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EVEREST LIVE

Thursday, April 26, 2001

From: Maurice Peret


When Erik Weihenmayer is not climbing or trekking he has found time to give interviews to a number of international media. On this day, just before and after lunch, Erik was gracious enough to sit down with me for a few minutes to answer some questions as a way for me to introduce him to you. The following is the text of that interview.

Maurice Peret (mp) question: How did you make the transition from teaching the 5th grade and coaching wrestling to climbing full time?
Erik Weihenmayer (ew) answer: When I was 16 years old I went rock climbing with a group of blind people through the Carol Center for the Blind in Boston. It was similar to how the Colorado Center for the Blind takes blind students out rock climbing in order to overcome fears and change their ideas about what is possible for a blind person. I really loved it. It was the perfect tactile sport, you could just feel your way, there was no ball to catch or anything. I started climbing like 2 or 3 times a year. When I got out of college I wanted to climb more. So I moved to Phoenix, Arizona, got a job teaching, and began climbing almost every weekend in the desert. I had a climbing partner named Sam Bridgham who said, "hey, we should try climbing bigger mountains." So we went to climb Mt. Humpfrey, Mt. Reneer, and we went to climb Longís Peek in Colorado. And then Sam said, "hey, letís go climb Mt. McKennly," a really huge mountain in Alaska, and I really loved it. I found it to be a truly amazing experience. It really changes your life in a lot of ways because it forces you to push yourself so hard to the limit. I kept climbing, doing different adventures every summer. I climbed El Capitan in Yoesemite valley, Aconcagua, Polar Circus, and a lot of fun things like that. Then about 3 years ago I was asked to speak at AT&T. I thought that was pretty cool, asking myself, "Wow! They pay you for this?" I began getting speaking engagements more and more until it became a full time career. Although I was nervous the first time I found it to be exhilarating, profitable, and I got to travel quite a bit, show slides, and just talk about my experiences. Now it seems to be a huge booming business for corporations to have speakers to come in. So, thatís how I make a living, not as a climber. I may get my climbing trips financed through sponsorships sometimes but I donít actually get paid to climb.

(mp) question: Was climbing ever a part of teaching or coaching for you? Did you find any of your climbing experiences useful in teaching?
(ew) answer: I taught English and Math. I tried to incorporate what the kids were interested in and I was into climbing but I didnít really push climbing on my students or anything. I tried to have them write about what their interests and hobbies were, their futures, what they were thinking about rather than trying to push my life experiences onto them.

(mp) question: It is evident that you are on a certain mission here with having reached the summit on four of the world's highest peeks towards your goal of reaching all seven. Now you are attempting the highest peek on earth, how long in planning and training was this expedition underway?
(ew) answer: I just get excited about it. You just go from one to the next. Itís not like thereís this big plan. I climbed Mt. McKinley and liked it, so I thought Iíd try Mt. Aconcagua, and really liked that, and then Killomanjaro. You kind of just work your way around from goal to goal. Everest is such a big one, who knows if you ever get all seven? Itís just a hobby like anything else.

(mp) question: So, why Mt. Everest now?
(ew) answer: I thought I was ready to try it and experience it. Lots of famous people have tried it. I read about it from the time when I was a young kid, listening to books on tape about Sir Edmon Hillary, Mallary, Chris Bonnington, and others. Itís really cool to know it now and to have the experience myself.

(mp) question: Has there ever been any other blind person attempt this?
(ew) answer: No.

(mp) question: How long have you been training for this expedition?
(ew) answer: About a year, Iíd say. (mp) question: Youíve been with this team for two years? (ew) answer: Yes, last year we tried Ama Dablam but got stormed out, ran out of fuel, and time, really. It was only meant to be a short trip. This team works very well together. Itís truly a cohesive team. Iíve noticed no arguments at all.

(mp) question: As you know in the NFB we talk a lot about competing on terms of equality given the proper training and opportunity. This is really new territory for a blind person. You have had to develop the alternative techniques of mountain climbing on your own. Would you elaborate a little about these?
(ew) answer: Well, first of all in terms of opportunity, the NFB has created it through its sponsorship of this expedition as a whole. I think itís great that an organization that believes so strongly in opportunity devotes its resources to creating them. In terms of alternative techniques, you just develop them as you go along. Itís not really brain surgery. Someone walks in front of you with a bear bell just the way that you followed on the way to base camp. Your guide communicates to you the terrain changes, rocks, drop offs, and crevasses. Iíll use two ski polls to plow along and feel ahead much like the way I use the white cane. Around base camp I just memorize spaces, using the trekking polls to follow along some of these gullies that you notice around here, navigating around those large boulders and such. There are often little clues like tent guy wires and the numerous Bhudist prayer flags hanging about. All of these things can serve as landmarks.

(mp) question: You talk about these methods in a very matter of fact way but I found from speaking with your brothers, Marc and Ed, that, at first they would literally place their hands on your shoulders to lead you on the hike. The alternative techniques were carefully developed and perfected over time by you, werenít they?
(ew) answer: Not to sound like bragging, but there were no blind people before me that I knew who really did a lot of trekking, hiking, or climbing seriously so I didnít know there was any future in it. I just thought that it was my destiny to be led and dragged around by others through the mountains. If I wanted to experience the mountains I had to go around with someoneís hand on my neck leading me about. I didnít know there was a next level beyond that. Thatís why itís so good to have positive blind roll models, people who can say, "hey, look here, look whatís possible." Then you have an idea about how far you have the abillity to go. If you donít have those people who forge the ground then you donít realize that there is a future there. So it is really cool when someone burrows there way forward and creates a little opportunity for those behind them.

(mp) question: How did you discover the idea of using the trekking polls as the best way of navigating the trail in place of the white cane?
(ew) answer: I was at an outdoor trade show once and I came across these ski polls. I didnít think they would be very helpful at all going down hill, for example, because they were too short. As it turns out, though, the Leki polls are great because you can make them long or short depending upon the terrain. You can use them to scan your way and to lean on them for balance. The white cane is virtually useless in the mountains because it would snap in about two seconds. On Mt. McKinley, thankfully, there were not many rocks to trip over just a lot of snow.

(mp) question: And now for the big question. This is quite a big expedition. We have a web site and worldwide attention. It is truly a multifaceted expedition with a documentary film crew and the Brown University research study being conducted. What does this expedition really mean to you?
(ew) answer: It is, for me, really just to experience this mountain, to see what itís all about, and to see whether or not it is possible for us to summit. With this mountain everything really has to go right. There has to be a lot of luck, a lot of skill, the weather has to be precisely right, logistics have to be right, and everyone has to be healthy, performing well at high altitude. There are so many factors involved that you canít control. Some of these factors you can control and others you cannot. Itís really a crap shoot whether you can summit or not. But I think that we have done really well so far. Just going through that icefall was truly amazing. Iíve been through it three times now which is pretty historic for a blind person. Who would have thought that a blind person could have gone through the Khumbu icefall, probably the most difficult 2,000 feet of terrain on earth to climb and hike through with all of the ladders, crevasses, narrow trails, and huge blocks of ice everywhere, and stuff falling down? That, in itself, is enough to make a bold statement.

(mp) question: This question is for the blind people who are observing, following, and reading about this expedition. It has been said that we all have our own mountains to climb whether it is learning how to cope as a newly blind person or having more laudable goals which increase with our confidence level. What is your hope of what those blind people might get out of this expedition?
(ew) answer: They will just take whatever they want from it and apply that to their own lives. It is totally personal and individual. I do think that it sends a positive statement to sighted people about blindness. I think that some blind people will look at it and say "Hey, look, a blind person was able to climb high on Mt. Everest." As I said, when people forge a trail like a pioneer it just creates more opportunities behind them. I think it applies to all sorts of areas. Itís totally personal to their lives. It creates higher expectations that sighted people will have of the blind. Maybe an employer will more readily hire a blind applicant or a teacher may have higher expectations of a blind child, so there is hopefully some carry over from this especially when there has been so much publicity around it.

(mp) question: I realize that sometimes, although we donít necessarily ask for it, we find ourselves in a position of being first. You have already been the first blind person to climb a number of mountain peeks as well as the first to reach camp 3 on Everest. Are you hoping not to be the last?
(ew) answer: I could care less whether another blind person after me climbs mountains but what I want is for there to be unlimited opportunities for blind people. If they want to go and do something in their lives, whatever it may be that sparks their interests, I want them to be able to go after it in a confident way with the right opportunity and the right skills and everything that the NFB believes in. So, again, itís totally personal. I donít think it has much to do with mountain climbing. It is really about opportunities and barriers being shattered.

(mp) question: how does that fit into your decision to have two other blind people accompany you to base camp?
(ew) answer: I think because it is not just a story about one blind guy but itís about enjoying the mountains and enjoying whatever your passion is and that it is totally possible for anyone on all levels, to accomplish their dreams. You, for example, with very little experience in hiking or climbing made it to base camp and thatís incredible. Dan Rossi, a good, active, and adventurous guy, probably not ready to climb Mt. Everest, but he made it to Everest base camp which is excellent and a huge task in itself when some sighted people didnít make it at all. It is interesting to me when some people say that blindness is the reason that people fail but there are any number of reasons that determine a personís success or failure. Blindness is the least significant of those factors. It was good to have broadened this beyond just one blind person, itís really about blind people and how they live.

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