Eric Weihenmayer might be blind but he knows where he’s going. The SCARPA athlete, author and motivational speaker has been a busy man. Taking a disability and turning it into virtue has taken him adventuring all around the world, and he’s now leading others to do the same. On the road much of the time, his schedule is rife with speaking engagements or planning his next opus with Soldiers to Summit, an outreach program for disabled vets. We were able to get him on the phone for a hot second to talk about the current state of Weihenmayer affairs.
For a lot of people Erik Weihenmayer is the blind guy who climbed Everest. But they don’t know you’re a three dimensional athlete who tags classic climbs all over the world, raises two children with his wife, is the author of two books, is a motivational speaker and grand purveyor of outreach programs. How does it feel to be the total package?
I’ll always be known as the “blind guy who climbed Everest,” but I don’t like to specialize in any one thing. Alex Lowe once said he was an expert in mediocrity (of course he wasn’t mediocre at anything), and I also like being an all-around climber. From big walls to small boulders, from big ice climbs to remote peaks, I think it’s all fun.
Beyond climbing, I love tandem mountain biking and backcountry skiing, and trail running. I’ve also run a few marathons and been in a bunch of adventure races. One of the great things about working with SCARPA is that it’s one of the only footwear brands that can provide great product for nearly all of my adventures.
As I get older, it’s been fun to help other unlikely people to utilize the outdoors to shatter the barriers in their lives. People who are in wheelchairs, or are blind, or missing limbs, or suffering from PTSD can use the outdoors as a metaphor for all the obstacles in their lives, and how innovating and teamwork can allow you to do great things.
Through programs like Soldiers To Summits and Global Explorers, as well as our Adventure TEAM Challenge, we help those who are at a high risk of getting shoved to the sideline to actually transform their lives for the better. The outdoors is such a powerful environment for getting non-traditional athletes to achieve personal greatness.
What programs are you most proud of, and why?
Every two years, we hold an event called the No Barriers Summit where we bring together over 600 people from around the world. The next one will be in 2013 in Telluride, and it will bring together a community of pioneers, inventors, artists, and people with challenges. Over four days, ideas are exchanged and preconceived notions of what is possible are overcome.
The last Summit in Winter Park proved to be incredibly inspirational, and set people on the path to achieving great things. For example, I met a guy named Kyle Maynard who wanted to climb a peak with a group I was leading—he has no arms or legs. But we figured a way to let him crab his way to the top. And when he got home, he decided to climb Kilimanjaro, which he just did in January!
You originally taught math and English for middle schoolers, so how did you go from that to world adventurer?
I taught school for six years and could have done it forever. I love teaching but I also had a dream of climbing the Seven Summits, and that meant long times away. Being a teacher is about the students, and it wasn’t fair to them to be gone months at a time.
So I had to make a tough decision, if I was going to be a climber or a weekend warrior. Eventually, my wife and I decided to move to Colorado so I could be closer to the mountains. Obviously, professional climbing isn’t the path to riches so I started speaking and writing my first book.
Aside from climbing, and everything else for that matter, kayaking has been a fairly recent enthusiasm, which has its own set of dangers and rewards. Can you speak to that a little?
Whitewater kayaking is certainly the scariest thing I’ve ever done. It’s like riding a massive, powerful avalanche down a mountain—you can’t stop and reassess. You’re getting tossed left and right, and waves smack at you without warning. I’m solely navigating through this terrain by the voice of my guide and how the boat feels under my body. It requires such fast reaction time, and when one thing goes wrong, it can quickly turn into an exponential disaster.
With some help from SCARPA, you’re headed to Cotopaxi (19,347 feet) in Ecuador this coming December for your second outing with Soldiers to Summit? What are the most important values you’re trying to instill in disabled vets who participate in an adventure like this?
The Soldiers To Summits program started a couple years ago with my Everest team and me leading a group of injured soldiers on an expedition to a 20,000-foot peak in Nepal. That was such a huge success, both for the solders and us climbers that we are now starting a second program that will culminate with the ascent of Cotopaxi.
We are building the program into a more formal curriculum with solid goals. We are giving the injured soldiers the tools that they need to break through the challenges that exist in the civilian world that are so different from military life. They learn how to innovate ways of dealing with their injuries, to bring together a support team that helps out when needed, to strengthen their approach to adversity, and how to get back to leading and serving other people.
Since finding your purpose and your calling the outdoors, how have you evolved as a climber, adventurer and mentor?
Like many young adults, it was easy to focus primarily on my own achievements. But as I grew older, and especially after I became a parent, I felt an obligation to help other people. My concepts of what is important in life expanded as I achieved more.
Teaching my own kids to bike, climb, and ski has been a great experience. My daughter Emma gets nervous about challenges so I’ve helped her tap into inner reserves. We brought our son Arjun home from Nepal, so he had a new culture and language to deal with as well as all the normal issues of growing up.
What’s the future for a program like Soldiers to Summit look like? How would like to see it evolve?
We’ve recruited a new team for the next S2S and are planning two training sessions here in Colorado that will include a lot of experiential education. The concept is that this is less about a mountain climb and more about goals beyond the mountains.