1st blind climber to summit Everest to speak at CMC Steamboat
Erik Weihenmayer has explored Colorado Mountain College country countless times. Trekking from his home in Golden, he’s come west to rock climb Mount Royal in Summit County, skin up Breckenridge Ski Resort, kayak through Glenwood Canyon, ski Beaver Creek and hike the Tenmile Range.
In many ways Weihenmayer is just another of Colorado’s accomplished outdoor athletes. What sets him apart is that he’s totally blind.
In 2001, he became the first blind climber to summit Mount Everest. In 2008, he completed climbing the Seven Summits – the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. And turning from mountains to rivers, he solo kayaked 277 miles of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 2014.
Weihenmayer’s bestseller, “No Barriers: A Blind Man’s Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon,” is Colorado Mountain College’s 2018 Common Reader selection. It received an honorable mention award in the outdoor literature category of the 2017 National Outdoor Book Awards.
The adventurer and author will visit CMC Steamboat Springs at 7 p.m. March 20 as part of the Common Reader tour. The free presentation is open to the public.
Weihenmayer was one of nine special guest commencement speakers to honor graduates during the college’s 50th anniversary year. Last May, he spoke at the graduation ceremony at Colorado Mountain College Leadville, where he received an honorary associate of general studies degree in outdoor recreation leadership.
Harder than Everest
Although Weihenmayer received worldwide attention for summiting Everest – he made the cover of Time magazine, and Oprah Winfrey and Jay Leno were among many who interviewed him – he said that kayaking the Grand Canyon was harder.
“The mountain isn’t moving – well, hopefully,” he said. “I can gauge where things are. I can stop. With boating, you can’t control the movement. With kayaking, I can get so turned around. I have to use my ears to hear the noises of rocks and holes. It’s game on.”
Harlan Taney, a river guide and kayaker with hundreds of Grand Canyon descents, communicated with Weihenmayer using radio headsets in their helmets, with Taney kayaking as close to Weihenmayer’s boat as possible.
“Harlan was my secret weapon,” Weihenmayer said. “He knows how to read the river so well. His eyes, brain and knowledge gave me the support I needed.”
Finding your map
“No Barriers” is about kayaking, though that’s only part of it. Weihenmayer writes about his family and what it was like to go blind at age 14. He shares stories of friends who have confronted major hurdles in order to live purposeful lives.
“It’s alchemy,” said Weihenmayer, 49. “It’s turning adversity into strength.”
Skyler Williams, who manages Weihenmayer’s business development and adventure training, has seen that strength first hand.
“When we were training for the Grand,” Williams said, “we’d run Shoshone a lot. Maneater [rapid] seemed so gnarly to us, but after running Lava [Falls rapid in the Grand Canyon] it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. It still was to Erik, though. He’d get this look on his face, like a vacuum cleaner was sucking all his air out. But he’d still run it.”
Mark Wellman, a paraplegic climber, and Hugh Herr, a double amputee climber and biophysicist, founded No Barriers USA with Weihenmayer. The Fort Collins-based nonprofit organization is for youth, veterans, people with disabilities and everyone who has a barrier they want to overcome.
“All of us in a way are climbing blind,” is a phrase Weihenmayer uses.
“Sometimes it’s physical, like Hugh, Mark and myself,” he said. “Sometimes it’s invisible. It’s PTSD, or you were destroyed as a young person. You’re damaged and stuck, and you can’t figure it out. In that way, we all are part of No Barriers. You have to find your map.”
Weihenmayer earned a degree in English and communications from Boston College, so he’s no stranger to words and writing. He said his coauthor, Buddy Levy, was instrumental in “shaving down” the book as it progressed. Weihenmayer typed on a talking computer, and Levy handled transcribing and editing it.
“I wrote for a year,” said Weihenmayer, who’s authored two previous books. “It was transforming. It’s like floating a river. Underneath the surface, diving down is hard work. That’s where all the energy is created – under that surface.”
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