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 Erik Weihenmayer Q&A

erik_top.jpg (10427 bytes)  Erik Weihenmayer Q&A

Part One:

I'm back from my trip, so here it goes. I would like to acknowledge the Glaucoma Research Foundation who sponsored our climb up Aconcagua. The Foundation's mission is to raise funds for vital glaucoma research and to educate the public about this common yet treatable disease. Glaucoma is one of the leading causes of vision loss and the disease which afflicts me. GRF sponsored the climb to draw attention to Glaucoma Awareness Month which was in January and to encourage the public to seek regular eye appointments. I owe this wonderful organization a debt of gratitude. Thank you.

Glaucoma Research Foundation
200 Pine Street, Suite 200
San Francisco, CA  94104

I also want to acknowledge my friend and guide, Chris Morris. When we climbed Denali together in 1995, we were roped together. Chris would joke, "Speed it up. I feel like I'm hauling tuna." I have joked back to Chris that if he can drag a blind guy to the top of two continental summits, he's got to be one hell of a guide. Chris also specializes in exciting and remote Alaskan river trips. Thanks Chris!

Chris Morris
Mountains and Rivers
P.O. Box 874254
Wasilla, Alaska  99687

Q.) On Aconcagua: 1. How do know when you are coming to a crevasse?

A.) 1. When I hike on a big mountain, a person hikes in front of me. I listen to his footsteps crunching in the snow or in the scree. It's a little more work for the leader. He has to look back periodically to make sure I'm still behind.

My partners know me well. They don't give me help when I want it, but only when I need it. That's an important distinction, and to me, the sign of a good friend. Chris Morris, my Aconcagua partner and guide, gives me important verbal communication. Once, I had to jump across a raging river from an ice platform seven feet across to another snow platform. Falling in the freezing glacier-fed river would mean death. Chris jumped across first and gave me all the information. Then, he stood right on the edge to grab me if my jump were off the mark. Jeff, another partner, divides falls into three categories: Pissed off, severely pissed off, and death! He's got a grim sense of humor. He'll say, "narrow rocky trail, death fall to the left. If your going to fall, fall to the right."

Hans, another partner, is extraordinarily verbal. He likes to tell me everything about the trail. He has terms for anything I might encounter. Rocks are football size or golf ball size. Some are "shin bashers" or "ankle burners." If rocks will move under my feet, they are "rollers and if they don't move, they are "icebergs." Everyone has a different style of guiding.

When I hike, I use two Leki hiking poles which give me extra balance. It's like having four legs instead of two. I jab a pole where my foot is about to step, then I lean on the pole as I lower my weight onto my foot placement. I don't commit to the step until my foot feels that the placement is safe. My hiking style is not very graceful. Jeff calls it a "controlled stumble."

Q.) Why weren't you roped to your partner during part of your climb  ?

A.) Climbers on Aconcagua aren't typically roped together. We were hiking across a glacier, but on top of glacier moraine. Crevasses are exposed, not hidden by snow bridges like on Denali. Chris will say, "big crevasse. Two foot step. Don’t fall." 

On our summit day we probably should have been roped together. When we got to 21000 feet, we were met by 60 mph winds which blew in our faces. I couldn’t hear the sleigh bells on Chris’s poles anymore, so periodically, Chris would put his fingers in his mouth and whistle. We played a bizarre game of "Marco Polo" for several hours until we were able to work our way into a steep snow gully which was protected from the wind by rocks.

Q.) Do you use any kind of special trail marker?

A.)  I don’t use any special trail markers.

Q.) If you had to help  rescue someone would you be able to?

A.) I don’t know if I would be able to put someone on my back and carry him to safety, but I would be able to apply first aid. Usually when I climb with just one other person, I take a cellular phone.

Q.) Are there any special techniques for  climbing that you have developed?

A.) I do have a special system for rock climbing and leading. When I first went climbing, through trial and error, I learned I could hang from one hand, do a pull up and a high step, scan the rock systematically for the next hold. when I find it, I hang from that hold and begin the process again. I trained myself   to place my feet on the holds that my hands just left. Sometimes when my feet don’t find their holds, I hang off one arm while my other arm reaches down the rock to scan foot holds. It probably looks a little crazy. At first, the system was slow and arduous and I left a lot of blood and skin on the rock, but now I’m pretty efficient. After I had climbed for a few years, I started feeling like, "dead weight." I wanted to contribute to the team’s progress up the rock face, so I learned to lead. To learn more about how I climb and lead, check out the April issue of Climbing Magazine in which I wrote the Perspectives article of the month.

Q.) Can you tell us about the summit climb?

A.) On our Aconcagua summit day, Chris and I left at 4:00 am, thinking we would beat the huge winds that began to howl at the summit by early afternoon. however, we wound up walking right into the face of a gale-force wind. Several times I thought we were going to have to turn back. My toes and fingers were constantly going numb. But we kept pushing, because we thought that if we could only get to the Canaleto, we’d be protected from the wind. We were right. At the top, I was pretty tired. I couldn’t seem to get into a rhythm, because we were constantly weaving through rocks and scrambling over boulders. To keep me going, Chris would lie, "I could throw a rock to the summit. Just a little farther. "Only 15 ft from the summit he joked, "Big e, you’re moving slower than my dead grandmother." At the top, I sat exhaustedly touching the cold metal cross which is planted at the summit, not quite believing we were there. For me summiting is not important for the view. It’s more internal. Summiting is the realization that my life has meaning, that I can forge a tiny scrap of a dream into reality.

Part 2:

Q.) On Kilimanjaro...

A.) instead of answering each of your Kilimanjaro questions, here is an excerpt from an article I wrote about my Kilimanjaro climb. We left at 1:00 am from our pre-summit camp at 14,5000ft on the Machame route. We were looking at 5000ft of elevation gain to the summit, then 7000ft of loss to reach the huts on the Tourist route. I started strongly, chipping away at the elevation.   A few thousand feet higher, altitude was starting to get the best of me. On Kilimanjaro, our acclimatization time was only five days, verses 19 on Denali. "Much oxygen on the summit, because of many trees below the mountain," Daniel assured us. "Maybe for him," I thought. Also on Denali, I was able to keep a consistent pace by kicking my own steps into the snowy slope; Kilimanjaro was mostly loose rock and scree with patches of ice hiding above thousand foot drops. I found it hard to get into a rhythm as we shimmied through narrow loose gullies, around boulders, and up exposed rockfaces. In the predawn darkness, while scrambling up a steep rock ramp, one of our climbers above knocked a large boulder loose. The darkness leveled the playing field, made it the same for all, and we lunged blindly in different directions. I threw myself to the left as I estimated the projectile of the sound. In another second, I heard the boulder bounce past a few feet to the right and away from the group, then down a thousand feet below.  Lucky, I thought. Around 5:00 am, I heard a yell from far above. It was Jeff, a team member, whose group had been climbing at a faster pace than Ellen, my dad and me. "My altimeter reads 17,000ft," he shouted, and I felt my attitude plummet. Jeff, at 17,000ft was still far above me, I thought, but that was still far below the summit. The night was colder than I had expected. Ironically, on a mountain, the moments before sunrise are by far the coldest of the night, so I was grateful for the equatorial sun that peeked over the mountain around 7:00 am. As I got higher, I began to feel like I was in a delirium, in a trance. My muscles and thoughts were moving through syrup. I could notice a distinct delay between my mind commanding an action and my body following the order. I lost track of Ellen and my dad climbing right behind me and focused on moving my sluggish body forward and upward. Baltazar continued to repeat,  "Close now, very close."  "How long is close?" I asked. "One hour," he replied. An hour would go by and someone would ask again, "How far?"   "One hour," He’d say. I began to wonder if African guides, having not grown up with watches strapped to their wrists like Westerners, had never developed an accurate sense of time. How do you judge one hour?" I asked myself, if you’ve never watched it pass?  I continued to trudge up the steep slippery scree. I had learned well on other climbs that you go until you get there. When guides say one hour, I simply multiply their time by two, so my brain is pleasantly surprised if we reach our destination in one hour and a half, and not crushed if we arrive in two and a half. I scurried up through a long twisting gully and then felt the mountain open up in front of me. It felt wide and flat, immense openness that I had rarely experienced. I stepped up onto the flatness. Baltazar touched my arm. "Welcome to the top of Africa," he said softly. We were on the giant caldera, the extinct mouth of a volcano. The terrain still sunk inward, creating the shape of a massive shallow bowl. I felt a tingle of elation through my body, but then exhaustion overrode it and I sat down against a pile of rocks. Out of the wind, the warmth was beautiful. I could feel the sunlight heating my face through the chill of the air. It was so pleasant, I even nodded off for a few minutes. When  I woke up, I forced myself to eat a chocolate bar, but with each swallow, my body was trying to reject it. Only one more obstacle lay between me and the summit: the 1000ft scree slope called Uhuru Peak. It was another smaller peak perched atop the one we had just climbed. Many climbers call the caldera the summit, but my brain is too rigid to make that stretch. Finally, it was time to move again. I stood up dizzily and felt lucky that the next section was a non-technical trudge up loose scree, much of it powdery fine. As I pulled myself up the last slope, I felt as though Earth’s gravity had increased ten fold. Baltazar and I would stop every 20 minutes, so that I could take a few deep breaths, but when I did, it felt like oxygen was being sucked out of my lungs instead of into them. The air around me seemed to be stealing it from me. "Tell me we’re getting close," I said to Baltazar. "Even if it isn’t, give me one of those optimistic time estimates." "Hakuna matata." Don’t worry. Very close now," he grinned. After an hour and a half, we stopped. "Very close now," he promised. "I can see the top." And because I wanted to believe him, I kept moving. "This is turning into an endless nightmare," I thought. Step, breathe, breathe, breathe. Step, breathe, breathe, breathe, step, rest, breathe. Finally the terrain leveled out and we crossed a field of broken snow, the surface brittle and cracking like ancient flesh. My boots stumbled into little divots and tripped over unexpected lumps. "Where is it?" I asked, quickly losing motivation. "There!" Baltazar replied, pointing my finger to a place that was only a few feet higher than us. "I can see the sign. In a few more minutes, there was no place else to go. The ground dropped off on three sides. A thousand feet below us, I knew the caldera stretched two miles and then dropped away again, this time into forests and then plains, and finally, hundreds of miles in the distance, the Indian Ocean. "You can see it curve. I don’t know the word in English," Baltazar said, and I knew he meant the horizon. I had heard this before, that from the top of Kilimanjaro, you could see the curvature of the Earth. The sign that marked the top read, "You Are Now At The Uhuru Peak.  The Highest Point in Africa --Altitude 5859 meters." Sitting on the summit, leaning forward with my head resting on my knees,  I asked Baltazar, "What does Uhuru mean?" He thought for a minute. "Freedom," he replied. Freedom. It was a word I didn’t understand. Freedom from what? Freedom from the limits of my body? From pain? From disappointment? What did it mean? I wanted to believe that by standing atop mountains around the world, I was achieving this kind of freedom, or at least coming close, but when standing in these high places, the immense power of the mountains only served to magnify my own fragility, my human need for food, for oxygen, for the help that I received from my team, for the warmth of their bodies. Then it came to me, the thought coming slowly alive and charging my oxygen-starved brain. Perhaps it was the freedom to make of my life what I wanted it to be, or at least the freedom to try, or to fail in the trying. Perhaps freedom itself was unobtainable and the goal was only to reach for it, strive for it, knowing all along that I would fall well short. Perhaps the importance was in the reaching out, and in the impossibility of it all, and in the reaching out through the impossibility, my body planted heavily on the Earth but my spirit soaring up and coming impossibly close to its goal. Standing on the top of Kilimanjaro, I hugged Baltazar and reached out and touched the sign. I still didn’t know whether it would be possible to breathe in all I wanted from my life, but I knew that I would try.

Part 3: 

Q.) Erik, Do you miss your wife when you are climbing a mountain? Don't you sometimes just wish you could sit with her on a remote beach  somewhere instead of suffering in the cold? 

A.) I always miss Ellie on climbs. On Aconcagua, I got a little stir-crazy and home sick during those long hours in the tent. Since it was only Chris and me, we soon ran out of things to talk about. I had lots of books on tape, but my tape recorder broke only a few days into the trip. One night, I couldn't sleep. I woke up Chris, in a mood of desperation and asked, "how 'bout a game of twenty questions?" He rolled over and in his gruff sleepy Alaskan voice said, "That would be a no !" "Then how 'bout a game of Eye Spy?" "Your blind ! How the heck are we going to play Eye Spy ?" We would finish climbing most days by 4:00 pm, and be confined in the tent until sunrise. We reached our high camp at 19,500ft in 8 days, pretty fast. The first night I had no appetite, a dry hacking cough, and eye balls that felt as though they were going to pop out of the sockets. I told Chris that if I had felt this way at sea level, I'd be calling 911. The days at high camp waiting for a summit bid were spent hiking around camp, talking to other expeditions, and shooting video footage. I even got a faint fuzzy disco station from Santiago. The nights were hard, however.   Laying in my tent in the thin cold air, I started to go slightly crazy. I wondered if this was what I really wanted to do with my life. Maybe by coming here I had made a big mistake. Sometimes, I'd even start to hyper-ventilate. I would force myself to relax and get into a breathing rhythm: "Relax ! Chill out… Relax ! Chill out…" At least a dozen times I vowed to change the course of my life dramatically, devote myself to the simple pleasures, like laying on a blanket in a field with Ellie, listening to blue grass. I also felt guilty for being away from Ellie for so long; I desperately wanted to get home and devote myself to being a good husband. Once I told Chris that I was going to give up the mountains and turn over a new leaf; I was going to use my hands in a good, honest, productive career: a carpenter, a gardener, or maybe a pie Chef. Since I've been down, I'm ashamed to say that I haven't baked a single pie. On our fourth night at high camp, I missed Ellie so much, I told Chris that if we didn't summit the next day, I would have to go down. Chris told me that if I did that, I'd hate myself. He was right. I knew I needed to see the climb through. I'm glad I did.

Q.) Do you think climbing has changed in the last two years ?

A.) I have to say that climbing's recent popularity kind of annoys me. Everyone, whether they're a climber or not, has to have all the gear: key chain with a binor, gortex outfit, trendy fleece. The rocks and ice are more crowded, sometimes with yahoos. The more movies and books written about climbing only increases its popularity. I guess this attitude makes me a bit of a "climbing snob!" 

Q.) Do you have plans to climb Everest or a 8000 meter peak soon ?

A.) I've thought about climbing Everest. A very experienced Everest climber recently invited me on a 2001 Everest expedition. I'm seriously considering it. Since I have glaucoma (high pressure) in my eyes, I sometimes have lots of pain at high altitude. On Aconcagua, it was bearable, but on Everest it would be a different story. I'll have to have an eye operation before committing. Also, I don't want to be another Walter Mitty, with big dreams of fame and glory but an unrealistic assessment of my ability. I have to commit by April, so we'll see what happens.

Q.) Do you think there are people climbing today that do not belong there ?

A.) The book, Into Thin Air, really condemned climbers on Everest who probably shouldn't have been there. I simply don't feel that my motives are so pure that I can condemn other's. Really, most people's dreams to put themselves on the summit of a mountain are selfish. I think we need to be careful about judging others.

As far as ability, I feel that people should prepare themselves realistically for a big climb by testing themselves on smaller peaks. It should be a progression, not such a huge leap of faith.

Q.) What about all the climbing walls being put into schools, have we gone too far ?

A.) I first went climbing as a teenager after going blind only a few years before. The experience was the most empowering of my life. The organizers of the program thought that if blind kids could push themselves to do something often seen as impossible, it would translate to other areas of their lives. Perhaps, it would help to break down physical and mental barriers. Since then, I've believed in the importance of climbing, not necessarily for its own sake but for it's ability to transform lives. All kids should learn how to take calculated risks and to push themselves beyond their own expectations. climbing in gyms is a great way to achieve these goals.

Q.) What was the first thing you said when you reached the summit of McKinley? Your first thought ?

A.) Instead of answering this question directly, here is an excerpt from a story I wrote about my Denali climb.

When we crested Pig Hill, the summit seemed very close, but I didn't know the hardest part was yet to come, the summit ridge. The ridge was two feet wide, with a 1000ft. drop on one side and a 9000ft. drop on the other. The good news in this scenario was that it wouldn't really matter which side I fell off of. Chris said, "Boys, if you fall here, we all fall. You'll drag us all off the side of the mountain." So if I haven't explained myself clearly enough, what I'm telling you boys is . . .DON'T Fall!" I was nervous, taking each step slowly and carefully, knowing the mountain would not tolerate any carelessness. Once, I leaned on my ski pole and it must have been too close to the edge. The snow gave way under the weight and I felt myself sway forward over the side. I quickly recovered and stepped back.  "Damn it!" Chris yelled, his gruff voice masking his nervousness. "Test it first before you weight it." I found my rhythm again and slowly placed each step, testing each by gradually weighting my front foot while keeping tension on my back leg. The only thoughts in my world were the eight crampon points digging and catching in the firm snow. I was concentrating so hard, Chris's words caught me by surprise. Over the sound of the wind he yelled, "Congratulations, you're standing on the top of North America." Thinking back, it seems strange that that last step felt no different from the thousands and thousands of previous steps I had taken in the last 19 days, but it was just a step, no different from the others, and then I was there. Immediately, I sank down in the snow, suffering from a gurgling high altitude cough. Then, Sam was next to me. "We're not quite there yet, Big E.," he said.  "You're joking," I begged. But before I could protest, everybody's arms were around me and I was being guided up a little embankment. I could hear their breathing and their Gortex crackling in the wind. We all stood as a team on the three foot by three foot mound of snow which was the true summit of McKinley. Sadly, though, I could feel Ryan's absence and I reached into my shirt and felt his HighSights cross warm against my skin. Then we unfurled the American Foundation for the Blind flag and posed for a few glory shots. As the last photo clicked, I heard the misplaced buzz of the Cessna plane circling above. An hour before summiting, we had radioed down to Basecamp Annie who radioed out to a small air strip in Talkeetna where my family waited. Now, as I stood on the top, my dad, my two brothers, and Ellen were circling above me, sharing in this exhilarating moment. It was strange knowing that they were only a few hundred yards away, yet I couldn't touch them or hear their voices. They still survived in a tiny oasis of civilization, a tiny warm pocket of life against the elements. My team all wore identical red Gortex shells. And with our hats and goggles covering our faces, we were indistinguishable. As the plane swooped by, we all waved our ski poles and cheered. Then, I asked Sam if he thought my family would know which one was me. "I think they will," he laughed. "You're the only one waving your ski pole in the wrong direction."

Part 4:

Q. Have the gear sponsors supported you climbs ?

A. I have some great gear sponsors. Mountain Hard Wear has been very supportive. During my mountaineering trips, I always wear Mountain Hard Wear fleece, gortex, and long underwear.  The quality of their gear is outstanding. Osprey packs also supported our Aconcagua climb; I found their Zenith Pro pack to be the best I've  ever worn. Salomon gave us wonderful trekking boots which we wore on the 38 miles to base camp. They have the best ankle support of any boot I've ever worn. I also couldn't get by in the mountains without my Leki Nordic poles.

My upcoming Polar Circus climb is being supported by Boreal. I have always worn their climbing shoes, but recently they've come out with an insulated leather boot for ice climbing and winter mountaineering. I'm going to use these on our Polar Circus climb. Trango is also supporting Polar Circus with the donation of Captain Hook ice tools, harnesses,  and crampons. I've found the climbing companies to be very supportive, perhaps because of the unusualness of a blind climber. Usually, the word, "blind," and the word, "climber," don't appear in the same sentence.

Q. As an American, what should we do about the garbage on mountains that seems to grow every year? 

A. On Denali, the park service does a pretty good job keeping the mountain clean. Their are latrines at most camps. They have a "bag in, bag out" policy.

On Kilimanjaro, the biggest problem is the deforestation of the mountain. Local porters and guides don't use white gas with camp stoves, but burn trees for fuel. The few trees on the mountain are quickly disappearing.

Aconcagua has a huge sanitation problem. The normal route is the worst. Dead rotting mules lay on the side of the trail below Basecamp. Few of the camps have latrines, so people are going everywhere. Most rocks have piles of crap under them. Toilet paper blows liberally in the wind. Many people get sick from viruses. My theory is that they get sick from drinking unsanitary water and from breathing in dust comprised of dried up feces. This is why we climbed the Polish Glacier side of the mountain. It's more scenic.

On Aconcagua, the park service needs to install latrines at each camp. There need to be huge fines for people who litter. The park service needs to get tough !

Q. What advise would you give for people who want to take up climbing  today ?

A. You can get started by taking some classes through a local mountain club. Learn the basics. Go climbing with experienced climbers or guides. Learn to function self sufficiently in the mountains. Read a book on avalanche danger. Take a wilderness First Responder course. Test yourself in the mountains in small progressions. If you live through your first five years, you'll probably make it !

Q. What would you like Erik Weihenmayer legacy to be ?

A.  I don't necessarily want to be known as the blind mountaineer. I'd rather be known as a competent mountaineer who happens to be blind. That's an important distinction for me. I'd like to be known as a person who broke through barriers, who shattered people’s perceptions about what is possible and what is not. When these perceptions are rebuilt, thousands and thousands of people will live their lives with more opportunity. Then perhaps, people will no longer be judged by their disability but by their ability.

Q. What are your present objectives in climbing ? You seemed to have already climbed Everest ten times in life. I am very  happy I read your story, it moved me. Thank You. What next for you in life ?

A. I have all sorts of climbing objectives. I have a tic list a mile long. Soon I’m heading up to Polar Circus in Canada. This climb is an 800m, mostly vertical ice climb. We hope to climb it in a day. I also have lots of general adventuring objectives: to ski in the paraolympics, to race across America on a tandem bike, to run an Iron Man. I respect Alex Lowe's philosophy to  be an "expert in mediocrity," which doesn't mean to do lot's of activities badly but to have the boldness and courage to throw ourselves into new endeavors. Some things, I'm sure, I'll find I can’t do so well or I can’t do at all, but other things, I know, I’ll be good at. I believe in being the best at the things I can do, and letting go of the things I can't do. I know I will never drive a car and I will never catch a baseball, but there are lifetimes and lifetimes of achievement awaiting me, so I have more than enough to keep me busy. If we are able to reach just a fraction of our potential as human beings, then that would be much more than we could ever possibly dream.

For background on Erik see his page

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