June 8, 2008 – Climbing is not a battle with the elements, nor against the law of gravity. It’s a battle against oneself. — Walter Bonatti
Believe. No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit. — Helen Keller, the first blind and deaf person to graduate from college (in 1904, magna cum laude)
One of my favorite writers, the late novelist Ernest Hemingway, once said: “There are only three real sports: bull-fighting, car racing and mountain climbing. All the others are mere games.” This is partly why I was so thrilled to recently receive an invitation from Procter & Gamble Distributing (Philippines), Inc. president James Lafferty to meet the world’s first and still the only blind person to have climbed Mount Everest — 40-year-old Erik Weihenmayer. He was invited to speak at the annual meeting of 800 P&G Philippines employees at Palms Country Club, Filinvest Corporate City, Alabang.
Completing his May 25, 2001 Everest climb, his saga made the cover of Time magazine in an article entitled “Blind to Failure,” and he has since been interviewed on NBC’s Today Show, Oprah, Good Morning America and many others. In 2002, he completed his seven-year quest to climb the Seven Summits — the highest mountains on each of the world’s seven continents.
After a healthy dinner, mountain climber James Lafferty told me to watch how a blind person autographs a copy of his 2002 autobiography, Touch the Top of the World: A Blind Man’s Journey to Climb Farther Than the Eye Can See. It was indeed touching to witness the unseeing athlete scribble his dedication: “To Wilson: Reach. Erik W.”
A former middle school teacher and wrestling coach, Weihenmayer has trained to become an accomplished mountain climber, acrobatic skydiver, long-distance biker, paraglider, marathon runner, skier, author, motivational speaker and devoted father of two kids who has never allowed his blindness to interfere with his passion for adventure and a fulfilling life.
He is also active in various civic causes. After together climbing Africa’s highest peak, Kilimanjaro, in 2005 with friends, Weihenmayer and P&G Philippines president James Lafferty began the Kilimanjaro Blind Trust to help blind kids in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.
He has also carried the Olympic Torch for both the summer and winter games, and he told The Philippine STAR that he is excited that the 2008 Olympics will be held in Beijing. He added that he disagrees with people who try “to mix politics with sporting events like the Olympics, which should bring peoples together instead of separating us.”
When I asked him to name the persons on earth who have inspired him the most, Weihenmayer readily replied: “First is my dad, who is an adventurer, a guy who really walks the talk. My parents are really very good. Dad embraces the adventures I did, he’s always a part of my adventure — he flies with me on a Cessna, he was there with me at the base camp of Mt. Everest.”
He continued: “Another guy who inspires me is Mark Wellman, a paraplegic who climbed the 3,000-foot face of El Capitan using only his arms. The late athlete Terry Fox was a role model: he lost one leg due to cancer and used a prosthetic leg, yet he ran across Canada, from east to west, in 1980 in order to raise funds for cancer research.”
He added: “There’s another inspiring guy named Oscar Pistorius. He’s a great runner, he was born with legs that were useless and was only 11 months old when both legs were amputated. He has artificial limbs, yet he has just been allowed to compete in the Beijing Olympics. He’s one of the world’s fastest runners. That, to me, is really great.”
Born in 1968 with a rare eye disease called retinoschisis, Weihenmayer became totally blind by the age of 13, which was also about the same time his mother died in an auto accident.
“I became blind before ninth grade. The first time I went to school, I felt very helpless,” he recalls. “I had this fear that I’d someday end up a beggar, have a life with no adventure, that I might never be part of exciting things or part of a team. I had a lot of fears and felt confused for a long time… I later decided to stop asking why life is unfair. I realized that in front of me were two clear choices: sit and stay inside a dark room or face the future ahead — not through rose-colored glasses, not blind to brutal realities, but to push the parameters of blindness. I decided to climb my way out.”
When asked if this was his first visit to the Philippines, his face lit up with a smile: “I was here when I was 10 years old and when I could still see. We lived in Hong Kong then, and we passed by Manila for one week. I remember it was summer, but it was beautiful with warm rains every day. It felt good, I like the nice warm rain showers. This visit is a great privilege. Everyone we’ve met here has been incredibly gracious.”
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It is amazing that a blind person has managed to achieve things most of us sighted people haven’t even imagined doing. His love of sports, and his intense desire to shatter people’s misconceptions about what blind people can do — these have motivated him through long and arduous climbs to the world’s highest peaks. If a disabled person like him can do so much with less, be optimistic and dream big, why shouldn’t we also?
Throughout the ages, there are ordinary men and women like Erik Weihenmayer who are imbued with extraordinary guts and vision. They are not superheroes, but regular flesh-and-blood folks like you and me; they have endured lots of hardships, cruel odds and adversities, but they never give up. Like them, we should dare to dream. Like them, we should climb our own mountains and conquer our fears!