"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 Weinhenmayer. "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."
Thirty 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
Eric Weihenmayer broke new ground when he began leading
climbs. Here he leads up a sheer rock face in Moab, Utah.
Erik Weihenmayer is also
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 weight lifter. 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
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 spoke volumes about the character 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
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 legitimate 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 exhilarating 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
When I ask about an particular
highlight or memorable climb, 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."
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 drop-off 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 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
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
Mark Reiman is the editor-in-chief of Incredible People Magazine. You
can email him at mark@IncrediblePeople.com
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