Take 5 with blind mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer | SummitDaily.com

Take 5 with blind mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer

In the mountaineering world, notching a first ascent separates the best from the rest. It's the ultimate rite of passage, and, for folks who aren't mountaineers, it's both impressive and utterly frightening.

Erik Weihenmayer is the king of first ascents. Over the past two decades, the Colorado native has made international headlines after summiting dozens of peaks on all seven continents — and he did it in total darkness. He became the first legally-blind person to successfully summit Mount Everest in 2001, becoming a hero for hundreds of thousands of blind athletes across the world.

But he didn't stop with simply collecting first ascents. A few years after the Everest summit, he and a collection of fellow disabled climbers, mountaineers and outdoorsmen realized their adventures could inspire just about anyone. Climbing Everest or scaling the sheer face of an ice route was no longer just a personal victory — it was a rallying cry.

Enter No Barriers USA, the Fort Collins-based nonprofit he helped launch in 2005. For the first year or two, the organization was a natural extension of the co-founder's love for mountaineering, with hiking and climbing events tailored for blind athletes. But, over time, the mission grew to include anyone and everyone looking for inspiration — and encouragement — in the great outdoors. The events have drawn an eclectic group: a man who recently had a full heart transplant, a woman who went blind in her 50s, another who is so frightened of heights that she was tempted to crawl along the summit of Mount Bierstadt.

This weekend, he leads a group hike at four Alma-area 14ers as part of the What's Your Everest event. Before the hike, he talked with the Summit Daily News sports desk from his home in Golden about the first blind ascent of the Seven Summits, his training routine and why a bear bell on a backpack is at the top of his gear list.

Summit Daily News: Everyone wants to talk about your first-ever blind summit of Mount Everest, but you've also completed the Seven Summits — a feat only a fraction of mountaineers even tempt. Of the seven, what peak was the most intimidating?

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Erik Weihenmayer: To be honest with you, the Seven Summits were really challenging, for sure, but it has been mountains off the beaten path that were really intimidating. You have one like Alpamayo, out in Peru. It has an incredible ice face. Then I just did one in Alaska named Mount Huntington, and that one has another huge, huge ice face. It's just dead vertical running up through a massive wall of rock. We left the tent for the final attempt and didn't return for 50 hours. We finally summited it, but it was one of the longest single attempts I've been on. And then, last summer, I kayaked the entire length of the Grand Canyon with my team, and that was an entirely new challenge, going through some of the world's most challenging whitewater.

SDN: What convinced you to try kayaking? It's an entirely new skill set for a mountaineer.

EW: That was me embracing my own "no barriers" type of event. We were talking with people along the river and challenging the people we found to make their own No Barriers pledge. It's reaching for something specific that might change the world, or change your world. Again, our community is eclectic, it's diverse — from a CEO to a child who's blind. This might be blunt, but we want to say, "You've encountered these barriers that seem bleak and dire, but you have to move through them and be bold and do something with your life." I feel like we're doing something new, teaching people that you don't just have to let these adversities knock you down and make it so you never leave your room again.

SDN: OK, now we have to talk about your first summit of Mount Everest. Did you always want to climb it, or did you set your sights on it after you got into mountaineering?

EW: It's kind of too movie-like to say, "When I started climbing, I knew I wanted to climb Everest some day." Instead, I just started rock climbing as a kid, when I was 16, and then I started teaching and a buddy of mine started taking me out on these new climbs, like snow climbs. I'd done Denali and Kilimanjaro and a host of other peaks beyond the grid before I started thinking about Everest. But, you always have doubts, even on the summit, and I'm not a daredevil. I'm actually very cautious. With the Grand Canyon, I trained for six years before actually doing the Grand Canyon. It was the same way with Mount Everest. I decided that I wanted to be a real mountaineer before I could take it down. I didn't want to take the fast track, and I think my team — an incredible team — was one of the last real teams to summit Everest. When I stood on top, it was very cool to have that moment for blind people and people with disabilities across the world.

SDN: What does your training regimen look like before heading out on a long, dangerous trek, like Everest or another high-altitude climb?

EW: It's always slightly different. I go rock climbing a lot, and, in the winter, I go ice climbing. I also do lots of skinning, which is such a Colorado thing. I like to skin up ski resorts and, for me, being blind, that's nice because it's wide open, with no avalanche danger. I also like to run with my dog on the mesa behind out house, North Table Mountain (outside of Golden). I trained him to run a certain route on the back of that mountain. When you look at a peak like Mount Huntington, I did a lot of ice climbing this winter to get ready for that peak. But, you can't always get out on the mountain, so I'll put rubber on the end of my ice tools and climb the tread wall, a rotating rock wall I have in my backyard.

SDN: Have you worked with the same climbing partner and team for all of your major summits?

EW: It's changed over the years. I have a variety of friends I climb with, like when I did Mount Huntington, I had one guy who was 46 and one guy who was 49 — kind of the older 40s crew. But the common thing is I trust all of them. They're solid climbers, the sort of people I trust to know what they're doing.

When I'm following someone, I'm listening to a bear bell strapped to their packs. When I'm leading on a climb, like on a rock, I like to feel my way through it on my own, so I know the tricky moves and where to place gear. But, I have done the "on sighting" thing before, which is where you lead climb on a route where you've never been. My friends like to call it "no sighting" for me. There have been a few situations where I'm on a face and don't know where anything will be, and that can be intimidating.

SDN: No Barriers is growing by leaps and bounds. When did you realize you could turn accomplishments like Everest and the Seven Summits into a nonprofit?

EW: As I said, just like it didn't hit me when I was 16 to climb Everest some day, this No Barriers event and group has evolved. I went climbing with one of my heroes in the '90s, Mark Wellman. He's a paraplegic who was the first to climb El Capitan (in Yosemite), a 3,000-foot face — he basically did 7,000 pull ups to get to the top. Mark invited me and another woman along — we were an all-disabled team — and we reached the top of this incredible tower in Utah, and that's when it really hit me. He was the one who said, "We've all pushed through barriers, so why can't we spread this out to other people?" It was really more of a question at that point, but, over the past 15 years, we've been figuring out how to make that happen. We've carefully built this curriculum, and what's cool about it is we started with people who have physical disabilities, but then we'd have families come to our events and say, "This is the most incredible thing we've done." We've had CEOs and just about everyone else say the same thing, and we started realizing quickly that this theme, this message, applies to everyone on the face of the earth.

What’s Your Everest Colorado weekend

What: A banquet and hiking event that takes participants on a trip to four 14ers outside of Alma, hosted by the Fort Collins nonprofit No Barriers and Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to summit Mount Everest

Where: Dinner at Doubletree Hotel in Breckenridge; Hiking from the Kite Lake Trailhead outside of Alma

When: July 31 to Aug. 1

Cost: $500 to participate, $50 for dinner alone

For complete event details, see getinvolved.nobarriersusa.org or call 970-484-3633.

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