Eric Weihenmayer grew up in Weston, Connecticut, a town in the northeastern United States, about eighty kilometers east of New York City. When he was thirteen, he became totally blind as the result of a rare genetic disease, retinoschisis.
When he was thirty-three, on May 25, 2001, Eric stood on the summit of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world. He was the first blind person to do this.
Before he went blind, Erik had been very athletic; he had played basketball and football; he had spent a lot of time on his bicycle and his skateboard. But after he lost his sight, he couldn’t do any of these things. He felt frustrated for a while, but then he discovered wrestling—a sport where blindness was not a serious disadvantage. A few years later, he was good enough to participate in a national junior championship.
When he was sixteen, at a summer camp, Erik started rock climbing. Climbing was even better than wrestling: he could use his hands and the rocks didn’t move.
After he finished high school Erik went to university in Boston —about 200 kilometers from Weston. He got a Bachelor’s degree and then a Master’s in education. When he graduated, he found a job teaching in a primary school in Phoenix, Arizona, in the southwestern part of the US. In the West, Erik had plenty of opportunities for rock climbing. He also took up ice climbing and mountaineering.
In the next few years, Erik climbed El Capitan, in California, one of most difficult rock climbs in North America, and Polar Circus, a high frozen waterfall in Alberta, Canada. He also summited, the highest mountains on five continents: in North America, South America, Europe, Africa, and Antarctica.
After so many successful climbs on difficult mountains, Erik began to wonder if he could summit Everest, but he decided that because of his handicap that would be impossible.
Then he met Pasquale Scaturro. Pasquale, who had already summited Everest, asked Eric if he wanted to do the climb, and Eric enthusiastically said he did. Pasquale said he would try to organize an expedition that included Erik. He would lead it himself. He applied to the National Federation of the Blind asking them to sponsor the expedition. They agreed and donated $250,000.
Everest was first climbed in 1953. In the following fifty years, 147 climbers died on the mountain. Conditions on the mountain are very difficult. Climbers often get sick from bad food and water. Because of the extreme altitude, all climbers suffer from oxygen deprivation, which can cause mental confusion and may lead to falls and other accidents. Bad weather can lead to long waits in isolation and the extreme cold can cause frostbite.
The most dangerous part of the climb is not near the summit but lower down, on the ‘Khumbu Icefall.’ The icefall is a steep glacier that covers a long section of the route up Everest. The ice in the Khumbu moves several feet every year—much more quickly than glacial ice usually does. So the terrain is always changing and it is impossible to make permanent paths. Every expedition has to find its own way around huge blocks of ice and across deep crevasses.
The terrain on the Khumbu was by far the worst Erik had ever experienced. There were no paths, and because everything was so unfamiliar, it was impossible for him to use his sense of hearing and his sense of touch to help him find the way. He had to take thousands of small, careful steps over crumbly ice. He had to jump over narrow crevasses after measuring them with his climbing pole, and he had to walk across wider ones on temporary bridges. He had a bad fall and hurt his nose by hitting it on a block of ice. When he finally reached the camp at the top of the icefall, he was exhausted. When he got into his tent, he fell asleep so quickly that Pasquale had to take his boots off for him. The average time for an experienced climber making a first trip across the icefall was around seven hours. It had taken Eric thirteen.
Normally, climbers going up Everest make many trips back and forth across the Khumbu Icefall. There are two reasons for this. First, supplies and equipment needed for the final stages of the ascent have to be carried to the camp at the top of the glacier. Second, by making many trips, the climbers can ‘acclimatize‘—in other words, they can get used to working in air with reduced amounts of oxygen before moving on toward the summit.
When the other members of the team realized that Erik’s blindness was going to be a particularly big handicap on the Khumbu, they suggested that Erik rest in the camp while they carried up the supplies. But he rejected this idea. He was determined to be a full member of the team. He was setting up his own tent. He was looking after his own equipment. And he was going to do his job on the Khumbu. By the time he made his tenth crossing, his time was down to around five hours.
After the Khumbu, things went well for Eric and the other members of the team. Nineteen of the twenty-one members summited, a better percentage than on any previous expedition. Eric’s team was stopped on their way to the summit by a bad storm—high wind, blowing snow, thunder and lightning, but, eventually, the weather cleared and they got to the top. On the last steep slopes Eric felt his blindness gave him an advantage. It was dark, so no one could see much, and he was better than the others at using his hands to find his way.
-information from: TIME Magazine, 2001, (Karl Taro Greenfeld); USA Today, 01.06.07, (Jeff Zillgitt); www.everestnews.com/ewkos802.htm; www.provethemwrong.com/weihenmayer.htm; www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/interviews/weihenmayer.asp; “The Connection,” National Public Radio (US), 03.10