By Kim Constantinesco
Erik Weihenmayer has put the microscope on adventure. It doesn’t matter that he can’t see it. He doesn’t need to. He can feel it, and he knows that it lies within.
Weihenmayer is blind, but that hasn’t stopped him from rock climbing, ice climbing, skiing, cycling, summiting Mt. Everest, or most recently, kayaking the length of the Grand Canyon.
The 47-year-old from Golden, Colorado lives his life with no barriers, and most importantly, he teaches others to unleash their human spirit and contribute their best to the world, too.
Using His Tools
Long before Weihenmayer reached the pinnacle of Mt. Everest in 2001 or completed the Seven Summits in 2002, he was a teenager in mourning. No one close to him had died. Rather, he had lost his vision at 13 years old to juvenile retinoschisis, a genetic condition that causes the retina to split.
“When you go blind, you don’t want people to pity you,” Weihenmayer said. “You don’t want people to look down on you. It’s a really isolating feeling, and you’re already isolated enough when you’re a teenager.”
Weihenmayer, who grew up in Weston, Connecticut, wasn’t ready to embrace the tools that people without vision rely on.
“As a teenager, you don’t want to be seen as different. It’s a really vulnerable time in your life,” Weihenmayer said.
“In the beginning, your associations are all wrong. You’re making a connection that ‘blindness’ means ‘weak.'”
There was a complete shift in Weihenmayer’s perception as he matured, and today, he’s the “biggest believer” in using a cane, a guide dog, human echolocation, and reading Braille.
“The smarter you are in terms of embracing those tools, the better off you’re going to be,” Weihenmayer said. “It’s sort of like climbing a mountain. You don’t go up there without your ice axe.”
A Leader is a Leader
Weihenmayer has always had an adventurous spirit, which was nurtured by his bold parents. His father was a fighter pilot in Vietnam and his mother traveled the world extensively as a jewelry designer.
In high school, Weihenmayer was a wrestler, and represented Connecticut in the National Junior Freestyle Wrestling Championship. He graduated from Boston College with a degree in English and Communications, and went on to teach 5th grade math and English in Phoenix while also coaching wrestling.
His first big climb came in 1995 when he reached the summit of Denali, and that’s where his passion for breathing above the clouds started.
After the Everest and two Seven Summits expeditions (he did both the Kosciusko version in 2002 and the Carstensz Pyramid version in 2008), he extended his hand to others so that they could experience life on the mountain as he had. He helped lead a group of blind teenagers to 21,000 feet in 2004 on the north face of Everest. Then in 2010, he led 11 soldiers on the first Soldiers to Summit (now called No Barriers Warriors), which was a journey up one of the tallest peaks in the Himalaya’s to heal the body, mind, and spirit from war. Both missions were the subjects of documentaries called Blindsight and High Ground, respectively.
Weihenmayer’s desire to enable others to experience outdoor adventure led to him creating No Barriers in 2005. The foundation has branches which prepare and equip those with physical and mental differences to be explorers in this world.
“We help people with challenges break through barriers, whatever those are for the individual,” Weihenmayer said. “The outdoors are the most inspiring and powerful laboratory to create that transformation. That’s why our programs are wilderness based.”
Along with taking blind people on climbs, kayaking trips, and camping, Weihenmayer focuses his efforts on teaching kids how to adapt to their blindness.
There was one child who finally made it on a No Barriers adventure. Before the experience, his parents wouldn’t let him walk down the driveway to collect the mail because they thought that he would get hit by a car.
“He had everything he needed in his house physically, but his room felt like prison,” Weihenmayer said. “There’s a great dilemma in people growing and evolving. You want to keep them safe, but that’s not the way people grow.”
A Grand Paddle
To go along with challenging others, Weihenmayer still seeks a good gut check himself.
That’s why in September of 2014, he loaded up his paddles, water shoes, and his support crew to solo kayak the 277 miles of the Grand Canyon.
“Climbing a mountain is hard but learning to kayak, you’re in this crazy raging force of a river, waves crashing every which way, no visible patterns to follow, and you’re having to react to all of the insanity,” Weihenmayer said.
From Lee’s Ferry to Pearce Ferry, Weihenmayer had 20-foot waves crashing over his boat at times. To keep him from flipping over more than he had to, he received direction and instruction from a guide behind him. The guide in front of Weihenmayer kept a line through the rapids, which was a visual cue for the guide in back to relay information to Weihenmayer. In especially rough waters, other guides would wait in an eddy to “pick up the pieces” in case he crashed.
Weihenmayer’s decision to take to the water was purely driven by his fascination with nature.
“As a blind person, I have a curiosity to understand what earth is like. When you’re blind, you don’t really experience what it is looking at it on a postcard,” Weihenmayer said. “You have to climb it. Same thing with rivers. You don’t really experience what a river is and what it means unless you go through it. I wanted to kayak the Grand Canyon to experience this No Barriers Life – to go through the journey myself so I could understand it better.”
Some describe their physical or mental “limitation” as a welcome essential, or even advantage, in their lives. Not Weihenmayer. If he had it his way, he would choose sight over blindness. After all, he has never seen the face of his wife Ellen, or their two kids, Emma and Arjun.
“It just ‘is.,’ Weihenmayer said of his blindness. “With wisdom, you hope to make everything in your life an advantage.”
And an adventure for that matter.