lifted up. Maybe the question you were asking is how to build that community, and I think we have to consciously build it around ourselves.
KG: Who inspires you?
EW: I get inspired by my folks, by my family. I was lucky; some people don’t have a good family, so they don’t have that starting point which really makes life much harder in the beginning. My dad’s been really a great role model for me because he’s sort of a can-do thinker. He didn’t know anything about blindness, but he was one of those believers that said, “Ok, I don’t know, but let’s try this. Let’s figure it out. Let’s be innovative here.” And then people like Terry Fox who, back in the ’80s, was an amputee who lost his leg to cancer and went and ran across Canada. And subsequently became a national hero. He’s raised millions of dollars for cancer research. He actually wound up dying before he was able to finish his run, his cancer came back. At 22 years old he died, but his legacy was massive. He was a huge role model to me because he taught me something very important: when adversity strikes, when tough things happen, don’t shrink. Actually get bigger and turn into the storm and go right into the middle of it and just attack it.
KG: What would you have to say to our community at Exceptions, given the chance?
EW: My advice to you would be to do exactly what you guys are already doing, which is so freaking awesome. When I went blind, I was isolated, and I thought, ‘I don’t want to be around other blind people.’ You’re scared of other blind people, you’re a snob. You say, ‘I bet I’m better than all those people. I don’t want to be blind.’ Because even though you just go blind, you sort of fall into those same ridiculous ideas that the world falls into. For me it was like, “I don’t want to be around other blind people, that would make me blind.” When really it was just the opposite. You guys are doing something so important, building a movement that is so incredible. Because you will get collective strength. You’ll learn from each other, and you’ll have these insights that you would have never had alone. You’ll get pumped up by each other. And you just get lifted up in the community. And the technology or innovation that you might explore together. Life only gets better when you come together, and you build that kind of movement. That’s my biggest advice: just keep doing it.