Erik Weihenmayer Q & A
>Erik Weihenmayer is someone we can all marvel in. It’s very easy to be inspired by all of Erik’s amazing accomplishments, but what I admired most was his sense of humor, and his work ethic. Everyone might not make it to the top of Everest, but we can all summit our own personal Everest by using adversity as the fuel to our fire.
Now let’s talk with Erik…about wine…about adventure…about dealing with adversity.
Do you have a favorite wine?
I especially enjoy Shiraz, an Australian red which may be the country’s highest profile wine. Someone told me the grape first came to Australia from the Rhone area of France many years ago.
Do wine and skiing mix?
Sure they mix, but only after you’re done skiing! And I have a rule: when guiding, no drinking.
You have just returned from Istanbul. What did you do there?
I had two speaking engagements, with Pepsi/Frito Lay and with P&G, but then I climbed Mt. Ararat in eastern Turkey, where Noah’s Ark is supposed to be buried. We didn’t find it, but we did find the summit. It was much colder than expected for this time of year. Heavy snow had covered the high mountain, and for my team, the climbing was a little treacherous. Luckily, though, trekking in snow is much easier for me. There are few rocks and mini-boulders to avoid, and you simply slog your way to the top. We climbed with three Iranians, mountaineers we have been in contact with for several years. One has translated my book, “Touch the Top of the World,” into Farsi, and is now working to get it approved by a special committee which reviews all books and films for the Iranian market, so that it can be published.
Please tell us the Australian champagne story.
Kosciuzsko, the tallest peak in Australia at 7,200 feet, was more a bump than a mountain – by far the easiest of the Seven Summits. The real work of Mt. Everest, as well as my five other continental summits, was behind us. We figured Kosciuzsko was only a ceremonial walk to the finish line to complete my seven-year quest. When I told a local Aussie of our plans, he responded, “Ah! What a lovely stroll. I did it with my dog last summer.” We planned interviews over a satellite feed to news programs around the world for the historic moment I finished. We even had a bottle of champagne along with us for a celebratory toast at the top.
However, it seems that whenever we finally let up and assume something will be easy, we are presented with a dramatic reminder that life involves suffering. Climbing my Seventh Summit felt like a mini-version of the Odyssey, as if the winds had been unleashed against us. From the moment we arrived at Kosciuzsko during the Australian spring, a series of huge low-pressure systems, half the size of the continent, repeatedly dumped snow over the mountain. The winds near the top roared at eighty miles per hour. After waiting five days for the weather to clear, and with no improvement in sight, we made the decision to go for it. What match would little Kosciuzsko be against hardened mountaineers who had summited the tallest mountains in the world?
Only a half hour out of the parking lot, as the howling wind roared down the slopes and drove hard bullets of ice directly into our faces, I was already questioning the wisdom of continuing. One of my teammates was actually lifted up by the wind and sent sliding 100 yards down the snow slope. When he waved up that he was fine, and we knew he wasn’t hurt, we all let out a relieved laugh.
It seemed like the winds had focused their attention on our team, because next I was struck by a tremendous gust. The wind flung me back into Eric Alexander, who was right behind me, and we both went down in a pile. We were a tangled heap of arms and legs as we slid twenty feet down the hard-packed slope before Eric managed to dig his ice axe into the ice and stop us.
As we got above the tree line, we were faced with an indistinct wind-scoured landscape, made even more disorienting by the blizzard. Jeff Evans took the lead and had to navigate with a compass. For three hours, we wandered around through the whiteout looking for the actual summit.
Finally, after trudging up a last snow face, with the wind fighting us at every step, Jeff described to me the truck-sized boulder layered in ice that signified my Seventh Summit. It took four of us holding tightly to our banner to pull it out of my pack and hoist it for a few summit shots as the wind tried to rip it away. Then, sticking stubbornly to our summit celebration, we popped open the bottle of champagne. The cork sailed away, zinging, I assume, past all seven continents on its way down. As I took a drink, the fierce wind tipped the neck of the bottle, caught the liquid, and plastered half the contents across my face and Gore-Tex suit. The irony wasn’t lost on us. This summit, typically host to T-shirt clad tourists, young children, and dogs, was doing its best to blow us off the mountain. In fact, of my Seven Summits, little Kosciuzsko’s brutal winds topped them all. Nothing else was even close.
If I had confronted that kind of adversity on my first summit, it might have sapped my will to even attempt the others. But along the journey, my tolerance for suffering had expanded, and by the time we reached Kosciuzsko’s summit, all we could do was laugh. In fact, we must have all looked like lunatics, covered in frozen champagne and braced together against the hurricane-force gale as we howled with laughter. Lovely Kosciuzsko had done everything in its power to make our experience as memorable as our ascents of far bigger mountains. Instead of a ceremonial stroll to the finish line, we had to work for every inch—and our accomplishment made us proud. (Excerpts from Erik’s “The Adversity Advantage.”)
Is it easier to be adventurous being blind?
Probably yes, because every day and every experience is an adventure for me. When I walk from my home into town, it can become an adventure. One day, I was going with my guidedog to the local gym. We got to a place in the road where I knew the gym was straight ahead. But Wizard would not budge. Irritated, I commanded him, “Forward,” but when I stepped forward it was into a fairly deep pool of water. So, I went home to change my sneakers and then started out again.
As I learned to live as a blind person, I realized that blindness truly makes life a big adventure, and that’s how I try to look at it. Sure, there are frustrations, but more often than not, if you take a step back and look at the situation, one should probably just laugh. So, you have a choice. You can either let adversity crush you, as it does many people, or you can use its energy to propel you on the pathway to your dreams.
How amazing was climbing Everest?
Most people focus on me being the only blind person to summit Everest, but the even better story is that 18 of my teammates stood on the top that day as well, which is the most climbers from a single team to summit Everest in a single day. We had no superstars, just good solid climbers, but there was tremendous cohesiveness around the vision of helping a blind person to stand on top of the world.
I could have been standing there alone. Instead, and much better, was standing with all my teammates who have made this feat possible. Time Magazine called it perhaps the greatest team to ever climb on Everest, which is the ultimate compliment.
How did you get involved with speaking?
Shortly after my climb of Mt. McKinley in Alaska in 1995, which was the first of my continental summits, we started getting inquiries about movie and book rights, tv shows and magazine articles, and speaking engagements, mostly from non-profits and schools.
My dad was serving as my manager (he still is), and he arranged 8 talks at private schools in one week.
Even the small speaking fees represented huge money to me then, but it was really a tough road, because by the 5th or 6th presentation I honestly couldn’t remember whether I had already told them the story I was about to share. From there, it just grew, mostly by referrals and good testimonials. Now I am speaking around the world, occasionally sharing platforms with people like Secretary Colin Powell, General Norman Schwarzkopf, Prime Minister Tony Blair and other heads of state.
Even my corporate talks, though, have had their ups and downs. My very first presentation at a big conference for a Fortune 500 firm was at AT&T. Twelve hundred people were packed into the auditorium. I was given a glowing introduction, and was warming the audience up with a few stories which had them laughing and cheering. I was just ready to plunge into the real message when a loud alarm interrupted my presentation.. I wasn’t quite sure what it was, until I heard people getting up from their seats and exiting the room. Then I realized it was a fire alarm drill, and I went outside with the conference head. We didn’t begin filing back in for 30 minutes. My momentum was doused. Cold water had been thrown on my flow.
With all of the inspirational people you have been around, do any stories stand out?
When I was 12, I was watching a TV show called That’s Incredible. I could still see a little out of one eye, though I had to crane forward just a few inches away from the set. Being featured that night was an athlete named Terry Fox. Terry had lost a leg to cancer and, when not yet discharged from the hospital, made a decision to run across Canada from east to west. With my nose pressed up against the screen and with tears pouring down my face, I watched Terry run. The miles took a tremendous toll on his amputated leg and its primitive prosthetic. He hobbled along mile after mile, fighting the pain of blisters and raw skin, often using a pair of crutches to propel his body forward.
What struck me most was the look on his face. It was a look of extreme contradiction: full of exhaustion, yet radiant with exaltation. In his thin face was the trace flicker of an intense internal light that burned power into his struggling frame. The image filled my sagging spirit and gave me a feeling of utter courage. Many would have retreated from such hardship, but—surprisingly—Terry faced it head-on and literally ran into its midst. It was while staring into Terry’s face that I first wondered how we could harness that great storm of adversity swirling around us and use its power to make ourselves stronger and better. (Excerpt from “The Adversity Advantage.”)
With all of your accomplishments, what drives you to continue on these adventures?
I love the adventure itself, to be sure, and the pleasure of working with teammates to accomplish stretch goals, but what drives me most is the discovery process, the innovation necessary to do something which the world sees as impossible but which I know in my heart is truly possible. After I began climbing big mountains, I wanted to become a better rock climber. Some said that a blind guy may be able to slog it out on a steep slope, but feeling for holds up a vertical rock face was too difficult, even impossible. But faces are tactile, and using my hands and feet as my eyes, I climbed steep faces such as The Nose of El Capitan, 3000 feet of overhanging rock. But when I thought about ice climbing, critics claimed that ice faces were smooth and you had to discern the good ice and see precisely where to plunge your ice tool…but I learned how to tap the ice with my tool and use the pitch to tell me about the quality of the ice. Later, I climbed Polar Circus, a 3300-foot vertical ice waterfall in the Canadian Rockies, in 11 hours. As in other ventures, I learned that there are many ways to climb a mountain, and that sight is helpful but not indispensable.
Tell us about your work with the school systems?
It is important that our young people learn to dream big. They need to get passionate about something, and then work to surmount the obstacles that stand between them and their dreams. So I spend a lot of time in schools and colleges sharing this message, using my own life experiences as a practical example. I love to go to a campus, show one of my films to students, parents, faculty and the community in the evening, then share my story in a formal presentation with videos and slides the next morning. It is rewarding to know the school is abuzz with a message about overcoming adversity. We have held city-wide school programs in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, where thousands of students from tens of schools read my “Touch the Top of the World” and then came together in a central venue to hear my message. I wish we could take this program to more cities and schools across the country. The Touch the Top message needs to reach today’s youth.
What is your favorite food and any story about it?
My best and worst are both from Nepal, where I have spent a lot of time climbing. Momos, Nepalese dumplings, are at the top of my list. Fortunately, there are several Nepalese restaurants where I live in Golden, so I can still enjoy them back here at home. At the other end of the spectrum is dhalbot, a bean dish which is a staple for our Sherpa guides in the mountains. Dhalbot has been my nemesis – and my teammate’s – in the Himalayas. In fact, every time I think about dhalbot, even now, I get this sick feeling in my stomach.
Anything exciting on the horizon?
There are many mountains still to climb, including the 53 Fourteeners in Colorado (I have summited only 30 of them). I may climb Damavand in Iran with my Iranian friends, if the authorities approve. I am investigating biking across the Salt Flats in Nevada. And I may return to ski the Haute Route, from Mt. Blanc in France to the Matterhorn in Switzerland at elevations above 10,000 feet; last Spring, my team had to make an emergency descent on Day 4 because of a severe snow storm and avalanche dangers, so the Haute Route remains “unfinished business.” The north face of the Eiger, a classic in the Alps, is a near-term target.
And next year, I hope to climb the Moose’s Tooth near McKinley in Alaska, which is known for its stark vertical walls, elevator-shaft like couloirs and razorblade ridges. There are no “walk-ups” on this mountain.
How can one obtain a copy of any of your books or dvd’s?
Go to my website, http://www.touchthetop.com, not only for video clips and articles, but also to order “Touch the Top of the World” or “The Adversity Advantage,” or our films in dvd. Teachers and students will want to look at the Education section of the website, which includes a curriculum guide for “Touch the Top of the World” for use in classrooms, plus other educational materials.
How insane was Primal Quest?
In retrospect, very insane. Those who said that my team and I would not get beyond the first day were close to being right. Primal Quest is the most brutal adventure race in the world: for us, 9 days, 467 miles, 60,000 feet of elevation gain, no time outs. We were one of only 42 teams of 80 elite teams from around the globe to finish within the prescribed time, but it was a huge struggle. Our worst enemy was the sleep monsters, because we only got an hour or two of sleep each night. Jeff Evans, my tandem partner, and I took turns falling alseep on our mountain bike. I was a 5th grade teacher at the time, and began hearing my school children cheering me on from the sidelines, before realizing they couldn’t be there in the mountains at midnight. Jeff, on the other hand, felt goblins and trolls biting his toes. He had been to 107 Grateful Dead concerts.
Who are the people you credit with getting you where you are?
There are so many: my Braille teacher, Ms. Murin, who insisted, sometimes with a heavy hand, that I learn Braille…. fortunately; the Carroll Center who the Blind, which bravely introduced a bunch of us blind kids to rock climbing; Sam Bridgham, a fellow teacher and climber in Phoenix who challenged me to climb something bigger, which led to McKinley; Jeff Evans, my principal adventure partner who has summited more mountains with me than any other climber, who was prepared to sacrifice his own Everest summit by setting ropes for me on the steep slopes at 28,000 feet; amazingly, he got a second wind and stood with me on the top. But my parents were the broom and dustpan, my dad continually sweeping me out into the world of adventure, working with me to find ways to do things which blind kids didn’t do; and my mom who, when I finally crashed, would pick up all the pieces, and put me back together again with TLC, until my dad would sweep me out again.
In walking away from our interview with Erik Weihenmayer, I find myself wanting to be a better man…and to try just a little harder at everything I do…and above all else…to NEVER take a moment for granted.
Thank you Erik.