By Michael Restivo
Despite going blind in high school, Golden local and adventurer Erik Weihenmayer is one of the world’s foremost adventure athletes. Erik became the first blind person to summit Mt. Everest and subsequently climb the Seven Summits, the seven highest points on each continent. Erik has also climbed The Diamond on Longs Peak, The Nose on El Capitan, and kayaked the length of the Grand Canyon.
Erik will be our Keynote Speaker at the Colorado Mountain Club Benefit Gala. Before the big night we sat down with him to talk about his heroes and influences, his recent summit of Nepal’s Ama Dablam, and how he faces the challenges in his adventures, including using a tandem mountain bike.
Colorado Mountain Club: Congratulations on your recent summit of Ama Dablam. Can you tell us a little about the climb, your partners, and how it compares to a peak like Everest?
Erik Weihenmayer: Ama Dablam was pretty challenging. A lot of Everest except for the icefall is kicking steps up a snow face. Ama Dablam was more technical. Friends were telling me where to step. There was a lot of traversing and a lot of rock. You have to put your crampon points in a very specific spots and traverse tiny ledges on the rock. There’s a knife edge ridge where every step is very precise and there are some sections that are only the width of your body and I was crawling across. It wasn’t the friendliest blind terrain I’ve ever been on.
In that way it was harder than Everest. It was like being in the Khumbu Icefall the whole time. There was hardly ever a moment where you were kicking a step and stepping up.
CMC: How does climbing on technical faces like The Nose or The Diamond compare to your mountaineering exploits?
EW: With ice climbing, I’m at my best. Even blind, you’re trying to develop systems just like any climber. For me it’s even more important, so when I learned to climb ice and frozen waterfalls, through trial and error, I learned to scan my tool across the face and tap to listen for the sound that the tool makes and to feel the vibration through the ice to get a good idea of where to swing. Instead of doing it visually I do it with my ears and sense of touch.
A lot of climbing is like that for me. Rock is a different system than ice and mountains like Ama Dablam. All of them are pretty specific. With rock climbing, I’m hanging, locking off, scanning with one hand and trying to find a good foot hold to take as much weight off my body as possible. Then getting a high step, locking off and scanning with my other hand trying to find a good hand hold. Knowing it’s a game of time because you can’t hold on forever so you’re not looking for the best hold, just something to connect the dots. Every element of mountaineering is different.
CMC: Who were some of your climbing and adventure idols when you were growing up?
EW: I went blind my freshman year in high school and so my braille teacher found out that I was interested in exploration. There weren’t a lot of braille books. I remember her brailling out some articles. One was on Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, one was on Reinhold Messner, and one was on Will Steiger, skiing across Antarctica. Reading about those pioneers was a big influence when I was a kid.
I went rock climbing with a recreational program for the blind. It was a center to learn how to use computers and read braille and use a cane. Back then in the 80s there was a climbing portion of the rec program along with canoeing and biking, sailing, and horseback riding. The idea was a lot of blind kids get left out of ball sports and gym class. They took us rock climbing in New Hampshire one weekend for a three-day weekend and I fell in love. I was a skinny athletic kid, I’d already started wrestling and I loved the adventure and engagement of hanging off a hold and then trying to use hands and feet as my eyes and get an idea of how to connect the dots.
Moving your body in all these crazy wild positions, it seemed unfathomable. It was adventure I’d lost in my life going blind so it was pretty incredible to get it back. Blind people use echolocation, which is listening to sound vibrations bouncing off and coming back to you. I remember getting at the top of the rock face and I could hear over the trees. It was fall so I could hear the dry leaves rustling in the trees, and hear a chainsaw rustling in the distance. It was creating a sound in the valley that was echoing and I could sense the whole valley below me. It was vast and beautiful. Even the sensory perception was incredibly stimulating. Climbing and sensing that soundscape around me.
CMC: What kind of programs helped support your outdoor education?
EW: There was a guide named Marc Chauvin, back then he was a young guide in New Hampshire. He would invite me and say I’ll climb with you and mentor you. I’d take a bus to New Hampshire and we’d go climbing. I remember asking him advice. “What can I do to be better?” One, I appreciate that you trust me but when you become a real climber, you have to be independent and check my gear. You have to check the anchor. Be in charge of yourself and check your own belay device and be responsible for yourself and your partner.
This pushed me to the fact that I didn’t have to be just a client. I could be independent. It was cool to get that advice. I went to college and climbed there when rock gyms were just starting. When I moved to Arizona I started climbing as a week day warrior. I got a job as a teacher in Phoenix and there’s tons of rock climbing from granite to sandstone, limestone, basalt and volcanic rock. I joined the Arizona Mountaineering Club. I didn’t have formal ideas, I just showed up and people embraced me. People liked to mentor people. It’s similar to the CMC. They have it in their blood. They’ve climbed a long time and they feel it’s time to pass knowledge and wisdom to young people. I showed up open eyed and vulnerable and I joined the lead and anchor classes. They worked with me, they took me under their wing and I progressed with great mentors.
I never had anyone at the AMC who said I can’t do it. I was welcomed with open arms. It’s amazing that this blind guy shows up, they know nothing about me and they were cool with it.
CMC: You’ve branched out into other areas such as adventure racing and kayaking the length of the Grand Canyon. What feeds your curiosity to keep your adventures diverse and interesting?
EW: People ask me “That thing you did is cool. What are you going to do next?” and that’s a natural question. I’m not just looking for the next stunt. I don’t want to be shot out of a cannon in a velcro suit and stuck to a wall. I don’t think climbers are looking for the next thing to top themselves. What we look for is universal. You’re looking for the next thing to challenge you, push you, and keep you interested, excited and learning as well as being a little uncomfortable. It depends on the time of your life that you’re in. I don’t like suffering on big mountains as much anymore. I like more technical climbing: long ice faces, rock climbs, and mixed climbs.
I love that the folks at the CMC are getting out with younger people. I run an organization called No Barriers. We work with 12,000 – 15,000 people with challenges, whether it be physical challenges like being blind or deaf, or cerebral palsy or people with trauma, anxiety and fear. People who have gotten stuck and are looking for a catalyst to pull themselves out. We take them out and do programs, using the outdoors because it’s the greatest laboratory in the world for finding your potential. We go on cool journeys on rivers and mountains, and bring people to a transformative experience. I lead a lot of those trips now and it’s a lot of fun.
CMC: What was your favorite rapid on the Grand Canyon?
EW: “Upset” was one that really made me nervous. We were around the fire the night before saying it was easy to get upset on “Upset”. There’s a giant hole you have to squeak by and if I remember correctly it’s counterintuitive because you want to kayak left into the wall. There’s a wall and you want to head towards it and bust through a wave and squeak the gauntlet between the wall and all the waves crashing and this whole. I got a perfect run and I could hear the hole on the right. This guttural, deep, scary sound like “Don’t go in there.” To the left, waves hammering against the cliff. I thought “This is amazing” being in that flow. Most of the time you’re jittery and scared, and then you fall into this flow and it takes years and years of work, practice, and struggle to find moments of beauty. There’s not a lot of layers between you and the experience.
CMC: I read that at one point you were training for the Leadville 100. Are you interested in more competition style events?
EW: Not really. It’s fun to experiment and explore. I’ve done adventure races. I did the Primal Quest, which was 500 miles across the Sierra Nevadas. It took us nine days to finish. I did a week-long race across Greenland. A marathon in the morning and then climb 15,000-feet of elevation in the afternoon and get four hours of sleep and do it all the next day. I enjoyed it, but it’s more been there and done that. I really like exploring on my own terms. I love building a team and then going exploring. It doesn’t have to be a first ascent. It can be anything. It’s exploration under your own terms with your own team. Building your own plan and your own rules. Not running after other people in a race. I like creating adventures and going off and doing them. Adventure and exploration.
CMC: What are some of your favorite Colorado adventures?
EW: For climbing we’re so lucky. Clear Creek is insanely good sport climbing. North Table is right above my house. Some people call it greasy but it’s good to climb that kind of rock. Eldorado Canyon scares me but it’s amazing climbing. I love the First Flatirons and going into the park and doing things like Hallett, The Diamond, or Lumpy Ridge. Ice Climbing on Mount Lincoln or in Vail. We’re lucky to live where we do.
I also love the backcountry skiing. Butler Gulch and Jones Pass. They’re great for blind people because they’re open terrain. You have to be careful with conditions but it gets safer in the spring. There’s a month or two that I love going up high and skiing big bowls and faces with friends.
There’s also amazing mountain biking. I have a tandem mountain bike. The whole state is an amazing place for adventure.
CMC: A tandem mountain bike?
EW: I’m on the back and we’ll ride things like North Table, Green Mountain, Centennial Cone, and things aren’t necessarily technical but are technical for a mountain tandem. You have a wide wheel base so you have to work in coordination and lean the right way. Sometimes the switchbacks are tricky. It’s harder and you have to focus on your steering on the tight turns. Friends will look down the trail and say “I think we can do this and if we fall don’t fall right.”
CMC: What are your words to kids who grow up in places where the mountains aren’t very accessible or who grew up in disadvantaged circumstances?
EW: One huge goal is that a lot of kids don’t have access to the outdoors. That’s why it makes the job of organizations like the CMC so important. They represent a community. The outdoors is foreign and scary to them. It makes the mentoring role even more important to be introducing people to open spaces and making them accessible to them. One of the things I’m psyched about is the outdoor world is accessible to me and it’s not a scary place. It’s a place where I’ve learned to function and flourish. With kids who have a disability and circumstances that don’t enable them to be familiar with the outdoors, they’re in that same position. A role is to introduce more people to the outdoors. They might not become big climbers, that’s maybe not always the point. They might not go to climb Everest, but the outdoors is a beautiful place where you can explore, you can appreciate, you can learn things about the Earth and science. You learn more about your place and how you connect to this bigger place, and learn a lot about yourself as well. It’s an incredible laboratory.
You can meet Erik at the Colorado Mountain Club Benefit Gala at the Hangar at Stanley in Aurora. Tickets and details here.