Erik Weihenmayer is an accomplished mountaineer, kayaker and motivational speaker. He’s also blind. Elizabeth Stewart-Severy joined Weihenmayer on the mountain while he was in town promoting his latest book and has this profile.
It’s an unusually warm spring day on Highlands, cloudy and a little windy, and Erik Weihenmayer is tearing down Thunderbowl behind instructor Rob Leavitt.
Weihenmayer came a bit late to skiing, in part because as a kid, he wasn’t allowed to play sports. He was born with a rare eye disease called retinoschisis, and doctors feared that sports would make him go blind faster, because of fragility in his retinas.
“By the time I went blind, just before my freshman year in high school, the gloves were off. I could do anything I wanted,” Weihenmayer said. “It was painful and it was bitter, but it was also kind of liberating, in a way.”
And he’s been picking up sports ever since. Weihenmayer started skiing as an adult, working with Leavitt through Challenge Aspen.
“I skied my first black run with Rob,” Weihenmayer recounted. “At the bottom of the run, I said, ‘How did I look?’ He said, ‘Like a trainwreck.’ And I said, ‘Ok, I like this guy.’”
Weihenmayer has come a long way since that first black diamond about 20 years ago.
“I don’t want to look like a blind skier,” he said. “I don’t like to be boxed in.”
That’s part of why Weihenmayer visited Aspen last month, to spread a message about overcoming challenges and to promote his latest book “No Barriers” at an event at the Pitkin County Library.
Weihenmayer is no stranger to challenge. He’s the only blind person to climb the tallest peaks on each continent, including summiting Mt. Everest in 2001. To do so, he had to disprove a symphony of naysayers and crossed some of the world’s most dangerous terrain, including the Khumbu Icefall.
“Which didn’t meet Americans with Disabilities Act Standards,” he joked. “Kind of a blind person’s worst nightmare.”
He told a packed crowd at the library that he had a simple desire after the descent.
“Most people, they’re thinking about food and all the great things they’re gonna do when they get home,” he said. “I was thinking about a nice smooth sidewalk. Just get me a nice smooth sidewalk.”
Jokes aside, the climb up Everest was just the beginning for Weihenmayer. He didn’t want this one accomplishment to define the rest of his life. Rather, he hoped it would be a catalyst for progress. He explained that his organization, No Barriers, is about much more than just getting disabled people outside. It’s about facing their fears and taking on the challenges in front of them.
“My message is more about let’s figure out the tools and the ideas and the mindset that’s gonna help us break through those barriers,” Weihenmayer said. “And, of course, the natural world, the mountains and the rivers are a huge part of that journey.”
His most recent book chronicles his latest adventure, kayaking the Grand Canyon. He relied completely on an earbud blasting a guide’s directions in almost-real-time, in a sport that depends on precision.
“I learned why there aren’t that many blind kayakers in the world,” he laughed.
Ultimately, this journey was another step in his mission to understand and overcome adversity. Learning to kayak in his forties is emblematic of that.
“I guess it’s learning to understand fear, that the brain is going to try to sabotage you no matter what you do. You know, if the brain had it’s way, you’d be sitting in a dark place just eating ramen noodles, staying safe,” Weihenmayer said. “I don’t think you can trust your brain. I think you have to go deeper, into something else. If you’re gonna reach, if you’re gonna do big things, you have to wrestle with this fear thing. And you never quite conquer it.”
Now, Weihenmayer works to help others begin to confront that fear. Connecting with nature is one way to start. Aside from the adrenaline rush, he said, adventure sports can help people push beyond their preconceived limits.
“The outdoors, the mountains, the rivers, they kind of make you be honest, because they strip you down,” Weihenmayer said. “They take that crust that you built up and they kind of rip it away and kind of expose you to what you have inside.”
For Weihenmayer, the view at the top is not what matters, it's about breaking barriers on the adventure.