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 Erik Weihenmayer

erik_top.jpg (10427 bytes) Erik Weihenmayer could have been just an athlete. Just a teacher. Just a public speaker. He could have been remembered as just "the blind kid." Instead, he’s a hero.

Erik was born in 1968 with a rare eye disease called retinoschisis. The disease rendered him legally blind. It progressed into glaucoma, and by age 13 Erik was totally blind.

Erik’s father, Ed Weihenmayer, encouraged Erik to challenge the ideas of what a blind person can and cannot do. Ed took Erik and his brother hiking often and sent Erik to adventure camps for blind youth where he learned to mountain climb. The seeds were planted early for a life of exploration and adventure.

In 1987 Erik graduated from Weston High School in Connecticut. As the school’s wrestling captain, Erik represented the state in National Freestyle Wrestling Championships. His efforts garnered national attention and Erik was profiled on ABC’s 20/20 with Barbara Walters. That same year he became the first blind person to trek the 50-mile Inca Trail into Machu Picchu. He was also named "Connecticut’s Most Courageous Athlete."

Erik attended Boston College and graduated in 1991. Two years later he received a master’s degree in Middle School Education from Lesley College. As Erik learned the ins and outs of classroom control, he continued learning how to master his own movement in nature.

In 1991 Erik trekked in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan. In 1993 he crossed the Batura Glacier in the Karakoram Mountains of Northern Pakistan. The same year he joined the staff at Phoenix Country Day School as an instructor.

In 1995 the world was introduced to Erik when he attempted Mt. McKinley, North America’s highest peak. Sponsored by the American Foundation for the Blind, Erik reached the 20,320’ summit. His triumph was featured on Today with Katie Couric and the NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw.

Television coverage of Erik’s miraculous efforts was just the beginning. He began touring the speakers’ circuit – addressing Fortune 500 companies and not-for-profit conventions as well as schools, churches and community organizations. His subsequent honors read like a "Who’s Who" list.

In 1996 Erik carried the Olympic Torch through Phoenix and was selected for the first annual Distinguished Arizonan Award by the Governors Council. He was also inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, and received its first Medal of Courage.

A year later Erik climbed his second continental summit, Kilimanjaro. He said "I do," in a marriage ceremony at 13,000’. Erik and his wife Ellen live outside of Denver, Colorado.

Besides his wife, climbing is Erik’s greatest passion. However, always eager to test himself, Erik is also a certified sky and scuba diver. And in 1998, he rode a tandem bike from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City with his father, a Vietnam veteran.

Last year Erik attempted Argentina’s Mt. Aconcagua. Poor weather conditions forced his team to turn around just short of the summit. This January, he will again attempt the highest peak outside of Asia. The Glaucoma Research Foundation sponsors his "Vision to Succeed."

Update: Blind Mountain Climber Reaches Highest Peak in the Americas
Glaucoma Research Foundation sponsors "vision to succeed"

For Immediate Release – SAN FRANCISCO, CA – January 20, 1999:  Teacher and athlete Erik Weihenmayer has the vision to succeed.  Last week he became the first blind person to reach the summit of Argentina’s  22,850’   Mount Aconcagua. His efforts, during January 1999’s Glaucoma Awareness Month, are sponsored by the San-Francisco based Glaucoma Research Foundation (GRF).

Weihenmayer, 30, was born legally blind with an eye disease called retinochisis.  The disease progressed into glaucoma and Weihenmayer was totally blind by age 13.  Although blind, Weihenmayer feels the effects of glaucoma – such as increased pressure in his eyes.

In fact, last year Weihenmayer turned back short of Aconcagua’s summit.  He cited poor weather conditions and pain in his eyes at high altitude among the reasons.  (One characteristic of the most common types of glaucoma is increased pressure in the eyes which ultimately damages the optic nerve.)  This year Weihenmayer had laser surgery treatments for his glaucoma prior to the climb.

"It made all the difference.  I didn’t feel pain until I hit 19,000’.  But when I did, it felt like someone stabbed me in the eye with a fork.  Drugs and eye drops made it manageable this time," Weihenmayer says.

Weihenmayer is an experienced climber, boasting Mount McKinley, Kilimanjaro and El Capitan among his conquests.

For Aconcagua, he and his climbing partner and lead, Chris Morris, braved severe winds, minus 70 degrees below zero weather, and a 4 a.m. departure time, to enjoy 20 minutes at the summit.  At one point, Weihenmayer spent nearly three hours climbing an exposed ridge, un-roped to his partner, and unable to hear his lead due to high winds.  His only guide was packed snow.  He knew if he was walking on rock, rather than snow, he was off the path.

Only 20 percent of climbers made it to the top that same day.

"When you go blind, you wonder what you will be capable of.  Climbing begins to answer those questions," Weihenmayer says.

In the same way, "Part of my motivation on this climb was trying to understand this disease and its limitations.  What can one expect from their life, living with glaucoma?"  Weihenmayer explains.  "If I can go to such high altitudes with such high pressure in my eyes….that’s pretty encouraging for everyone living with glaucoma."

Tara Steele, Executive Director of GRF, agrees, adding "For me, what is so impressive is that this was Erik’s second attempt.  It shows that success takes vision, skill and persistence.

"It’s a wonderful reminder when we are tempted to give up too soon.  In the same way, GRF won’t give up until we have found a cure for glaucoma." 

Erik has was interviewed by EverestNews.com and took Questions from You, our readers of Everest News ! Go here to see Erik's Q&A.

Update: Erik has announced he will attempt Everest in Spring 2001.

Update 8/24/99

  • Blind Climber To Attempt Everest

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) has announced that it will sponsor Erik Weihenmayer’s climb of Everest in 2001. Weihenmayer, a 30-year old former teacher from Denver, will be part of a team which will conduct an environmental clean-up of one of the high camps. Additionally, Erik will attempt to become the first blind person to step onto the top of the world.

Weihenmayer is no stranger to daunting challenges. In 1987, at age 18, he became the first blind man to trek the 60-mile Inca Trail into Machu Picchu (Peru); in 1988, he represented Connecticut in the National Freestyle Wrestling Championships; in 1995, he reached his first Continental Summit, Mt. McKinley (20,320’) in Alaska, and later that year became one of two blind solo skydivers; in 1996, he scaled Yosemite’s famous 3300’ rock face, The Nose of El Capitan; in 1997, he summited Kilimanjaro, the Roof of Africa, where he was married at 13,000’ on the Shira Plateau; in 1998, he biked tandem with his father from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (1200 miles) and ran his first New York Marathon; and last January, he climbed Aconcagua (22,834’, Argentina), the highest peak in South America and the highest peak in the world outside of Asia.

Weihenmayer’s road to Everest begins this October with a 100-mile Himalayan run at high elevation in northern India, an event sponsored by World T.E.A.M. Sports (WTS) of Charlotte NC. WTS is a visionary non-profit group which works to bridge and build communities through sports, which provides greater access in sports for all people, especially those with disabilities. The second day of the run takes him 20 miles at elevations over 11,000’, with 4 of the world’s 5 highest peaks (Everest, Kangchenjunga, Lhotse, and Makalu) visible from the route along the India-Nepal border. He is currently training in Denver.

Immediately following this run, in early November, Weihenmayer will confront another challenge, this one of a personal nature: major eye surgery, evisceration, to relieve painful pressure in his right eye caused by glaucoma. He lost his left eye to glaucoma in 1988. Counting on a quick recovery, Weihenmayer is slated to climb Ama Dablam (22,500’, Nepal) in Spring 2000. Ama Dablam is visible from Everest and is touted as the most beautiful peak in the world. This precursor to Everest will further acclimate Weihenmayer to the Himalayan area.

In April/May 2001, as part of an 8-10 member team, he will attempt Everest (29,031’) from the South Col in the Kumba region of Nepal, a route given recent prominence by Into Thin Air. Only 10% of climbers attempting Everest reach the top, but this expedition includes three climbers who have already stood on top of the world.

The NFB will use these Himalayan climbs to dramatize the capabilities of blind people, to shatter the public perceptions of their limitations and to inspire them to even greater accomplishments. Weihenmayer enjoys breaking through perceived barriers, believing that these public perceptions are often more limiting than blindness itself. But his message about "daring to fail" and "not letting obstacles stand in the way of the dreams of our lives" resonates with all people, blind and sighted.

The National Federation of the Blind, headed by Dr. Marc Maurer, is a grassroots consumer and civil rights organization headquartered in Baltimore MD. NFB is the largest membership organization of blind people, with over 700 local chapters in the U.S. Its powerful voice is heard in State Houses from coast to coast; and from Congress to the White House. It is considered the most effective advocate for blind people in the world.

Weihenmayer’s feats have earned him Connecticut’s Most Courageous Athlete Award, ESPN’s ARETE Award for Courage in Sports, induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, and the honor of carrying the Olympic Torch through Phoenix. He is a professional speaker at companies and schools across the country. His own articles appear frequently in national publications; and he is currently working on an autobiography.

Update 7/21/2000: Erik Weihenmayer will lead the Pledge of Allegiance at the Republican National Convention.

Update 5/2001: Erik Summited Everest read it here: Erik Weihenmayer: NFB

Update 4/4/2002: Erik Weihenmayer’s Life Story Heads For Small Screen

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