Climbing with Ability

Realizing Peak Potential
By Terry Thompson
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Erik Weihenmayer speaks fondly of both Irwin and Wellman, and was motivated in part by their accomplishments. Weihenmayer's own long list of outdoor achievements reads like the wish list of many able-bodied mountaineers. He has never let blindness obstruct his passion for travel and mountaineering. He has hiked the Inca Trail in Peru. He has trekked in Pakistan and Tajikistan, including a traverse of the Baltora glacier, from which rise ten of the world's thirty highest peaks. He has crossed the jungles of Irian Jaya, near Carstensz Pyramid (16,502 feet), the highest peak of Australia/Oceania. In 1995, he climbed to the 20,320-foot summit of Denali, the first blind person to do so. In August 1996, he followed Mark Wellman's lead in establishing another first on El Capitan. In Erik's case, he was the first blind person to climb El Cap, which he did via "The Nose" route, a climb that is rated at Class VI, or level 5.11 overall, with 20 pitches that are rated 5.9 or higher—one of the classic technical climbs in North America.

Weihenmayer has also climbed Mount Adams and Mount Rainier in Washington, and continues to log fourteeners in his home state of Colorado. He was recently married at 12,700 feet, en route to the summit of 19,563-foot Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. In 1998 and 1999 he embarked on his highest climbs to date: 22,831-foot Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere, and Nepal's Cho Oyo (26,750 feet), the seventh-highest mountain in the world.

Erik's 1995 Denali climb and 1996 El Capitan climb were sponsored by the American Foundation for the Blind, and he used the publicity to educate others about the potential in all people. "My message is much greater than Go out and climb a mountain," he says. "It's to have passion in whatever you do in life. I hope that my example translates in a positive way to other people, with or without disabilities. I hope that people will consider what I've been able to do, and will realize that if I can do this, they can attain their own goals in employment, education, or whatever they want to accomplish."

Erik, however, does not climb mountains in order to make a statement. He climbs mountains, like any other mountaineer, because he loves it. He loves the tactile sensation of gripping rock with his hands, and the feeling of moving quickly on a steep slope. He loves the togetherness of exploring the world with his family and friends. Like Bill Irwin, he enjoys the wilderness with all of his senses: "I get a lot out of the scenery on these trips because it's not just visual. It's what I hear, smell and feel," he says.

These same sensations are what many non-disabled climbers use to explain the exhilaration they discover from climbing. It's an opportunity for all our senses to come alive, and to experience nature with our entire being. The fact that persons with and without disabilities share equally in this sensation is testimony to our sameness.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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