High Gear: “No Barriers” book review with Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to summit Mount Everest
There’s a scene in the early chapters of “No Barriers,” the latest book from blind mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer, when it’s easy to see why the Colorado native became the first legally blind man to summit Mount Everest and return alive, unharmed, with a stronger drive than ever before.
In the scene, Weihenmayer is at the halfway point of a multi-day trek through the Himalayas with a group of blind Tibetan students. Their goal: a relatively easy (for the author) ascent of Lhakpa Ri, a 23,144-foot peak in the shadow of Mount Everest. Like Weihenmayer learned as a young, blind wrestler in Denver, the best way to overcome any obstacle is to tackle it head-on, whether that’s simply walking down a busy New York street with a cane or struggling to the top of a wind-scoured peak. He wanted to show the students they could do anything.
The students, who ranged in age from 13 to 18 years old (most were around 16 years old), came from a small sanctuary for the blind in the nation’s capital city, Lhasa, founded and operated by a blind German teacher, Sabriye Tenberken, and her partner, Paul Kronenberg. Dubbed Braille Without Borders, the school gives blind students the skills they need to be “useful” in a society that sees disabilities as punishment for past deeds, and so Tenberken invited Weihenmayer to meet with her students shortly after his historic Mount Everest ascent. Why? Solidarity through celebrity: to show her young, impoverished and ostracized students that blind people can do incredible things — even stand on top of the world.
Weihenmayer’s visit came with the best of intentions, but the mountaineer quickly learned he would be battling more than the elements. At the expedition’s low point, just about everyone in the group — yak herders, Tibetan guides, a cumbersome film crew and even Tenberken herself — was ready to turn around. They were cold, tired and feeling the effects of altitude, all with an approaching storm to worry about.
“The goal here is to summit a mountain!” Weihenmayer tells the school’s founders during a tense argument within earshot of the students, most of whom knew English. “An expedition has a clear definition, with clear expectations. We leave the city, we drive to the mountains and we hike every day until we reach camp. Then we repeat until we reach the summit. We all knew we wouldn’t be sitting around a campfire, roasting marshmallows and singing camp songs.”
Weihenmayer’s outburst sounds rough and unkind, and it nearly drives a permanent wedge between him and the German teachers. As a reader, even I was ready to side with Tenberken and Kronenberg — none of their students had any mountaineering experience, and yet this American adventurer wanted to force them up a peak that’s higher than any I’ve been on in my lifetime. But that’s just who he is: determined to the point of alienating friends and even star-struck acquaintances.
The scene is one of more than a dozen snapshots from Weihenmayer’s adventures after his historic Mount Everest mission in 2001, and each one adds paint to the portrait of a self-made, self-sufficient mountaineer who uses peaks and rivers and rock faces to inspire others.
But “No Barriers” is much more than a self-glimpse at Weihenmayer’s life and adventures. Sure, the subhead reads “A blind man’s journey to kayak the Grand Canyon,” but his quest to complete the 277-mile stretch eventually becomes a way to highlight the other “gimps” he’s met through the years: the disabled athletes who are breaking barriers (and records) of their own.
After opening with the Lhakpa Ri expedition, “No Barriers” delves into the origins of the eponymous organization, an international nonprofit Weihenmayer founded with two fellow disabled athletes: Mark Wellman, an adventurer paralyzed from the waist down, and Hugh Herr, a climber who lost his legs to frostbite.
Like he does with the Tibetan students, Weihenmayer lovingly introduces Wellman and Herr, along with the rest of the “gimps” he encounters. The word, Weihenmayer writes, is one of Wellman’s favorites for disabled peers — way better than physically challenged, differently abled or handi-capable.
The remainder of the book traces Weihenmayer’s journey from novice kayaker to boater with a purpose, with plenty of details on the people he meets and places he visits to prepare: Green River, the Usumacita in Mexico, the U.S. National Whitewater Center in North Carolina and dozens of rivers across Colorado. The final 100 pages or so chronicle his Grand Canyon attempt, warts and all, and he isn’t afraid to tackle the victories and defeats with a trademark mix of good humor and occasional ego. He might be blind, but he’s still human to the core, and the book is better for it.
If you’re wondering if Wehenmayer completed the Grand Canyon, you’ll be relieved by the outcome and often surprised by the details. As for the rest of the Lhakpa Ri attempt? Let’s just say no one in the group reached the summit, but each student (and even the teachers) left forever changed by something no one thought was possible, including an afternoon spent playing make-believe at 21,000 feet in a surreal glacial field the guides and students dubbed Ice Palace.
“Lhakpa Ri was the summit,” a student told Weihenmayer, “but the Ice Palace was the blind summit.”
This story was originally published in the April 20, 2017 edition of the Summit Daily News.
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