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May 2, 2001

From: Maurice Peret

A View from the Khumbu

As members of the 2001 NFB Everest expedition filter back up to base camp from their rest, relaxation, and caloric intake in preparation for their summit bid, I thought I'd touch upon a topic which seems to me to be at the very core of the meaning and purpose of this expedition. It is, moreover, a question that tens of thousands of blind people confront in various forms every day when applying for work, participating in sporting events, serving on a jury, or carrying out any of the other activities of a fulfilling life. It comes down to this question: is this blind man, Erik Weihenmayer, climbing Mt. Everest as an equal partner with his teammates? It is almost universally accepted that with teams fixing ropes and ladders being tied and wedged across dangerous crevasses by someone else, really no soloists are climbing on the south side of Mt. Everest.

In an interview I conducted with Erik a few days ago we talked at some length about his having developed alternative techniques over the course of his climbing career. In addition to scanning the trail in front of him with his trekking poles and ice ax, Erik follows the sound of a bear bell worn or carried by a team member, who also gives him verbal descriptions about the terrain ahead. The nine other climbers on his team take turns shouldering the responsibility of assisting him in this way. What Erik does with the information provided to him in these alternate ways is up to him. As with climbers using visual cues, a misplaced foot or ice ax could result in injury or worse. Erik's physical and mental fortitude carry him up the mountain. His body's ability to acclimatize to conditions of diminished oxygen supply and his overall health determine how quickly he climbs and whether or not he moves forward or turns back.

Erik's first climb through the Khumbu icefall took him nearly 13 hours. By the third time he had cut the time nearly in half. His climbing skills have been proven repeatedly on other mountain peaks, and his climbing on Everest demonstrates again just how skillful and strong a climber he is. Like the others on the team Erik climbs carrying a pack loaded with his own personal gear and other necessary supplies for upper camps on the mountain. In short, he requires assistance from his teammates, but he is a skilled climber, and he contributes his share in carrying loads and setting up camp.

Erik and Pasquale Scaturro, Expedition Leader, working together, assembled this strong, talented group of climbers for this courageous attempt to summit Everest. Erik based his choices largely upon his knowledge of climbers with whom he had climbed and trained over time. Every member of the team enjoys climbing with Erik and finds enjoyment and challenge in providing the information he needs. The entire team agrees that the rapport among them lends strength and focus to their effort, and it is certainly due in part to the fact that Erik is blind and is providing an unusual kind of leadership.

As a public speaker Erik has also developed important corporate relationships that helped get the expedition off the ground and have given it public attention. Such an endeavor costs a tremendous amount of money, and anyone hoping to summit Mt. Everest must face the problem of raising the money to finance the climb. It was Erik Weihenmayer who came to the National Federation of the Blind to request sponsorship of this ambitious undertaking. Erik made the case while talking with Marc Maurer, President of the Federation, that the blind consumer group's goal of demonstrating to the world that blind people can be full participants in their communities if given the chance would be given noteworthy reinforcement by this climb. In other words, Erik's contacts and contributions have absolutely made the expedition possible. Clearly Erik more than carries his own weight as part of this team.

Another question that some may ask is: is the ability to see the way ahead an essential part of a successful climb? Those who have reached the summit of Mt. Everest, sometimes under white-out conditions, will admit that the ability to use alternative methods of finding the way can absolutely determine survival. In his book, "Touch the Top of the World," Erik describes an instance in which he and a friend were climbing in Yosemite National Park when darkness fell before they were down. Erik had to guide his friend step by step down the mountain and out of the park.

I'd like to offer another example from personal observation. Ruth Sager, a blind woman with whom I work, designs and implements programs for the elderly blind throughout Maryland. Her job necessarily takes her to remote parts of the state, often not served by public transportation. For this reason a driver is employed to get her there. Her job also requires access to up-to-the-minute information about her clients which often cannot be Brailled in sufficient time. So she uses the services of a reader. Ruth has a number of years of experience providing valuable training to blind folks of all ages as well as in the private sector. One could ask a similar question: are print reading and a drivers' license essential parts of Ruth's job? The older blind people whom Ruth serves would answer with an emphatic "no." Over and over members of the National Federation of the Blind have demonstrated that as role models of creativity and determination blind people carry their share and build a team in uniquely valuable ways.

This question of whether independence means doing something alone or building on interdependence and responsibility remains an important one, for it must be clearly answered by all blind people who hope to take advantage of the opportunities for which they are otherwise completely qualified. The National Federation of the Blind vehemently insists that with the proper training and opportunity blind people can compete on terms of equality with their sighted peers. Can they find substitute ways of performing every visual task their sighted counterparts can? Of course not. But when society evaluates blind people for what they can do rather than focusing on those things which lack of sight prevents them from doing, the balance almost always shifts in favor of considering people on their merit.

Is Erik Weihenmayer climbing Mt. Everest as an equal partner with his teammates? For all the reasons I have outlined above we can respond with an adamant "Yes!" If you do not agree, I welcome and invite your replies, questions, or challenges. Together, step by step, with Erik Weihenmayer the National Federation of the Blind is changing what it means to be blind.

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