On September 26, 2016, Erik Weihenmayer became the first blind person to climb El Capitan in a day (24 hours or less). He was accompanied by an elite team of climbers and mountaineers, including Hans Florine, who has ascended El Capitan a record 177 times; Timmy O’Neill, Geoff Tabin, and Charley Mace. The team chose East Buttress for their route, the shortest line up El Cap, comprised of 11 pitches and 1,500 vertical feet. “I wanted something I could free climb,” says Weihenmayer, a 2015 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, “and the length of East Buttress made me feel somewhat confident that I could do it in a day.”
He needn’t have worried about time. Weihenmayer and team set a blistering pace, passing another team of sighted climbers on the route, and topping out shortly after 3:00 p.m., about eight hours after they began.
Weihenmayer, 48, started climbing when he was a teen, shortly after losing his sight to juvenile retinoschisis. The sport proved a surprisingly good fit. “It’s very tactile,” says Weihenmayer. “And the goal is pretty straightforward, to move your body from point A to point B.”
His latest record is particularly satisfying, as it marks the 20th anniversary of his first El Cap climb with Florine. The two paired up in 1996 to attempt the first blind ascent of the Nose route, a more difficult line that that spans 32 pitches across 3,000 vertical feet. It took them four days. The feat remains unrepeated, in fact—no other blind person has even attempted the Nose.
In between the two records, Weihenmayer has refined his technique, starting with the approach. For the two-mile hike from the car to the base of East Buttress, he walked behind a teammate jingling a bear bell. “I learned on Aconcagua that unless someone is walking though snow, which I can consistently hear, they are really hard to follow,” says Weihenmayer. “A bell works great, except for one time in Italy when we came across a herd of cows.”
While hiking to the base of East Buttress, Weihenmayer used two trekking poles, one in each hand, to help negotiate the rugged trail which ranges from dirt to scree to large boulder fields. Once at the wall, O’Neill and Tabin went ahead, climbing as a team, to scout the route. Next came Weihenmayer’s three-man team. Florine, a speed climber, did all the lead climbing. Once Florine reached the top of each pitch, he would set up a top-rope for Weihenmayer. Mace would climb Florine’s rope, cleaning the protective gear as he went. Weihenmayer brought up the rear on the top rope, listening to verbal cues from Mace, who stayed a couple feet overhead.
“It’s astounding to watch Erik climb,” says Florine. “He keeps one arm locked off while he sweeps the wall with the other. Even with a direct verbal instruction, he still has to find the hold with his hand. It’s an amazing display of strength and tenacity.”
One trick Weihenmayer has picked up over the years is to memorize the position of a good handhold so he can re-use it as a foothold. Cracks are the easiest for him to climb, as they supply a logical line of hand and footholds. “There was really good crack climbing on East Buttress, some really good hand jams,” Weihenmayer says. “But I hadn’t climbed a big route like that in a while, and we were in the hot sun, so my forearms started cramping by the end of the day.”
About a third of the way up the route, Weihenmayer and team passed a pair of climbers from Colombia who offered their congratulations for the dos ciego, “two blind.” “They thought Geoff Tabin was blind,” says Weihenmayer, “which is hilarious because, first of all, he’s not, and second, he’s a famous eye doctor who cures people blinded by cataracts all over the developing world.”
Tabin admits his footwork on East Buttress wasn’t so great, and that O’Neill gave him a lot of tips. “But really, it’s a testament to Erik’s skill that we appeared to be climbing so similarly,” says Tabin.
Weihenmayer says that no matter how well he’s climbing, the fear of falling never completely goes away. Even when he’s on top rope, the comparatively safest way to take a fall, he is afraid of swinging out into space and colliding with the rock. “You can still have an epic on a top rope,” he says, “but I don’t have as much anxiety as I do when I’m lead climbing.”
His favorite section of East Buttress was the last two pitches. “It’s really featured up there,” Weihenmayer says, “really knobby with marble-sized knobs and orange-sized knobs and little scoops and weird little banana-shaped things you’d pinch. It was cool blind-guy climbing because of all the cool shapes, like, ‘what type of fruit am I going to get next?’”
- Nat Geo Expeditions
The most dangerous part of the endeavor, for the entire team, came after the climb—the descent back to the valley floor along the East Ledges, known for forebodingly steep talus, open slabs, and a series of rappels. “It’s a tough descent for anyone, especially when you’re tired from a long day of climbing,” says Florine.
Weihenmayer mitigated the risk by walking in a single-file line between two teammates. The teammate in front served as the guide—Weihenmayer kept one hand on that person’s backpack. On the really loose descending sections, the teammate behind Weihenmayer acted as an anchor, attaching a short line of rope between his climbing harness and Weihenmayer’s. On some sections, Weihenmayer scooted down on his butt. On others, he rappelled. “Rappelling is probably my least favorite thing about climbing,” says Weihenmayer. “There’s no way to tell whether I’m stepping onto a ledge or into a hole.”
But the struggle was forgotten by the time he reached the parking lot two-and-a-half hours later, where friends were waiting with craft beer, salty chips, and a jar of pickles. Once the beers were cracked open, Weihenmayer was already talking about his next Yosemite adventure. Florine suggested NIAD, or Nose in a Day, a benchmark that separates the great climbers from the good. Weihenmayer is considering it.
“I want to keep climbing as long as I can,” he says. “I can’t play golf or things like that, so this is my way of connecting with my friends. It’s like extreme golf.”