Hope
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Volume V Issue XXXVII

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Seattle Washington USA

 

ERIC WEIHENMAYER: SETTING HIS SIGHTS HIGH
by MARKREIMAN

 

"People have the inner resources to become anything they want to be. Challenge (in a person's life) just becomes the vehicle for tapping into those inner resources," begins Eric Weihenmayer. "Life isn't meant to be easy. It is meant to be exciting and challenging. But you've got to understand that it's never going to be easy."

picture2Thirty year old Weihenmayer lives in Colorado and thrives on challenge. He is a marathon runner, a long-distance biker, a sky diver, and a well known, highly experienced rock and mountain climber. He has climbed the highest peak on three of the world's seven continents and scaled the Nose of El Capitan. He plans to attempt an ascent of Mount Everest, the world's highest peak, in 2001.

Eric Weihenmayer says climbing is a "sensory overload".

 

Erik Weihenmayer is also totally blind.

Erik grew up one of three boys in an active, athletic family. One brother was captain of the high school baseball and basketball team, another was a weightlifter. His father had flown fighter planes in Viet Nam and his mother owned her own business.

"Some people look to celebrities like Michael Jordan. I couldn't care less about people like that. For me, it's my family," he says. "My dad encouraged me do go out and do things. He knew that part of life was trying things and falling on your face...that was just part of the equation."

Erik shares a story of being 12 years old and in the process of going blind. He would ride his dirt bike down the family driveway and, making like a junior Evel Knievel, launch himself off a homemade ramp, fly through the air, and attempt to land on another ramp some distance away. Erik's dad watched him struggle, seeing him sometimes miss a ramp, and day after day bringing his bloody knees and elbows back to the house.

"Instead of stopping me from doing that," Erik recounts, "he spray painted the ramps bright orange so that I could see them for another 6 months."

I had expected this story to be about what a daredevil he was as a child. Instead, the point of the story that Erik makes speaks volumes about the character of his father and what he understood about his son.

Weihenmayer concludes saying, "May dad was always trying to help me find a way to make things happen, rather than being another barrier in my life. Rather than limit me, my parents worked hard to create opportunity."

Weinhenmayer was born with a genetic eye disease called retinoschisis. Born with 20/200 vision, he could read with thick glasses and catch a basketball that was bounced to him. But at the age of 12 his vision began to further deteriorate until, at the age of 14, he was totally blind.

It isn't easy being a young adolescent in any case, let alone an active boy who has lost his sight. "Looking back on it, I know there was a lot of anger (inside me). I fought using a cane, fought learning Braille, fought anything that would label me as a blind person. I didn't want to be known as The Blind Kid. I wanted to be known for doing or being something 'cool'," he remembers. As a result, he floundered emotionally and academically. "I flunked math my freshman year of high school because I hadn't learned Braille."

But also during his freshman year he discovered high school wrestling and found that he could compete with sighted people on an equal level. "I had some success," Erik said, "and that did something for my self confidence. I began to think that maybe I could go out and learn some of these things...maybe blindness isn't such a big deal. So I started using my cane and learning Braille. I began to find legitmate things that I could do as a blind person and it sort of turned my life around." In Weihenmayer's senior year he placed 2nd in the state championship finals He adds, "Accepting myself as I am with all my strengths and weaknesses was really a starting point."

Weihenmayer discovered rock climbing at the age of 16 at the Carrol Center for the Blind. He had immediate love for the combination of athletic ability, intellectual challenge, and sensory input he experienced. "Experiencing nature so directly through your senses, feeling all of the different textures on the rock with your hands, the feeling of the wind coming off the rock face, and listening to all the sounds. For a blind person," he explains, "it was like sensory overload." Climbing became his passion.

Blind people had been rock climbing for years, following other climbers who lead the way and placed clips and bolts into the rock. Secured by ropes attached on one end to the clips and bolts, and on the other end to the blind climber, climbing was an exhilirating but safe sport similar in many respects to the "Ropes Course" that many team-building activities use. It is a great way to help people realize that they can do more than they thought they could. But blind climbers had never "taken it to the next level", as Weinhenmayer puts it, and become lead climbers. Until Erik Weihenmayer.

"I am not the best climber in the world but I do climb with some of the best," says Erik. "I just want to be an asset to the climbing team and be a real part of the reason that a climb is successful."

Weihenmayer recalls a climb in Yosemite as he was training for the 3,000 foot climb of the Nose of El Capitan ("El Cap" to rock climbing enthusiasts). The Nose is the most difficult route up one of the most famous and difficult most rock faces in America.

As Erik describes it, "We were training for the Nose of El Cap, climbing a different rock face of maybe a thousand feet. It's generally a long one day climb and we 'topped out' in the dark. The only problem was that my climbing partner had forgotten his helmet light."

Oops.

Erik became the lead climber on a descent in which neither climber could see, but one of them had some extraordinary experience on his side, and both had confidence in his abilities. Weihenmayer was able to guide his sighted partner down the rock face in the dark by actually placing his partner's feet in the holes. Once they reached the narrow trail, a sheer dropoff awaited any misstep. Erik continued to take the lead, relying on the firmness of the path under his feet to keep him safe, just as he had always done. Now he was doing it for two.

"It's a tremendous experience to be the leader when you are the person best prepared for the job. And in this case, I was able to use my abilities to make our climb, especially the descent, successful. I was able to make my 'weakness', if you want to call it that, my greatest strength."

The challenges that rock and mountain climbing present are a very accurate metaphor for the challenges of life and Erik has discovered that he is a climber. Erik says, "Some people look at what they've got and then make decisions about what they want to do. I think about what I would like to do with my life and then figure out how I can get myself to rise to that level."

In 1968, a year before Weihenmayer was born, Robert Kennedy concluded many presidential campaign speeches with these so similar and now familiar words, later echoed at his funeral by his brother, Ted. "Some men see things as they are and say, 'Why?'.I dream of things that never were and say, 'Why not?'

When the time comes for people to remember Erik Weihenmayer, he wants to be remembered as a great climber, a good friend, and a loving husband. He wants to be remembered as an encourager:: someone who, through their actions, gave others courage. And he wants to be remembered as a person who shattered people's beliefs in the limitations they place on themselves.

So far, I think he's three-for-three

 

Eric Weihenmayer lives with his wife near Denver, Colorado and leads several climbing expeditions a year. He also speaks to schools, civic, and business audiences across the country. You can contact him at hsights@travelin.com

 

MarkreimanMark Reiman is the Editor-In-Chief of Incredible People. You can contact him at mark@IncrediblePeople.com

 

Hope      Courage     Determination      Compassion
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