Climber's vision comes from within

Mission: With the highest peaks on four continents under his belt, adventurer Erik Weihenmayer now plans to tackle Mount Everest. Oh, yes, he's blind.

March 15, 2001|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN OUTDOORS WRITER

Erik Weihenmayer almost called his autobiography "Climbing Blind: Are We There Yet?"

The blond, 32-year-old adventurer, who has stood atop the highest mountains on four continents and hopes to add Everest to the list in May, hasn't seen it all.

He's been blind since he was 13.

But Weihenmayer has built a life on doing things others have told him he could not. Skiing, bicycling, rock climbing and sky diving have all been checked off on his personal to-do list.

His life's story was published last month, sandwiched between his climb of 16,864-foot Vinson Massif, at the bottom of the world, and his attempt of 29,035-foot Everest, at the top.

If Weihenmayer reaches the summit, he will be the first blind climber to reach Everest's peak and will be within striking distance of his goal: the highest point on each of the continents.

Yesterday in Baltimore, he took on a smaller challenge as a sort of warm-up: the side of a building.

But regardless of the size of the obstacle, Weihenmayer's guiding principle is the same: Life, he says, has been figuring out the difference between what he can't do because he's blind and what he can't do because he won't push himself.

"You struggle with self-awareness," he said. "It's like driving a car. It ain't gonna happen for me. But I am going to get to work tomorrow."

Weihenmayer's expedition is being bankrolled by the National Federation for the Blind, which is using it to "make a bold statement about the capabilities of blind people."

But the veteran mountaineer, who chafes at being called a blind climber, understands the paradox of his undertaking.

"In an ideal world, a blind person could do all sorts of cool stuff and nobody would think twice about it," he said. But we're not there yet. Now, a blind person ties his shoes and people say, `Wow, that's inspiring.' "

Blind people, he said, need a symbol to rally around, something the Everest expedition might supply.

"Helen Keller is the most famous blind person, and she's been dead 30 years," Weihenmayer said. "A blind person on top of the world is such a powerful image, it shatters the stereotype."

The challenge of climbing Everest can be enormous for anyone. Brutally cold temperatures, vicious winds and the thin air of high altitude batter the human body. More than 160 people have died on the mountain's slopes, many of them while descending.

But Weihenmayer has survived and conquered Alaska's Denali (20,320 feet), Kilimanjaro (19,340 feet) in Africa and Aconcagua (22,834 feet) in South America.

Gradually going blind as a child, he said, helped teach him about loss and acceptance. "On an expedition, you have to accept and live by the mountain's rules. You can take only what the mountain will give you."

Still, he says that while he accepts what he cannot change, there are things he misses.

"I did enjoy looking at people's faces," Weihenmayer said. "I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't like to see my 8-month-old daughter's face or see my wife."

He leaves for Nepal on March 23, accompanied by Maurice Peret, a 35-year-old Baltimore resident who will serve as communications manager at base camp.

Last night, Weihenmayer came to Baltimore from his Golden, Colo., home to say goodbye to his sponsors and other friends in the climbing community by climbing the side of the four-story National Federation for the Blind headquarters on Johnson Street.

The climb was assisted by Earth Treks, the Columbia climbing center. Earth Treks owner Chris Warner, a veteran mountaineer, will be attempting Everest at the same time as Weihenmayer, but on the opposite side.

"I can't imagine how hard it will be," said Warner, whose Everest attempt last year was halted at 25,000 feet by white-out conditions. "It's a lot harder than anything I've ever done." Although Peret will go only as far as base camp at 17,800 feet, the eight-day trek there from the town of Lukla in Nepal will be daunting. The walk starts at 9,200 feet and follows a steep, rocky trail through forests and across rivers.

Peret, who is also blind, said he has been running several times a week and spending an hour every morning on a treadmill on an incline.

"I'm doing as much as I can to get into shape, but a lot of it is just going to happen, and I'm going to have to adapt," said Peret, who also noted he is "active but by no means an athlete." Weihenmayer and his 10-man team will follow the South Col route used by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953 when they were the first to the summit. The route was also used by author Jon Krakauer in 1996 in the ill-fated climb that killed eight people and was the basis for the best seller "Into Thin Air."

To navigate up the mountain, Weihenmayer will use two long trekking poles. Those on his team will guide him by voice commands, and the lead climber will wear a bell.

If he joins the exclusive club of 800 people who have reached the top, Weihenmayer said, he will enjoy the accomplishment and won't be thinking about the sights he cannot see.

"The view from the top of Everest is 1 percent of why people climb. If people only went for the view, we might as well have one guy climb and take a picture for us.

"I'll be excited that I found a way to be there," he said. "I'd be greedy to ask for anything more."

Reports on Erik Weihenmayer's climb can be found online at www.2001everest.com.

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