Friday, 7 August 2020  
  HOMILETICS INTERVIEW: Erik Weihenmayer  

On May 25, 2001, Erik Weihenmayer became the first blind man in history to reach the summit of the world's highest mountain Mount Everest. At the age of 32, Weihenmayer is on course to become one of the youngest people to climb all of the Seven Summits the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. He has already scaled Mt. McKinley in 1995, El Capitan in, 1996, Kilimanjaro in 1997, Argentina's Aconcagua in 1999 and Polar Circus in 2000, a 3,000-foot ice waterfall in Alberta.

A former middle-school teacher and wrestling coach, Erik is one of the most exciting and well-known athletes in the world. Despite losing his vision at the age of 13, Erik has become an accomplished mountain climber, sky-diver and skier. He has never let his blindness interfere with his passion for an exhilarating and fulfilling life.

In addition to being a world-class athlete, Erik is also the author of the book Touch the Top of the World. In this autobiographical work, Erik recalls his struggle to push past the limits of vision loss.

Erik's extraordinary accomplishments have gained him abundant press coverage including repeated visits to NBC's Today and segments on World News Tonight, the Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, MSNBC and Inside Edition to name a few. He has also been featured in Sports Illustrated and Men's Journal.

To learn more about Erik or to order his book, visit his Web site

Erik and his wife Ellie are the proud parents of 1-year-old Emma. We caught up with Erik taking a break from climbing and speaking engagements in the family room of his home in Golden, Colorado.

HOMILETICS: How do you answer the famous question that was asked of Mallory, "Why climb this mountain?" He replied, "Because it is there." What's your motivation?

WEIHENMAYER: There are two parts to that answer. One is that human beings love to achieve. Half the equation is "because it is there," but the other half is "because we are here." As human beings we like to stay on top of things; we're like army ants. We have an ambitious, exploring nature to our being. We want to learn and to know our world. That's good. Sometimes it makes us too aggressive, but if we can keep it in check, I think that's a good quality.

HOMILETICS: So what's so great about standing on a summit?

WEIHENMAYER: It's built into our genetic makeup. There's no difference between the summit and five feet below the summit. As human beings we want to stand on the very top. It's something about achievement. You want to get to the top of the mountain, but in a sense, it's not really a physical place because the top of a mountain is windy and cold and people talk about the great view from the summit, but there's not necessarily a great view. You're looking down into the clouds and snow, and so on. Sometimes, there's a nice view, but a summit is less of a physical place and more of a metaphor for the meaning of your life. You can make your life what you want it to be.

HOMILETICS: You say in your book that when you attempt to describe the feeling of standing on a summit, that there's no English word to describe the feeling.

WEIHENMAYER: People often talk about "conquering" a mountain. That's crazy. You never conquer a mountain. You may be standing on top of a mountain, but the mountain has sort of blinked and taken a nap for a moment and let you do it. You feel hungry and tired, and you feel like you need the warmth of friends and people around you. So it's a very vulnerable feeling, not a conquering feeling. I guess the top of the mountain, also, is just the goal. Once you get to the summit, it's pretty cool, but you're only there for like 15 minutes, and you're like "Wow, I can't believe I did this." You feel great, but you feel tired and want to get down.

HOMILETICS: And it can be dangerous to linger on the summit.

WEIHENMAYER: You don't want to hang out on the summit that long. People focus so much on the summit, and, yeah, that drives you to the mountain to get to the top but it's just a piece. And it's an important piece. I'm not knocking it. I'm not going to say, "I don't care if I summit or not." But it's just one piece. The doing is the fun part.

HOMILETICS: I get the feeling that sometimes you're mildly irritated at being described as being "amazing and inspirational." Do you get tired of trying to live up to that? Are there any times when you're totally not inspirational? Maybe I should talk to Ellie.

WEIHENMAYER: [laughs] Yeah, for sure. Sometimes after I do a talk for a group, someone comes up and says "I just want to touch someone who's been to the top. You're so inspirational." It's kind of hard, because you're just a normal guy. The other day I did a presentation, and I had a cold and was trying not to cough into the microphone. You're a human being, not an inspirational being. A lot of times that inspiration comes from people's low expectations. "Blind person gets across the street without getting whacked." "Blind person brushes his teeth." Wow! That's inspirational! I went on this TV show with this talk show host. And she was like "Oh, these inspirational blind people." Blind comedian, blind Kung Fu expert, blind climber. I felt so cheap. I felt like such a loser. It did the opposite. I guess climbing Mount Everest is inspirational, so I've gotten a bit more comfortable with it.

HOMILETICS: Explain what you mean by the "Even I" syndrome.

WEIHENMAYER: It's funny, because people will come up to me after a presentation, and they'll say, "Man, I think that's so incredible what you did. Even I with two perfectly working eyes couldn't make it up Everest." And I laugh, because here's a guy who lives in Orlando and smokes a pack of cigarettes a day. It's like, "Dude, do you think the difference between success and failure has to do with perfectly working eyes?" It's a compliment in their minds, so I take as that, and laugh. Two good eyes may be part of the equation, but there are so many other qualities that make a person successful, like the skill and talent you develop, the time you devote to it, and your persistence

HOMILETICS: And the fact that he has a beer belly and hasn't exercised in two years.

WEIHENMAYER: Yeah, you're 70 years old, you're in Orlando, you've never walked more than a mile in your life. What makes you think you could climb a mountain with perfectly working eyes? It goes well beyond that. They mean it as a compliment, and I accept their intent.

HOMILETICS: You talk about being on the face of the mountain, reaching out, scanning the void for a handhold, you're reaching out in fear, but that fear is moderated by hope.

WEIHENMAYER: It's my nature. I am super-scared about things when I first do something, but I push myself because I am excited and hopeful about the possibilities I might be able to achieve. I'm both scared and hopeful. It's like a knife edge. You walk this fine line between fear and hope, but the hope is just enough to keep me going. But sometimes I am definitely scared and I have to push through that fear, and sometimes that fear has the potential of being paralyzing, but

HOMILETICS: But hope melts that.

WEIHENMAYER: It melts it just enough. Rock climbing helps me to understand that a lot of life is just reaching out into the darkness. You don't know what is there. I'm reaching out, and I'm looking for that hold, and I know it's out there, and I don't have much time to find the hold, and I know I'm going to fall, my fingers are going to give out, but I'm hoping and I'm praying and I'm predicting I'm going to find what I'm looking for. But I understand that there are no guarantees. That's the kind of fear that is potentially paralyzing. [Ellen, Erik's wife, enters with Emma, their 1-year-old daughter. So Erik breaks to greet Ellen and play with Emma for a few minutes. We resume the conversation in an upstairs office.]

HOMILETICS: Some time ago, you decided there were some things you could not do, and those were the things you would let go of, but the things you could do, you would learn to do well. Is that still your philosophy?

WEIHENMAYER: It is. There are a couple different pieces to that. One is, that there is a super-blurry line between the things that you can't do and things that you can. You have to figure out creative ways to be a pioneer and cross that line. What a lot of people think is impossible for you, is not. It's a life-long process to try to figure that out. A lot of things you thought were impossible aren't. Some things are not possible. I don't drive a car down the highway. But just losing your eyes Ð you're not your eyes, you know.

HOMILETICS: You told Ellie you couldn't change diapers.

WEIHENMAYER: Oh yeah, you can use that blind thing to your advantage whenever you need to.

HOMILETICS: You also said that freedom "is not just the freedom to try something, but the freedom to fail."

WEIHENMAYER: Mountain climbing teaches you that you've got to bail quite a bit. Fifty percent of the time that I climb mountains, I fail. There are things that are bigger and more powerful than you and sometimes they control you. I was on Mt. Everest with Eric Alexander who probably had more faith than any of us on the team. He said a prayer when we were at base camp, and I just thought it was the coolest thing.

We were sitting around at base camp at this table at Easter (we had an Easter service), and he say something like: "Dear God, give us the strength and courage to stand on top of this mountain, to be safe, to make good decisions, to go home with our friendships intact and strengthened." And then he said something cool, he said: "But I know prayer is not necessarily a wish list. So if it isn't in your plan for us to stand on top, give us the wisdom to know what our destiny is."

It was like, "Wow! That's cool." It's true. What you want is not always what you get. Sometimes you just have to struggle when things didn't work out the way you wanted them to. You just have to accept it. That's the way mountain climbing is. Only 10 percent of the people who attempt Mt. Everest reach the summit. So if your expectation is to stand on top every time, you're just going to get hammered psychologically.

HOMILETICS: You describe your mother as someone who found the strength to "oppose the world." Sounds like you.

WEIHENMAYER: She was a mother lioness. She was stubborn. My dad's a bit stubborn, too, and he walks his talk, and when he believes in something, whether he's right or wrong, his actions match his words.

HOMILETICS: Your parents were remarkable. You describe your dad as a broom and your mom as a dustpan.

WEIHENMAYER: My dad was like a broom, pushing me out into the world and you shatter into a million pieces, and my mom would sweep me up and put me back together again, and then my dad would sweep me out again. And that was good. My mom was super-persistent. She didn't like to see me bleed when I was wrestling. Maybe that's harder for a mother. But she was definitely a fighter, although she had a vulnerable side, too. She was tough when she needed to be.

HOMILETICS: Have they made an impact on how you will approach parenting?

WEIHENMAYER: I think so. A lot of love and some discipline and so forth. But high expectations. Maybe that's the biggest part. I don't know how my parents knew to have super-high expectations. Not in an annoying yuppie way: "I want you to make straight A's and go to an Ivy League school." But, "I want you to live your life as fully as you can, because life is a gift and you have to live it with as much joy and fulfillment and accomplishment as you can." Don't settle. My dad never pushed me in terms of where to go to school or what to do for a living. It was hard sometimes; it's easier when there is someone to tell you what to do.

HOMILETICS: When you were climbing Everest, was there ever a point when you thought you weren't going to make it?

WEIHENMAYER: Yeah, about 15-20 times a day. There's a section called the Khumbu Ice Fall. The glacier's running down the mountain, and it reaches a cliff and it kind of funnels in and kind of shoots out over this cliff and collapses under its own weight and sort of explodes down the mountain, flows down the mountain like a river of ice, collapsing, cracking. Kind of does it in slow motion, but fast by mountain standards, perhaps one or two feet a day. So there are big sections that collapse underneath you, crevasses that are opening up. It's super-jumbled up. You're jumping from ice boulder to ice boulder, jumping over crevasses, crossing ladders over crevasses, sometimes there are five ladders tied together swinging in the wind and you're trying to walk over them. It's just a tough place psychologically, too, because you know you can't make a mistake.

HOMILETICS: Even if I had two perfectly good eyes, I wouldn't want to try that!

WEIHENMAYER: [laughs] Most people wouldn't want to. Sighted people hate the Khumbu Ice Fall. They're terrified. They're looking up at the these huge ice walls hanging over their heads. I can hear them. The first time I went through there, I mean it took me 13 hours. Super hard. Hardest day of my life for sure. I came into Camp One trashed, bloody nose because I'd bashed my nose against a block of ice. I was green, and nauseated. Someone said I looked like I'd gone 10 rounds with Mike Tyson. I was definitely sort of blown away, because I knew you had to cross the Ice Fall 10 times to get to the top of Everest because you have to get acclimatized and you have to shuttle loads up the mountain. So I was super-down. I couldn't imagine going through that experience again.

No matter how big the mountain is, it is climbed step by step, moment by moment. If you can relax and let go. You're not just going through the motions. You're aware of every moment. You're excited. You're celebrating every moment. At the end of every day I would celebrate. I told myself that no matter how high I make it up the mountain, I have to celebrate that as my summit, and that has to be success. And when I did that, it was a turning point.

HOMILETICS: Were you surprised at all the media attention when you got back? Time magazine, the White House, television interviews?

WEIHENMAYER: It was overwhelming, like getting shot out of a cannon. But it made me proud, because it was something that the world connected to, obviously. So many people thought that this isn't something that is in our field of understanding, like the Jamaican bobsled team. It was so beyond most people's radar, that when it happened it was like people were saying, "Wow, that just completely shattered my perceptions of what is possible and what is not." And that's cool, because that creates more opportunity for people who come down the road. When people are less judgmental and more open-minded and accept more possibilities that's always a good thing for society.

HOMILETICS: You seem not to mind being referred to as "the blind guy." And yet some people also seem to be sensitive about their disabilities.

WEIHENMAYER: It's funny. Most people's intentions are good. They don't know how to proceed or what to say. So it's funny when people say to me, "What's it like to be a person of sightlessness?" They're scared to use the word "blind." Or they're scared to use the word "see." I was in a cab yesterday, coming home from somewhere, and the driver kept saying "a person in your situation." It was so funny. They think "blind" is a dirty word.

I've moved beyond that. It's a matter of semantics. It's the intention behind the word. I don't think "blind" is a bad word, and I don't think being blind is a bad thing, or something to be embarrassed about. I've accepted it. I don't live in the past and worry about what life could've been as a sighted person. It's what it is and you make the best out of what is. Blindness is unusual and unique, so my friends connect with it, and relate to it, and a lot of friends will poke fun at me, so they make blind jokes, and it's funny, and I laugh at it because I know the intention is good. I don't get wrapped up in political correctness.

HOMILETICS: After your mother died, you got help from a pastor down in Florida. How did he help you, and what advice would you give pastors who counsel people in crisis.

WEIHENMAYER: Man, I just think that would be such a hard job, because I'm such a hard core person

HOMILETICS: What was it about that pastor that connected with you?

WEIHENMAYER: When you're hurting, you're in a narrow frame of mind. And he helped me to open up the world a little bit, open up to other possibilities. That's all he really could do. He couldn't tell me what to do or what to think. He could only open my mind, expand my mind beyond what I was seeing in my limited frame of mind at that point. He just opened me up and said, "You know, think about this. You don't need your mom when you're experiencing success, but when you're hurting and sad, that's when you can turn to the power and spirit of loved ones who have passed away, she's there. Think about her when you're sad, and get strength from her." And that's what I did.

HOMILETICS: When you lost your mom, your view of God took on for a while anyway, understandably a harsher cast. You felt like Job in the Bible, unfairly afflicted by so many things. Has your view stayed the same? Softened? Been modified over the years since she's been gone?

WEIHENMAYER: I'm still a searcher. But I went off to summer camp at this blind school, and met this girl I had a crush on, and experienced so much fun, and found rock climbing, me connecting with the rock, with the texture and pattern of the rocks, and getting up high I could hear this beautiful sound of the open space around me sound vibrations are actually moving around all the time bouncing off of things, and you can kind of get this impression of the world through your ears, like radar or something and I felt so connected, so psyched that blindness hadn't thwarted it or screwed it up in any way, even though it made it harder, it still didn't take away the possibility of it, and I remember thinking that life is kind of weird, because you think it's just a lot of loss, but although you've lost something, either you fill in the void with bitterness or you fill it with something positive. That's what I did. You lose some things, you gain some things. God closes a door, but opens a window. It's really true.

HOMILETICS: It didn't seem that way, though, that summer after you graduated from Boston College, and before starting your work on a master's degree when you thought you'd get a job. Any job.

WEIHENMAYER: I met a lot of barriers. I had never run into that really. I was sort of insulated. At Boston College they were there to help me, and my family.

HOMILETICS: The biggest barrier wasn't your blindness.

WEIHENMAYER: Not from my perspective. I learned there are doors that people close in your face ... ceilings out there ... people's perception about blindness. It was a hard realization to hit this wall and know there was no way through this. I wanted so bad to bash my head through those barriers. I never got a job that summer. I remember I was going to get this hotel job. I went out and got this credit card machine that talks, but the lady hired her 16-year-old niece instead. It was such a harsh lesson. People thought I couldn't wash dishes at a restaurant. I still don't know if I could wash dishes at a restaurant. But I tend to think I could've figured out a way to be a good dishwasher. They never let me have the chance.

HOMILETICS: So people's perceptions of you are a greater limiting factor than your blindness.

WEIHENMAYER: Exactly. A lot of times that's true. Maybe that's why these climbs are so good for society, too, because it takes people's perceptions and shatters them. I think that's cool, to tweak people's sensibilities.

HOMILETICS: Being blind doesn't exempt you from leading some of the pitches while climbing. What has climbing taught you about leadership?

WEIHENMAYER: Once and this really annoys my friend Jeff we were climbing on El Capitan and I was leading a pitch, and he forgot his headlamp. It was after dark, and we needed to get out of there, and I led him down the trail and I told him, "Jeff, I've saved your life about five times now." And I say it in front of his girlfriend and stuff. To be leader, you don't have to be the fastest, smartest; you need skill and courage and a vision of your life, an understanding that life is an ongoing process of reaching out to the unknown, and even though you're afraid, you have to do it anyway. And that's all leadership is all about. Because it doesn't come naturally to anyone, I don't think. Some people have just grown comfortable with the discomfort of it.

HOMILETICS: You're a father now. Does that make you more hesitant to pursue this death-wish lifestyle you have?

WEIHENMAYER: I told myself it wouldn't change me. I'm not a blind Evil Knievel. I don't take crazy risks. I take calculated risks. I'm more of a thinker. I look at something that seems impossible and I figure out a system to do it. And it seems crazy on the surface, but if you look at the details, the time, the skill and all the work I've done to make it safe as I can, you say, "Okay, that's pretty reasonable." Like, we're going to try to ski down Mt. Elbrus this June, which is the highest peak in Europe. I've got a system for skiing that's pretty safe. Sky-diving is the same way. I've sky-dived solo maybe 40 times. I've got systems that make me as safe as anyone else. But, saying all that, being a parent definitely changes your perspective, no matter whether you like it or not. You don't want to go away as much. You get a notch more conservative.

HOMILETICS: What would you like the crowning achievement of your life to be?

WEIHENMAYER: This sounds corny and maybe it's unrealistic and maybe it's not even true. I have experienced a lot of physical things that I'm proud of. But I would like to die someday thinking that Ellen's saying, "He was a good husband. He loved us fully and gave us as much as he could." I truly do believe that. I have had these mountain-climbing goals, and everyone in the world seems so excited about that, and I am, too, but the other stuff is what I am finding more important these days.

HOMILETICS: Would life be easier if you weren't blind?

WEIHENMAYER: It would be easier, but not more satisfying.



Erik Weihenmayer



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