Q&A: Blind Mountain Climber on Summiting Everest

Tom Foreman
Inside Base Camp
July 30, 2003

In the fifty years since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay first saw the view from the top of Mt. Everest, thousands have tried to reach that lofty vantage point.

Erik Weihenmeyer made it. Pushing through brutal cold, savage winds and crushing fatigue at 29,000 feet (8,840 meters), he reached the top of the world; but he never caught even a glimpse of the famous view. He is the only blind person to ever stand on Everest's peak.

Weihenmeyer was a fifth-grade teacher in Phoenix, but as he settles into my studio, turning his head to take an audio impression of the room, it is clear something great was always in his future. In his teens, climbing opened the world to him in a way no other sport could.

Erik Weihenmeyer: I've been climbing since I was 16 years old. That was my first love, rock and ice climbing, because I could feel my way up this pattern of the rock. There wasn't any ball that was flying through the air that was gonna hit me in the face…

Tom Foreman: …like in a volleyball game?

Erik Weihenmeyer: Yeah, exactly. It was just me and the rock and I was learning how to use my body at certain angles and positioning my weight to figure out my way up the rock face. But there was a point that I thought, "Maybe I have the talent to climb Mt. Everest." I wasn't sure. I knew it would be a big step up from anything I had ever done.

Tom Foreman: One of your concerns was to climb it by yourself. You didn't want to be led up the mountain and just planted on the top?

Erik Weihenmeyer: There's a fine line, because yeah, I don't want to be spiked like a football in the snow on the summit. I mean, everyone gets help and I definitely received a lot of help on the mountain, but the thing that I've always tried to do on mountains is to be a real team member; not to be some token blind guy, but to carry as much weight as everyone else and set up tents and build snow walls and cook meals. So I'm not just some helpless person that's getting dragged up there, I'm a real part of the team.

Tom Foreman: And you climb by listening to somebody in front of you?

Erik Weihenmeyer: I do. When I'm on a big mountain that's one of the downfalls. I can't really route-find through the icefall, so I really am just following someone. They're ringing a bell in front of me, and I'm following and trying to stay in their footsteps. Sometimes when it gets really chaotic in the icefall, they'll take their ice axe or ski pole and tap the spots they want me to step in.

Tom Foreman: And you listen to the ice to hear if it's solid?

Erik Weihenmeyer: Yeah. When I'm ice climbing, people will look at the ice and they'll swing for the blue ice…the healthy good ice…rather than the rotten white ice. People said, "Oh, you need to see to be able to do that." And I just learned to climb ice by the sound of the tool. If I tap my tool against the face and I hear a certain "thunk" sound, I know that's a good hit.

Continued on Next Page >>


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