Blind mountain climber shares his highs, lows - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

Blind mountain climber shares his highs, lows

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Posted: Thursday, February 19, 2004 9:06 am | Updated: 5:33 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

It’s easy to think Erik Weihenmayer is fearless.

After all, his climbing résumé is as impressive as it gets: Kilimanjaro (19,339 feet), Mount McKinley (20,320 feet), Aconcagua (22,840 feet).

Then, there’s Mount Everest.

"A lot of climbers were talking to their friends saying, ‘Here’s another yahoo who has no business being up there,’ " Weihenmayer said. "I knew that 90 percent of the people who try Everest fail. My biggest fear was people would say, ‘Of course he failed. What do you expect? He’s blind.’ "

Weihenmayer’s 2001 Everest ascent is documented in his book "Touch the Top of the World" and the film "Farther Than the Eye Can See," which makes its Valley debut Tuesday at Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix. Both offer an intimate look inside the expedition, capturing the emotion, humor and drama of the world’s highest peak.

"You doubt yourself and you keep taking it step by step," said Weihenmayer, a former teacher at Phoenix Country Day School. "Planning, organizing and strategizing. Then, you find yourself at 26,000 feet preparing for the biggest day of your life."

Weihenmayer wasn’t born blind. At age 3 he was diagnosed with retinoschesis, a degenerative disease in which the retinas become detached and gradually split. His sight was gone by 13.

He got a taste of rock climbing at summer camp; he loved the texture of rock, finding cracks and crevices.

"I climbed like a little monkey," he said. "I loved the idea of making my hands and feet become my eyes. I loved to problem-solve my way up the mountain; connect the dots and get my body to point A to point B to point C."

After he graduated from Boston College, Weihenmayer took a job teaching at Phoenix Country Day School.

"It was in Arizona that I became a weekend warrior," he said. "I started going to the Phoenix Rock Gym and started climbing a lot in the desert."

And he kept raising the stakes: He climbed Mount McKinley in Alaska, Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, Mount Vinson in Antarctica and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Then the buzz began. Was Weihenmayer going to make a run at the "seven summits," the highest mountains on each of the seven continents?

"I wasn’t thinking I could do all seven," he said. "I guess you have that goal in your mind but you don’t want to spout it to the world."

Then a friend asked: How about climbing Everest?

Mount Everest: 29,035 feet. Sudden storms. Freezing temperatures. Little oxygen. The most hostile, lifethreatening climb on the planet.

"I thought if I could climb Mount Everest and stand on the summit, it would transform the image of blindness and forever change what it means to be blind," Weihenmayer said.

He assembled a team of world-class climbers, including Pasquale Scaturro, a veteran of seven Himalayan expeditions.

"I knew I couldn’t get to the summit of Everest alone," Weihenmayer said. "It would depend on friends."

He used poles to find tracks made by climbers ahead of him, stepped in their footprints. On ice fields, ridges and steep drop-offs, his partners shouted instructions and used bells to signal dangers ahead.

On May 25, 2001, Weihenmayer became the first blind man to reach the top of the world. On Sept. 5, 2002, standing on top of Mount Kosciusko in Australia, Weihenmayer completed his quest to climb the seven summits, joining 100 mountaineers worldwide who have accomplished the feat.

"I really strive in my life to be motivated by positive things," he said. "Everyone who climbs with me trusts me. Every single one of them signed up without a moment of hesitation. I figured 13 people believing in me was enough."

Weihenmayer continues to climb — and inspire. In May he and several Everest team members will teach mountaineering to children at a Tibetan school for the blind. In the fall, he and five of the best students will scale a 21,000-foot peak.

"I have a lot of personal goals left to accomplish," he said, "a lot of personal mountains I still need to climb."

Adventure on tap

What: Erik Weihenmayer signs his book "Touch the Top of the World" and attends the Valley premiere of the movie "Farther Than the Eye Can See"

When: Reception 6 p.m. Tuesday, screening 7:30 p.m.

Where: Celebrity Theatre, 440 N. 32nd St., Phoenix

Cost: $35 reserved seating, $20 general admission; benefits the Foundation for Blind Children

Information: (602) 331-1470; tickets: (602) 267-1600

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