By Brad Dison
Erik Weihenmayer liked to test his limits. He was an angry, rebellious kid who eventually turned his fury into competitiveness and personal achievement. He joined his high school’s wrestling team and, to everyone’s amazement including his own, he became a champion. He became a skydiver, skier, long-distance biker, marathon runner, kayaker, and scuba diver. There seemed to be no limit to what Erik could accomplish.
In 1987, Erik enrolled at Boston College. Four years later, he graduated with a 3.1 grade point average and a degree in English. Unable to land a job, Erik returned to college and earned a masters degree in education. He finally got hired as a grade school teacher in Phoenix, Arizona. It was while he was in Arizona that Erik became interested in mountain climbing. In 1995, he joined a team of climbers who were determined to climb Alaska’s 20,310-foot Denali Mountain, also known as Mount McKinley. After months of preparations, arduous training, and a difficult climb, Erik and his team summited Denali. He and his team spent a total of 21 days on the mountain. During that time, three climbers on other teams died while climbing the same mountain.
In the five years that followed, Erik had summited the highest peaks of five of the seven continents, and had climbed the vertical 3,000-foot face of Yosemite’s El Capitan. In the previous fifty years, 170 climbers had lost their lives trying to climb the mountains that Erik had bested. In 2000, Erik set his sights on conquering Earth’s highest mountain, the 29,031-foot Mount Everest. Family and friends tried to persuade Erik not to attempt Mount Everest because of the high number of climbers who had died trying to conquer the mountain. Erik could not be dissuaded.
Finally, after months of training, Erik and his team began their ascent of the world’s highest peak. Climbing Mount Everest took its toll on Erik’s body. He suffered from bouts of dehydration and dysentery, but Erik continued to climb. His confidence grew with each step he took toward the towering peak. At one point, Erik’s climbing partner stumbled and fell into a crevasse. While falling, his partner’s ice ax accidentally cut Erik’s face. After helping his partner regain his footing, the team treated Erik’s cut with the first aid kit they had brought along. They continued to climb.
On May 25, 2001, Erik and his eighteen team members reached the summit of Mount Everest. Erik and his team earned several records upon reaching the summit. Erik’s team was the largest single group of people who had ever reached its peak. 64-year-old team member Sherman Bull, a Connecticut physician, became the oldest person to reach the summit. The team reached the peak with the heaviest piece of equipment climbers had ever lugged up the mountain, a 25-pound high-definition camera used to document the climb.
Erik and his team had little time to celebrate. They spent a mere fifteen minutes at the peak before they began the dangerous task of descending the mountain. When Erik completed his descent from the mountain he said, “I feel great,” and added “my next challenge will be to climb into bed.”
Erik was not the first person to reach the summit of Mount Everest. He was not the first person to complete the Seven Summits—at the time about 150 people had done it before. He was not the first to reach the top of the Carstensz Pyramid, the Eighth Summit. He was not the first to climb up the 3,000-foot Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite, nor was he the first person to ascend Losar, the 2,700-foot vertical ice face in the Himalayas. Although he was not the first to reach these peaks, Erik became something of a superstar among climbers. He even appeared on the June 18, 2001 cover of Time magazine following his reaching the summit of Mount Everest, though he never got to see it. In fact, he never got to take in the view from atop the world at Mount Everest. Erik Weihenmayer is blind.
1. Daily Press (Victorville, California), June 7, 2001, p.6.
2. Time Magazine, June 18, 2001.
3. The Boston Globe, June 27, 2001, p.81.