‘Flying through a cloud’ with blind skier Erik Weihenmayer
Erik Weihenmayer was born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1968. Before his second birthday, he was diagnosed with juvenile retinoschisis. He was expected to become blind by his early teens.
At age 4, Weihenmayer and his family moved to Coral Gables, Florida, and, in 1975, to Hong Kong, where Erik attended second through sixth grades at the Hong Kong International School. As he was going blind, Weihenmayer resisted using canes and learning Braille.
He ultimately channeled his energy into his own family, adventure sports, travel and writing.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Every avid Alpine skier eventually comes up with a sentence or three to explain how the sport helps them to transcend the ordinary physical limitations of mere mortals.
Isn’t that why all of us step into our bindings in the first place?
Asked this week to put his experience on skis into profound terms, Erik Weihenmayer, the celebrated big mountain climber and wild river runner, was up to the question.
“I once skied Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe,” he said during a chairlift ride at Steamboat Ski Area. “It’s essentially a 10,000-foot (ski) run. We came to a place where my friend said, ‘There’s nothing you can run into. You can turn anywhere you want.’”
“It was like flying through a cloud,” Weihenmayer said.
Weihenmayer is famously the first and only blind climber to summit Mount Everest.
Yet, he said that he considers his kayak adventure down the full length of the Grand Canyon to have been more difficult than summiting the world’s highest peak. Rapids can be notoriously unpredictable.
Weihenmayer was in town this week for a speaking engagement at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs and to join his longtime friend and skiing guide Jeff Ulrich in a clinic put on for volunteer guides with Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports — STARS.
STARS, which introduces people living with a wide range of adaptive disabilities to the freedom that is skiing, recently held a camp for nine military veterans who are blind.
“We’re interested in growing our visually impaired services at STARS,” Assistant Executive Director Joel Berman said.
Weihenmayer said he wishes he had taken up skiing earlier in life.
“I didn’t start until I was 27,” he said. “I had just come down from climbing Denali, North America’s highest peak at 20,237 feet, and another climber asked me if I skied.”
When Weihenmayer said, “No,” he had not, the response was, “Oh, then, you’re not really a mountaineer.”
Weihenmayer couldn’t let that stand and promptly took up skiing.
STARS instructors Susan White and Anne Krieg, who guide vision-impaired clients, said until this week they have had the perception that the skiers they have worked with, in some ways, have had an advantage over sighted people who have other disabilities.
Because they can’t see other skiers whizzing by on the slope or even visualize the steepness of the slope, White said her experience has been that they are generally less anxious and better able to concentrate on the feedback given by their instructors and the snow’s surface.
However, when Krieg broached that subject with Weihenmayer, he said a significant disadvantage for blind skiers is their inability to model the athletic posture their instructors demonstrate. Much of successful skiing technique is attributable to proper weight distribution — keeping one’s hands in front of the torso, their head up, and flexing their knees to be prepared to make an athletic move.
After overhearing a skier saying he can spot blind skiers from a distance because of their stance on their skis, Weihenmayer took it as another challenge and worked hard to get in the most efficient skiing stance.
Any skier who has the opportunity to ski behind Weihenmayer and Ulrich on a top-to-bottom run (no stopping!) while Ulrich uses just eight words to tell his friend everything he needs to know about the terrain ahead will marvel at how closely Weihenmayer mirrors his guide’s turns.
Of course, Weihenmayer knows what it is to live a life un-compromised, with the “adversity advantage” on his side.
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