In Life, We are All Blind Mountain Climbers

Author James Michael Lafferty and Olympic champion Michael Johnson leading a youth coaching event in Warsaw, Poland, in July 2002.
Whenever the topic comes up regarding “inspirational people,” I always think first about one person: Erik Weihenmayer, the most inspirational individual I have ever met. You may have heard of Erik. He is a blind man, having gone totally blind by the age of 13 from a progressive disorder of the retina. Erik, however, never let blindness get in the way of living a full life. While he is a skier and marathon runner, among many pursuits, his real passion is mountain climbing. Erik became the first, and is still the only blind man to conquer the “7 Summits” — the tallest mountains on each continent. He is the only blind climber to have summited Mt. Everest. That’s right. He summited Mt. Everest! Most people, 99.9 percent of people, could not climb Mt. Everest with two healthy eyes! Can you imagine doing it blind? I had the honor of being one of Erik’s guides back in 2005 when he summited Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest peak in Africa. We took a team of eight blind climbers with us to set a world record for “Most Blind Summiteers at Once,” and we ended up setting that record, getting five to the top of Africa. In simple terms, there are two main routes up Kilimanjaro. The first is called the “Marangu” or “Coca-Cola” route, because it is easiest.  It is still, of course, very taxing and difficult (the success rate of climbers on Kilimanjaro is a mere 65 percent reaching the summit), but the route is mainly hiking most of the way and little to no technical climbing.
The second is called the “Machame” or “Whisky” route because it is considerably more difficult. Lots of tough climbs and one can add in technical climbs along the way. Well, these blind climbers, led by Erik, decided they would not only do the “Machame” route, they would also do a modified Machame, meaning we would deviate along the way, making the climb as hard as possible! And why did they do this? Well, they wanted to prove, beyond any doubt, that blind climbers — and, by virtue, blind people — are just as capable as sighted people! So, no shortcuts. Nothing that could be construed as “easy.” You spend 10 days on a mountain with someone, and you get to know them well. And without any distractions in life like TVs or cellphones, well, you also have some wonderful discussions! On day three we were roped together in twos, climbing up a technical rock face on Kilimanjaro. I was roped to Erik and above him on the face. What I was supposed to do was call down to him, using the clock-face method, of where his next handhold might be. So there we were, on a rock face, I was clinging on for dear life, and trying in the reduced oxygen environment to look below me, see where Erik was, and then yell out to him where to reach his hand! For example, “Reach out to two o’clock” or “Reach out to 10 o’clock,” and he would find the next handhold and pull himself up. Honestly, I was a bit terrified myself, and I could see the next handhold to reach for. I just could not imagine being blind, clinging to a rock face, and trying to find the next handhold. A couple of times I would close my eyes, just for a moment, and try on my own. It was downright paralyzing! Absolutely terrifying. And I was in awe of the courage of Erik. It just blew my mind how he would trust me, listen to my calls, and reach out into the darkness, clinging to his handhold with only one hand! Later that evening, eating in our tent, I had to ask him, “How do you do it?” And the answer he gave me was so wise, so true, and was truly a life-changing moment for me. This is what Erik said: “Jim, I believe we are all blind mountain climbers in life. It’s all about taking a risk and reaching into the darkness. I take this risk, knowing I might fall, but I also might find a higher handhold and then can go higher.  This is life in general. We all must have the courage to reach into the darkness. To take that risk. Yes, we might fall; but we also risk in finding a new handhold and climbing higher. For me, I am truly blind and I am truly climbing a mountain. But aren’t we all? We are all on our own personal rock faces and we are all blind because we can’t see the future. We are holding on with two hands, in a sort of comfort zone. To progress and go higher we must have the courage to reach into the darkness to find a way to go higher. Yes, we also risk falling. But you can’t progress unless you are willing to let go.” I have reflected on this wisdom many times over the past 12 years. I thought about the significant risks I have taken in my life, and how scared I was at the time, and how I did indeed find a new handhold in life or career. When I picked up and moved my family from the comforts of living in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, and crossed the globe to Casablanca, Morocco. How scared I was in making that decision. And how life-changing that decision was. How much I progressed in all aspects of life as a result. Erik is right. We are all blind mountain climbers. Many of us are stuck in a comfortable position on that rock face we call life, holding on comfortably with two hands. It is time for us to reach out, into that darkness, and try to find a higher handhold. Yes, we might fall, but we also just might find that higher grip and pull ourselves higher. As people. As human beings. In our careers. Our relationships. Make the scary move. Change to that new, big and scary job you are contemplating. Start up the business you have always wanted to try. Go and live in a new place, a new country, a place that scares you and takes away the feeling of comfort. Let go and reach into the darkness, my friends.