By Andrea Tarquini, translated by Margherita Giordano.
Erik Weihenmayer has climbed Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain, and descended Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe, skiing to base camp. Now he is preparing to ride the rapids of the Grand Canyon’s Colorado River in a kayak. Extreme sports always offer extreme challenges, but for Weihenmayer, the level of difficulty is different: he is blind, after contracting retinoschisis at the age of three.
Weihenmayer, 44, an American of German origin, lost his sight gradually until his eyes were removed as a teenager and as a young man, to be replaced with prosthetics. “I was not afraid of going blind, but of ending up marginalised,” he told Lukas Eberle, a writer at the German newspaper “Der Spiegel”. “Sometimes it’s frustrating, it’s a daily struggle with yourself and with your limitations that you would almost pull out your hair,” said Weihenmayer.
After graduating with honours he took a teaching job, but soon decided the quiet life was not for him.
“At the end of the 90s I decided to take the plunge and to devote myself to sports”, Weihenmayer says. He began by climbing Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America, then Kilimanjaro. But that wasn’t enough; nothing seemed to satisfy his desire to prove to himself and to others his ability to achieve what seemed to be impossible. Accompanied by a helper, he went to Vietnam with a mountain bike tandem, and rode across the country for 1,740 km.
Today Weihenmayer relates his exploits at meetings and conferences where tens of thousands of people come to listen. He is in demand everywhere, from his native US to Hong Kong, Thailand, Chile and Germany.
“There are some days in your life when everything is as difficult as if you were blind and had to climb a mountain”, he says. “But you must not be defeated by those days. They can transform you into pioneers, they can make you turn lead into gold”. Weihenmayer earns a good living as a lay preacher of the courage to live: only Bill Clinton and a few other speakers are paid more than him.
His most extreme adventure was climbing Mount Everest, the roof of the world. Erik’s Nepalese Sherpas, seeing him move easily and nimbly, could not believe that he was blind. They tried to gently take away the snow and the ice from his face to check if he could see, and in the end he had to take out one of his artificial eyes and show them his empty orbit to persuade them.
Being a sightless champion of extreme sports is tough. Weihenmayer has developed some personal techniques and systems: when climbing a mountain, he wears special sunglasses with an integrated minicam, transmitting signals to a sensor. This sensor is connected to his tongue by a cable, and he has learned to use it to recognise the shape of rocks. When skiing or racing, he always has a helper, but he has learned to distinguish between each type of soil, from sand to asphalt, by the sound of his footsteps and the surrounding noises.
“I partially put my life in the hands of others, of those who accompany me; only sport can give me this special feeling of confidence”, he says. “When I am on a mountain, or in the most remote places, I take a great delight in this feeling, as I cannot see the splendid views around me.”
Weihenmayer has founded a charity, “Soldiers to Summits”, which organises climbing groups with veterans from Iran or Afghanistan, some of whom are blind, have lost their limbs or experienced severe trauma. He gives them back the extreme but normal sensations of life by climbing mountains from Nepal to Ecuador.
Now, for his latest feat in the Grand Canyon, Weihenmayer is being trained by US Olympic canoeist Casey Eichfeld. “I help him to control his feelings and nerves while going down with the kayak,” Eichfeld says, but when asked if he would ever come down the rapids of the Colorado blindfolded, the Olympian is clear. “Absolutely not. Never!”
NOTE: Article reproduced with permission from the Italian newspaper “La Repubblica”, where it first appeared on 25 February, 2013. Written by Andrea Tarquini and translated for E-Access Bulletin by Margherita Giordano. Our thanks to Margherita.