Mar 072004
 
Authors: Chris Kampfe

At a small, dimly lit cocktail reception, dozens of eyes squint

over shoulders and around corners to try and catch an admiring

glimpse at a man who cannot see.

Saturday, the Fort Collins Marriott Hotel and Character Fort

Collins hosted Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to scale Mt.

Everest.

Weihenmayer was joined at the presentation by his adventuring

partner, Jeff Evans, and his sight dog, Willa. After the

presentation, Weihenmayer answered audience questions with a formal

Q & A session.

At the age of 13, the summer before entering his freshman year

of high school, Weihenmayer lost his vision to retinoschisis, a

degenerative eye disease.

He entered a program at age 16 that taught blind children to be

independent. In this program he discovered rock climbing.

Since then, he has been sky diving, appeared on the Oprah

Winfrey show, won an ESPY, Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly,

an award given by ESPN, was featured in TIME Magazine and has

written a book about his experiences that has been published in

nine countries and in 15 languages.

In May of 2001, Weihenmayer reached the summit of Mt. Everest at

the age of 32, and in September of 2002, reached the top of Mt.

Kosciusko in Australia, making him one of less than 100 people to

accomplish the feat.

Weihenmayer spends much of his time now preparing to conquer

future adventures, as well as sharing his experiences and stories

with groups.

Weihenmayer presented the story of his life’s adventures,

dangers and accomplishments, and showed the video of his journey to

the top of Everest on Saturday.

One main problem Weihenmayer and his team encountered on the

climb was his lack of vision, which caused the team to take a

slower pace than was preferable.

“I haven’t been able to take a step without worrying that it’s

going to drop into space for about six hours,” Weihenmayer said.

“Some people assume that if you can’t see how far you’re going to

fall, you’re unafraid. I sometimes think that falling into the

unknown is scarier.”

Two areas of the trip that made the slow pace especially

dangerous were in the areas known as “The Icefall” and the “Death

Zone.” The Icefall is a stretch of the climb where ice and rocks

are literally falling off the mountain towards the climbers.

The mountaineers said if a climber can spend six hours, rather

than 13 there, the climber is greatly reducing the danger they are

in. In the Death Zone, speed is vital.

“(In the Death Zone) you can’t acclimatize, your body doesn’t

absorb nutrition. You’re body is a ticking clock up there and

you’re starting to die,” Weihenmayer said.

Weihenmayer enjoys ice climbing as well, but due to his lack of

sight, his other senses must compensate for where his vision leaves

off. Ice climbing is a manifestation of this, as he describes the

perfect sound to hear when laying a climbing axe into a sheet of

ice.

“It’s a loud ‘thump’ that sounds like you’re hitting frozen

peanut butter with a sledge hammer,” Weihenmayer said. “It’s a

beautiful sound.”

People often ask him why he climbs mountains if he can’t see it,

Weihenmayer said.

“I can hear the mountains and echoes of the mountains in the

air. I hear the snow, I touched the snow, I could feel it under my

feet and in my gloves, I could hear the sound of the Sherpa’s flags

blowing in the wind,” Weihenmayer said. “I get a lot out of the

scenery, it’s just not vision.”

Weihenmayer currently lives in Golden, Colo. with his wife Ellie

and his young daughter Emma. In the fall Weihenmayer plans to

return to Tibet to teach a group of blind Tibetan children to

climb, and eventually lead them on climb up a peak 21,000 feet

high.

“I don’t climb mountains to prove blind people can climb

mountains; I climb mountains because I love it,” Weihenmayer said.

“(Climbing blind) doesn’t reshape people’s perceptions, it shatters

them. So now, people have to rebuild their perceptions of what’s

possible.”

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