Ain’t no mountain high enough for blind mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer
While he may not be as well known among Filipinos as basketball superstar Michael Jordan or boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, American mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer is a true sports icon.
Mr. Weihenmayer, 39, became the first blind man to successfully reach the summit of Mount Everest in 2001, and then he completed a seven-year quest to scale the so-called Seven Summits (the highest peaks on each of the world’s seven continents including Mt. Everest) a year later.
Local mountaineers who were invited to join him on a day trek in Montalban, Rizal on June 5, were thrilled to meet him, and immediately approached the visiting outdoor adventurer to shake his hands and have pictures taken with him. They even brought magazines, posters, and other memorabilia featuring Mr. Weihenmayer and asked him to sign them. BusinessWorld saw them calling and sending text messages to friends proudly narrating their audience.
Soon a sizeable crowd of local climbers gathered at the site to watch their idol, and cheer him on as he attempted to scale the heights of Montalban amid the scorching heat of the sun.
With his trek partner and fellow Mt. Everest climber Charley Mace (who is sighted), Mr. Weihenmayer gamely took the challenge of scaling the steep limestone cliffs of Montalban.
Armed with his trekking poles — one in each hand, Mr. Weihenmayer navigated the Montalban terrain as he followed the sound that Mr. Mace created with a clicker. Mr. Weihenmayer managed to move around, appearing calm and at ease despite not being familiar with the place.
After Mr. Mace informed him about the limestone cliffs ahead, Mr. Weihenmayer immediately groped his way up to the cliff. With long sweeping strokes of his outstretched arms, Mr. Weihenmayer grabbed the next ideal rock protrusion that he could use to pull himself up.
The limestone cliff however, proved to be challenging for Mr. Weihenmayer, who failed on his first attempt to climb the “easiest” part of the cliff.
“People think Mt. Everest is the greatest mountain in the world. Well of course it is the tallest, and it is a beautiful mountain. It was a huge challenge,” Mr. Weihenmayer said. “However, this climbing that we are doing, there are people who climbed Mt. Everest who cannot do this. This is overhanging limestone climbing. This is very difficult. So you know, I can hike my way to Mt. Everest, but my belly will determine if I can climb this overhanging rock face. This is real climbing,” he added.
“I have been sitting around for the last week, speaking, and hanging out. You got to be a little warmed up at first,” Mr. Weihenmayer said.
Despite his initial failure, Mr. Weihenmayer did not give up. He successfully climbed that cliff. He even dared to try other parts of the Montalban range until the end of the day.
“For me, the reason that I climb is not because I have to get to the top. I climb because I love to climb. It is fun. It is fun to problem-solve your way to the top, and hopefully get up there,” he said.
“And so whether you don’t get to the top, whether you get to the top, it still a sport, your having fun with your friends, you are meeting new people, you are in a beautiful place, and you are doing your best. So for me, it is more of the broader experience,” he added.
Call him a hero, but Mr. Weihenmayer will rather be called “an unrealistic optimist.”
Despite critics, Mr. Weihenmayer just pushed on, and strove harder to prove them wrong.
“There were people who were discouraging. Like when I was going to climb Mt. Everest, for every person who said: ’You should do this,’ there was a person who said: ’You’re crazy. You’re going to kill yourself. You’re going to die. You’re going to kill yourself, and your going to kill your team, and you’re going to have a big disaster on the mountain, and you’re going to draw other teams to rescue you, and you’re going to risk everybody’s life,” Mr. Weihenmayer told Manila-based reporters last week.
“And so, I wondered to myself, ’Who are these experts? What do they know that I don’t know? And so, you struggle internally with that, because you don’t want to go and do something stupid. But I had been training for two years. I had been preparing half of my life. I had a great team of people around me.
“And I realized that those people that said that I had no chance, that I shouldn’t be there, were experts — I couldn’t deny that. Yes, they were experts on climbing, and they were experts on mountains like Mt. Everest, but they didn’t know anything about me, and they were judging me on the basis of one thing they knew about me, that was my being blind. So their perceptions of blindness were totally off base. My team, my friends who would climb with me, and committed to go to the mountain with me, they all said: ’Yeah you can do this.’
“And so I think, there is a big mistake that people make when they are thinking about what are the elements of success. Being blind is a factor in what you can do and what you can’t do. But there are other ingredients that are more important — your drive, your focus, your determination, your preparation, your skill, and your team. All of those things are much more important than not being able to see.”
Adversity and triumphs
Mr. Weihenmayer was born on Sept. 23, 1968 with a rare disease called retinoschisis which left him legally blind. It progressed into glaucoma, and by age 13 he was totally blind. Despite his disability, he pursued his studies and his passion for the outdoors.
He graduated from Weston High School in Connecticut in1987. As the school’s wrestling captain, he represented the state in National Freestyle Wrestling Championships.
In 1991, he graduated from Boston College. That same year, he trekked in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan. In 1993, he received a master’s degree in Middle School Education from Lesley College and joined the staff at the Phoenix Country Day School as an instructor. That same year, he crossed the Batura Glacier in the Karakoram Mountains of Northern Pakistan.
In 1995, Mr. Weihenmayer reached the 20,320-foot summit of Mt. McKinley, North America’s highest peak.
Two years later, he climbed his second continental summit, Kilimanjaro.
Then on May 25, 2001, Mr. Weihenmayer did what was thought impossible — he conquered Mt. Everest.
His feat did not go unnoticed, landing him a front cover feature in the June 18, 2001 issue of Time Magazine.
“If I can climb Mt. Everest and stand on the summit, it will transform the image of blindness, and forever change what it means to blind,” he said.
He may not have actually seen the snow-capped Himalyan peaks of Mt. Everest, but Mr. Weihenmayer said that his body gave him plenty of sensory stimulation that provided him an idea of what the view is from the top of the world.
“When I got to the top of Mt. Everest, It was pretty surreal…my body was there, but my brain was still thinking: ’Wow, are you really here? I can’t believe you’re here. You have dreamed about this for years. You have sacrificed a ton, you know. You’re friends have all sacrificed a ton.’ I doubted myself. I have been afraid so many times, and now I am standing here on top, and that is a very powerful feeling,” he said.
His love for climbing, and his desire to shatter people’s perceptions of what blind people can achieve helped him through the long and arduous climb to the top of Mt. Everest.
“The greatest people, teams, and organizations step into the storm when others step back,” he said. “Rising to the occasion once or twice is admirable, but doing so over and over again, adjusting agilely with each and every adversity requires both immense will and sufficient skill, as well as developing new capabilities to rise up to the next challenge,” he added.
He finds an inspiration
But he is the first to admit that he was initially discouraged by his visual impairment. When he finally lost the last traces of eyesight when he was 13, he almost lost hope.
“I hated what was happening because it represented utter helplessness. Everything I knew was ending. The loss was like a storm descending on me with such force, such viciousness, that I thought I’d be crushed by it,” he said.
Mr. Weihenmayer however managed to rise above adversity through the inspiration of an athlete named Terry Fox who had lost a leg to cancer but decided to run across Canada from east to west anyway. Mr. Weihenmayer learned about Mr. Fox when the athlete was featured on TV.
“With my nose pressed up against the screen, and with tears pouring down my face, I watched Terry run,” he said.
“It was while staring into Terry’s face that I first wondered how we could harness that great storm of adversity swirling around us, and use its power to make ourselves stronger and better,” Mr. Weihenmayer said.
Mr. Fox was Mr. Weihenmayer’s inspiration to go beyond his blindness and make the most of his situation.
“It’s a long journey. Life is a journey, so I make that decision everyday that blindness is not a hindrance… It has been a long process of flopping on my face, of getting discouraged, of getting angry, pounding my head against the wall like everyone does in life sometimes, and then picking it up, and saying it’s okay, and waking up the next morning, and saying that it’s a new day, and I can do better,” he said.
When it became difficult for Mr. Weihenmayer to wrestle and play basketball after completely losing his eyesight, he decided to try something else. That search brought him to mountain climbing.
“Well, honestly, I didn’t get into mountain climbing to make a message. I got into mountain climbing because I love it. I thought it was a fun sport,” he said.
“I’m climbing because it is something that I love to do. I love to problem-solve. I love to figure out new innovative ways of doing things that are maybe not so expected. I like to surround myself with really awesome people, great people who help me achieve great things. So I love the process of climbing,” he added.
“I think a nice side benefit is the fact that, yes, when a blind person climbs a mountain, or stays on top of the world, it does make a statement… you know it takes people’s perceptions of what’s possible, and shatters it into millions of pieces, and I think when those pieces are rebuilt, the world becomes a better place, because there are more opportunities out there, and I like to be a part in creating more opportunities, of opening doors, I guess, of nudging society forward in small ways,” he said.
He believes that to achieve greatness, everyone should be driven by their own personal sense of pioneering.
His impressive exploits as an adventurer have made Mr. Weihenmayer a much sought-after public speaker promoting innovative ideas and approaches to help people — especially those with disabilities — to push through their own personal barriers and succeed in what they do.
He has been invited to many parts of the world to speak before various audiences that include executives from top multinational companies. A partial list of his corporate clients includes Google, Bank of America, General Mills, Wal-Mart, Cisco Systems, Hilton, Abbott, IBM, Merrill Lynch, Cingular, General Electric, American Express, Wells Fargo, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, and UBS.
He has also shared speaking platforms with notable personalities from politics, business, and media including General Norman Schwarzkopf, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and authors Marcus Buckingham, Tom Peters and Stephen Covey.
Last week, Mr. Weihenmayer arrived in the Philippines for a five-day visit upon the invitation of multinational giant Procter & Gamble (P&G) Philippines.
P&G President James “Jim” Lafferty said they invited Mr. Weihenmayer to share his experiences with the company’s employees, to inspire them to aim for their “Greatest for All Time” vision that is meant to encourage innovative thinking, and stir creativity among its employees. Ultimately, the goal is to make P&G Philippines the best-in-class organization among all P&G subsidiaries worldwide. P&G Philippines is the third oldest P&G subsidiary in the world, next to those in the US and UK, having been in the country for 73 years now.
To encourage employees to strive for greatness, P&G Philippines has brought in speakers who have proven to be the greatest in their field. Last year, P&G employees listened to the inspiring words of five-time Olympic gold medalist Nadia Comaneci and Filipino world-class bowling champ Paeng Nepomuceno.
This year, the company decided to bring in Mr. Weihenmayer.
Mr. Weihenmayer said he met Mr. Lafferty when they climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro together a few years ago. So when the P&G president invited him to visit the Philippines, he did not hesitate to accept.
This was not his first trip to the Philippines — he had been here once before when he was 10 years old. He was then living in Hong Kong with his parents because of his mother’s furniture import business.
While here, Mr. Weihenmayer also met with visually impaired Filipino children in a program at the Museo Pambata, and he also met with the Parent Advocates for Visually Impaired Children, a nonstock, nonprofit organization that aims to reach out and support families of children who are either blind or have visual impairments.
Mr. Lafferty said seeing Mr. Weihenmayer and the children talk about their personal triumphs “is truly inspiring for others who are blessed with perfect vision, but lack the motivation to succeed.”
When Mr. Weihenmayer talked to P&G employees last week, he encouraged them to welcome adversity in their lives as a way to improve, and learn.
“Whether you are in a company, or in a society, you’d always have adversity. I was really impressed by the Philippines and the people and their ability to not allow adversity to crush them, but to figure out a way to make that adversity the fuel that drives them forward to growth, to innovation, to becoming stronger, more compassionate,” he said.
“I think the message is that this is a great time in our history to really step up and be an alchemist, to take those challenges and use them as a fuel that is going to drive us forward to the next level,” he added.
He understands that it is not easy to view adversity as a positive development.
“Adversity mostly crushes people. So it is hard to get your mind to understand that sometimes, facing adversity is the only way we move the world further along… So every time we confront adversity, we understand, maybe intuitively, that it is a way that we can actually make our community better, our family stronger, to make ourselves more resilient, and to make the world a better place for the kids that come down the road,” he said.
Mr. Weihenmayer said some might be tempted to wish for a life without adversity, but he strongly advises people to think otherwise.
“I think, if you ask people, ’If you could take a pill and you’ll never have adversity ever again for the rest of your life, would you take it?’ Maybe some would. But maybe most people wouldn’t because they know that when they face adversity, they come away with a deeper understanding of their own potential,” he said.
“A life without adversity is a life of death.”