The week before freshman year of high school is stressful enough under the best of circumstances. Losing your eyesight a week before high school starts takes it to a whole new level.
Erik Weihenmayer experienced just that, and while that would seem to be something that could limit one’s life, Weihenmayer went on to do things most of us can only dream about – in 2001, he became the first blind climber to summit Mount Everest; in 2014, he solo kayaked the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon; he’s also reached the top of each of the Seven Summits. He’s a best-selling author and motivational speaker, and in 2005, co-founded his nonprofit No Barriers USA, which helps others overcome adversity. He and his family live in Golden.
Weihenmayer, co-author of the book, “No Barriers: A Blind Man’s Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon,” which he wrote with Buddy Levy, will be in Durango next week as part of the Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado’s Making a Difference Speaker Series. While here, he will meet with Durango High School and Fort Lewis College students and speak at the Community Concert Hall at FLC.
An adventurous kidGrowing up, Weihenmayer said despite the fact he was born legally blind, he could see well enough and could even participate in sports. It wasn’t until his middle school years – sixth, seventh and eighth grade – when sports started getting more competitive, his eyesight started to get worse and worse, until ultimately, he lost it completely.
“I was really adventurous. As a kid in Connecticut, I didn’t know the direction of adventure – I didn’t know how to wrap my head around adventure. So adventure was like climbing up to my friend’s roof and figuring out how high of a roof can we jump off of and not break our legs? And where do we need to land? Or, can I jump off this giant boulder and jump over this pile of boulders and land in this pile of leaves. Or, can we find this house that’s half under construction and climb to the top of it?” he said. “As a kid, you just don’t know. And also, blindness – going blind, I wasn’t able to just be doing traditional sports and stuff like that, so I think it made me – I’m not saying lash out, but it made me pursue things hard.”
Weihenmayer said his staying active despite his vision loss was important both to him and his parents, so when he received a newsletter in Braille from a group that would take blind kids on recreational activities such as horeseback riding, sailing, tandem biking and climbing, he took advantage and fell in love with climbing.
“I will say going blind forced me to realize I wasn’t going to be a great baseball player or a basketball player, so it sort of limits your possibilities, so then you have to start searching, and rock climbing was one of the things I found that I loved,” he said. “It was so tactile, it was so engaging, it was something that I thought like blindness – that’s not my picture of what blindness was. My idea of blindness was sitting on the sidelines and missing out on everything fun in life, and going rock climbing was this great door-opener of saying, ‘Hey, there’s adventure ahead here.’ So it was sort of thrust upon me, it wasn’t necessarily something that I pursued specifically.”
It was during high school that Weihenmayer lost his mother when she was killed in a car crash. After her death, his father took him and his brothers on a trip to Peru as a way to bring them all closer together.
“The trip, which included a hike to nearly 14,000 feet, started a tradition of annual family treks to remote parts of the world and fueled my love of the mountaineering life,” he wrote in “No Barriers.”
After high school, Weihenmayer went on to Boston College and then into teaching and coaching wrestling. He said his love for climbing also inspired him to try skydiving, paragliding, skiing and ice climbing.
And then came Mount Everest and the Grand Canyon and No Barriers USA.
Not done yetWith all he’s accomplished, Weihenmayer said he’s not done going on adventures and pushing his boundaries: “Not even close. I mean, the problem is not with what to do, it’s what you can do with the time you have left. So, I’ve never had any problems figuring out what to do, I just have to narrow it down because you can’t do everything.
“I have a tick-list a mile long. I could talk to you for two hours about things I want to do,” he said. At the top of his list: “I’d like to go off to The Bugaboos this summer, I’ve never been there. They’re these gigantic granite domes, 3,000-foot climbs. You camp on the glacier and climb these things. I’d like to go do Lotus Flower Tower, which is this incredible crack climb in the Yukon. I’d like to go to the Dolomites and climb this north face route called the Civetta, it’s like 35 pitches, probably take you 20 hours to climb it. I’d like to climb the north face of the Eiger someday if I ever got the right conditions.”
Weihenmayer’s push to challenge himself is the lesson he wants to give to others: Life can be tough, but you can be tougher.
There are two versions of Weihenmayer’s “No Barriers” book – a standard adult version, and a special edition for young adults. For young people, he offers this advice:
“I think life is full of challenge and struggle and things that go wrong, and yes, those things do create honestly some trauma. I think it’s impossible to get through life without trauma. Those bad things that happen to you, those unfair things that happen to every kid along the way, they don’t have to be the reason you fall short. They can actually be the energy or the catalyst to propel you forward off into a new place,” he said. “The tricky part is you don’t know where that catalyst is launching you. You may think you’re going to a certain place, but that journey drives you to a new place that sometimes is even better. But that’s the mystery of it all, I think. It’s not all like a scientific process, it’s sort of – I call it ‘alchemy,’ this idea of taking lead and turning it into gold, to energy to innovation to love, to having great friends – those struggles in a backwards way are gifts that you can use to elevate the world.”