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Climbing Blind: Conquering More Than Mountains

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IMAGE Erik Weihenmayer is a 31-year-old daredevil who seems to have been born for adventure. One of the country's best professional rock climbers, he is challenging his limits, a feat made more extraordinary by the fact that he is blind.

Why Seeing Isn't Everything

Weihenmayer was born with retinoschisis , a rare eye disease that can destroy the retina. By age 13, he was completely blind but refused to let that handicap him.

"I didn't see it as something sad," he says. "I looked at it in terms of what I'd be missing and what it would keep me from doing." Which wasn't—and hasn't been—much. In fact, you could argue that Weihenmayer has lived a fuller life than most who can see.

At 16, Weihenmayer enrolled in an outdoor recreational program for blind kids and along with tandem biking and hiking , he learned to rock climb. He was hooked. The sport allowed him to be athletic. He liked the technical nature of rock climbing, and as he says, "It's a great way to experience freedom of movement that you don't have when you're blind."

Initially, Weihenmayer wasn't thinking about making tough climbs. His first goal was to get better and stop relying on people to guide him. For awhile, climbing partners told him where he could find the next hold. Eventually, he asked them not to tell him. "I wanted to be good enough so that when somebody went out with me," says Weihenmayer, who also wrestled competitively in high school and college, "I wasn't a blind climber but an equal."

Whereas other climbers use their eyes to scan for holds, Weihenmayer learned to scan with his hands, and he became efficient. He picked up technical tips. And yes, he fell. But he was always connected to a top rope so he would just dangle.

At 20, Weihenmayer headed to New Hampshire where he made his first big climb. His sense of adventure has since propelled him to bigger challenges. Already, he's climbed the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. He also climbed Africa's highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro (13,000 feet), to get married. Two years later, he spent 19 days climbing before reaching Alaska's Mount McKinley (20,320 feet), North America's highest peak.

In 1999 he climbed South America's highest mountain, Aconcagua (22,850 feet). His accomplishments haven't just occurred on the mountain, though. He hiked the Inca Trail in Peru and rode a tandem bike with his father 1,250 miles across Vietnam.

In 1998, Weihenmayer turned pro, quitting his middle school teaching job. And he admits that being blind has its advantages. "You're like a Jamaican bobsledder," he says.

Training for Adventure

Injuries have forced Weihenmayer to train smarter. Stress fractures in his tibia from running too much, for example, have begun to plague him; they kept him from running a 100-mile race in India. To prevent injury, he varies his workouts and focuses on low-impact activities.

His least favorite workouts are in the health club where he rotates between the elliptical trainer, Stairmaster , and stationary bike.

"A great workout is when you're on an adventure," he says. "It doesn't even feel like training."

So he goes cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. He might run one day, tying a bungee cord between him and a friend or hooking himself to the back of his wife's bike. He will often take a 75-pound pack and hike to the top of a mountain.

Or in Denver where he lives, he'll head to a 51-floor building where he runs up and down the stairs five times. "Now that's a killer workout," he says. At times, he has strapped a pack to his back and plodded up those 51 floors. He also added weight training to his routine.

On Top of the World

"I always feel fragile on the mountain," Weihenmayer admits. Butterflies float nervously in his stomach. But he quells them with mental strength . "You have to surround yourself with confidence and not question anything," he says.

His time on the rock is like meditation. He is concentrating so hard that an hour will often pass without him knowing. Every now and then, though, he takes a second to absorb the sensation. "I just can't believe where I am," he says.

Those times, though, are rare, for more often than not, Weihenmayer is racing against the elements of nature. In Colorado, for example, climbers can expect either snow or lightning every day so the challenge is to ascend and descend before a storm hammers.

"There's always some sense of nervousness," he says, recalling his climb to South America's highest peak. He was at high camp at 21,000 feet when a storm blew in and forced his group to descend. Failure, he says, goes with the territory.

"A friend told me that when you try big things, you have to expect to fail a lot," he says. "Mountains humble you, and that's a good thing because we take so much for granted."

When Weihenmayer climbs, he draws much of his strength from a man named Terry Fox who became his hero when he was 10. Fox ran the entire length of Canada on one leg. He had lost the other leg to cancer. He was attempting to run across the United States when he contracted cancer in his other leg and passed away. Weihenmayer has never forgotten Fox's courage. "Your external frame can be fragile and flawed," he says, "but it's what inside of you that enables you to succeed."

Weihenmayer believes, however, that fear stops most people from accomplishing. "People have the potential to do great things if only they could get over their fears," he says.

Going Up!

So where does he go from here? Up, of course. Weihenmayer has plans to climb the highest peak on every continent. He encourages people not to let fear or other people's expectations hold them back.

"If I'd listened to everybody, I'd just be sitting on my butt now," he says. Although he climbs because he loves it, he admits that part of him likes doing things nobody thought he could do. "Other people's expectations can limit you, so you have to set your own limits."

  • National Federation of the Blind

    www.nfb.org