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.

Tom Foreman: Other climbers look at great chasms and fear them, you hear them?

Erik Weihenmeyer: Yeah. I can hear the sound of space around me; sound vibrations that are constantly bouncing off of objects and coming back at us. And you can hear the sound of open space and the sound of closed space. So definitely, when I'm near a drop-off, I can hear it.

Tom Foreman: Is it just as frightening to you as it would be to anybody else?

Erik Weihenmeyer: It's an overwhelming and pretty scary sound, but I'm not looking, you know, thousands of feet down, so I'm not as freaked out as somebody looking down into some scary crevasse.

Tom Foreman: As you pushed up toward the top, tell me what that was like.

Erik Weihenmeyer: You climb down the South Summit and you're crossing this ridge and I could hear the sounds all around me. It's the width of a picnic table, and (I was) just putting one step in front of the next and trying to keep a very clear, focussed mind, because I just knew that wasn't a place to make a mistake.

When I actually got to the Hillary Step I was in my element: Feeling my way up this rock face was just excellent. 29,000 feet [8,840 meters] and it felt great, and I belly-flopped my way over the top. From there I knew it was just about a half-an-hour trudge to the actual summit.

Tom Foreman: All of us who have not been there, imagine the view. What was the sensation for you?

Erik Weihenmeyer: I could hear prayer flags flapping in the breeze and I could hear the wind and the sound of space and I reached down and touched the snow. I didn't have those views dropping away in front of me, you know, but I think a summit is a lot of an internal feeling anyway. When people say they summit mountains for a view, you know: Get a pretty picture of the mountain and save yourself two-and-a-half months of work. I think it's a lot of an internal symbol of what your life is about.

Tom Foreman: And it was worth it.

Erik Weihenmeyer: And it was worth it. Yeah.

More Mount Everest Stories From National Geographic News:
"Mr. Everest" on 50th Anniversary of First Ascent
First Teams Summit as Everest Season Begins
Biographer: Legacy of Tenzing Norgay's Historic Everest Climb
Dark Side of Everest Awaits Climbers, TV Viewers
On TV: Surviving Everest Tells of Triumph, Tragedy
1963 Flashback: First Everest Summit by Americans
Everest Attempt Is Focus of New Reality TV Show
Climber Conrad Anker on the State of Everest
Everest: Now Just Another Tourist Trap?
Everest Clinic Tends Ills on High
Everest Time Line: 80 Years of Triumph and Tragedy
Making Movies on the Roof of the World
Everest Snowboarder Vanishes On Second Try
Altitude a Major Challenge to Climbers
The Sherpas of Mount Everest
Everest Melting? High Signs of Climate Change
Everest Anniversary Expedition Wrap-Up
National Geographic 50th Anniversary Everest Expedition Reaches Summit
Everest Anniversary Team Makes Final Summit Attempt
Jet-Stream Winds Trap Climbers on Everest
Sons of Mount Everest Pioneers to Repeat Historic Climb

Related Stories From National Geographic Magazine:
Everest: 50 Years and Counting
Sights & Sounds: The Sherpas
American Summit

Related Stories From National Geographic Adventure Magazine:
After the Storm: '96 Everest Survivors (Audio)
Romance on Everest: The Highest Taboo
The Everest Mess
Little Sister, Big Mountain: Climbing the Himalaya's Cho Oyu
Life on Assignment: Himalaya's Cho Oyu (Audio)
The Last Cairn: A Climber's Tragic Saga (Excerpt)
The Slipping Point: Disaster on Mount Hood
8,000-Meter Man: Ed Viesturs
Q&A: Eric Simonson, Everest Sleuth
Q&A With the Man Who Found Mallory

On Television:
National Geographic Channel: Surviving Everest

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