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
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!
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
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. Dont
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 couldnt hear the sleigh bells on Chriss
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 dont use any
special trail markers.
Q.) If you had to help rescue someone would you be
A.) I dont 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
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 dont 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 Im pretty
efficient. After I had climbed for a few years, I started feeling like,
"dead weight." I wanted to contribute to the teams 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, wed
be protected from the wind. We were right. At the top, I was pretty tired. I
couldnt 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, youre 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. Its more internal. Summiting is the
realization that my life has meaning, that I can forge a tiny scrap of a dream
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," Hed 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 youve 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 Earths 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 were getting close," I said to Baltazar.
"Even if it isnt, give me one of those optimistic time estimates."
"Hakuna matata." Dont 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 dont 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 didnt 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 didnt know whether it would be possible to breathe
in all I wanted from my life, but I knew that I would try.
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
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."
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 peoples
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 Im 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 cant do so well or I cant do at all, but other things, I know, Ill 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