August 22, 2007
Erik Weihenmayer, 38, redefines "blind ambition." After losing his sight at age 13, he went on to climb the Seven Summits, scale El Capitan, ski down the tallest peak in Europe, and solo skydive more than 50 times. He has guided blind Tibetan teenagers to 21,500 feet (6,553 meters) on Mount Everest and led both blind and sighted students on treks through the Andes.
And today he's climbing Colorado's Wilson Peak to help open the scenic fourteener to hikers and protect it from mining. The Trust for Public Land (TPL) is negotiating to purchase the area, which will also open up the main access trails to neighboring Mount Wilson and El Diente, from a private landowner. The TPL will donate the swath of land to the U.S. Forest Service for permanent conservation.
Adventure spoke to Weihenmayer by phone from his Colorado home about leading climbs blind, bear bells, and the struggle to keep the wilderness wild.
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Why did you get involved with the Wilson Peak access project?
Erik Weihenmayer: I've always been interested in keeping beautiful spaces open. I lived in Phoenix for a few years, and when development started swallowing up all my favorite places to hike, it just broke my heart. Being involved with this could bring awareness to what the Trust for Public Land is doing and give people hope that there is progress being made on these issues. And this project could create a domino effect that will open up other fourteeners in the state.
What's so special about Wilson Peak?
Erik Weihenmayer: Wilson Peak is a symbol of Colorado. It's one of the landmark peaks because it's really dramatic looking, or so I've heard. Also, this peak is between two wilderness areas, so it opens up a huge stretch of land. The Rockies symbolize what America's about; they need to remain open.
How will you hike the peak?
Erik Weihenmayer: I have a group of friends going with me—some of my teammates from climbing Everest. I hike with two long trekking poles to feel my way up the trail. My friends wear bear bells and jingle them, so I follow the sound. They'll jingle it a little to the left or right if they want me to avoid a rock or a cliff.
When you are leading a climb, how do you determine the best route?
Erik Weihenmayer: Someone climbs below me and gives directions and tells me where the bolts are. I follow the path of least resistance. A lot of times I'm following a crack, which is easy if one crack leads into another. But sometimes a crack ends and I lose the route and kind of freak out for a second. If I'm leading a climb, I'll climb it ahead of time to familiarize myself, which is normally called on-sighting, but my friends call "non-sighting."
How did you get started climbing?
Erik Weihenmayer: I used to play basketball, but the ball kept whacking me in the face. So I thought, What can I do? I was part of this rec program for blind people. One day they took us rock climbing. It was just supposed to be a confidence-builder, but I really took to it. I liked problem solving my way up the rock face, connecting the dots with my hands. I thought it was amazingly engrossing.
What kept you motivated after you lost your sight?
Erik Weihenmayer: I was a persistent kid and I knew I wanted adventure in my life. At that age, you don't know what the barriers are and you keep smashing up against them. A lot of times the first step is falling on your face. And then you slowly figure out how to push those barriers through technology, innovation, being stubborn, and having a great team on your side.
What's up next for you?
Erik Weihenmayer: I headed to the Dolomites in September to climb Marmolada, which has a 3,000-foot (914-meter) rock face. In January, I'm off to Nepal to do some ice climbing. This spring I'm going to ski the Haute Route in the Alps. I have a list a mile long of peaks I want to climb. But names, like Everest, aren't as important to me anymore. I can climb a peak that no one's heard of and it's just as much fun.
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