Being one of the hundreds of people who have climbed Mount Everest is a huge accomplishment, but being the one who did it blind is another whole feat.
This is the accomplishment of Erik Weihenmayer who walked onto the stage Thursday night at his Agape Latte talk, seeing-eye dog in hand, immediately engaging the crowd.
“Most people are just interested in my dog,” Weihenmayer said. “People come up to me like ‘I love your dog!’ and then I’m walking away and I hear them say, ‘Didn’t that guy climb Everest blind?’”
This set the tone for the rest of his speech, as Weihenmayer humbly recounted his struggles and accomplishments since going blind as a young teenager. He has since achieved many physical feats from climbing to white water rafting. Weihenmayer is one of few who have climbed the Seven Summits and the only one to do it blind.
He credits a lot of this spirit to someone he looked up to as a teenager, Terry Fox. After having a leg amputated, Fox set out to walk across the entire country of Canada. Weihenmayer recounts the spirit he saw in Fox.
“Between the things that happen to you, and the ways that you are supposed to react, there is a space,” Weihenmayer said. “And in that space there is a choice. And he chose to attack.”
With this spirit in mind, he signed up for a climbing expedition in high school and was determined to break through his barriers. He fell in love with the challenge of climbing right away.
“It was so vibrant, it was almost painful, it was like a rebirth,” he said.
Since then Weihenmayer wrote his book, No Barriers, and has started a movement helping and encouraging people to push through their challenges. His advice from his team leader after finishing his summit of Mt. Everest inspired him to continue to challenge himself and help others do this as well.
“Don’t let Everest be the greatest thing you ever do,” the team leader said to Weihenmayer.
Weihenmayer has since embarked on many other trips, including white water rafting in the Grand Canyon. He says one of the biggest challenges has been how to deal with fear and how to not to let it paralyze him. He also reflects on the stories of many people he has met along the way who have endured similar struggles and overcome them in remarkable ways.
His friend Mark broke his back on a climbing expedition, but determined to keep climbing, he built a pulley system in which he would pull himself up mountains six inches at a time.
“I call people like Mark alchemists,” Weihenmayer said. “They take the lead life piles on top of them, and they figure out a way to turn it into gold. They’ve figured out how to seize hold of that storm of challenge.”
Weihenmayer’s friend Hugh lost both of his legs after they froze in a climbing expedition and Weihenmayer remembers his resilience as well.
“He said the greatest breakthrough of his life was when he looked at where his legs were supposed to be and instead of seeing loss, he saw a blank canvas,” Weihenmayer said.
From his own experiences, and his friends, Weihenmayer has grown this No Barriers movement based on the idea of capturing the strength within people.
“Just like I had seen that light in Terry Fox, and in Mark, and Hugh, I wondered how you could export it, how you could help others tap into it, to grow it, nurture it,” he said. “That light could be called the human spirit.”
In the final moments of his speech, he reflected on the importance of his movement and the ways it has helped people work through the obstacles in their lives. In a particular adventure with his friend Paul, who he said had only recently started seeing his purpose and potential, Weihenmayer summed up what he thinks the meaning of his movement is.
“Paul said it was the first time, in a very long time, that he could see his future, and ultimately, that is No Barriers,” he said.
Featured Image by Jake Catania / Heights Staff