Blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer tackles Aspen’s Highland Bowl
The Aspen Times
A visiting skier from Golden hoofed it up Highland Bowl in about 40 minutes on a partly cloudy April afternoon, took a breather at the 12,393-foot summit, clicked into his skis and then carefully picked his way down the steep slope.
Nothing about the hike or descent was remarkable — until you factor in that the skier is blind.
Erik Weihenmayer is world-renowned for his adventures. Tackling the bowl is far from his most audacious feat. He captured international attention in May 2001 when he became the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest. He has an impressive climbing resume including the Seven Summits. He has solo kayaked the Grand Canyon, an accomplishment depicted in the documentary “The Weight of Water,” screening at 5Point Adventure Film Festival in Carbondale on April 28.
“People think that because I do things and I’m blind, I’m a daredevil and I’m really not,” Weihenmayer said. “I’m not a daredevil at all.”
For many people he is an inspiration, whether they have sight or not. There weren’t a lot of people hiking the bowl when Weihenmayer tackled it on April 9. But when they realized they were passing a blind dude, nearly all of them spoke words of encouragement or praise, took a photo with their smartphones or both.
Weihenmayer, who lost his vision to retinoschisis as a teenager, is an avid skier at Colorado resorts. He first hiked and skied the bowl about five years ago at the suggestion — insistence really — of his friend and guide Rob Leavitt of Basalt. Leavitt has been an instructor for Aspen Skiing Co. for 30 years and guides regularly for Challenge Aspen, which works to get handicapped people on the slopes and into the outdoors. The two men were paired 20-some years ago at Snowmass through a Challenge Aspen program and have skied together ever since.
Leavitt said he used to be wiped out by their skiing sessions because guiding a blind person can be extremely stressful.
“But now we work fairly well together so it’s really more of a normal ski day for me rather than a grueling work day with the blind guy,” Leavitt said. “We’ve gotten into a really nice rhythm.”
As Weihenmayer tells it, Leavitt suddenly and surprisingly decided five seasons ago it was time they tackled the bowl. “He said, ‘I think you’re ready.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready, let’s talk about this more.’ And (Rob) was like, ‘No, you’re ready.’”
The hike features a 782-foot vertical rise with nearly constant exposure on steep ski slopes to the hiker’s left and a couple of sheer drop-offs to out-of-bounds terrain to the right. Skiers and snowboarders take off their boards, attach them to packs or slings and trudge their way up the slope. Footholds are typically kicked into the ridge’s snow for all but the trailblazers to utilize.
Imagine finding those footholds and not straying off course with your eyes closed. It’s a frightening prospect. Then consider reaching the summit in a very respectable 40 minutes while doing so.
“I was cautious because it’s so narrow there,” Weihenmayer said, referring to nearly all of the ascent terrain. “It’s good to know the consequences. On the left, I kept tapping my pole to know where the edge is.
“I wouldn’t say I was nervous but a fall would be a bad consequence there, I keep hearing.”
A reporter along for the trip was recruited into service as “Tinkerbell” — strapping a bear bell around a hand and constantly shaking it so Weihenmayer knew which direction he was headed. Weihenmayer was second in line. Leavitt was behind, providing guidance such as, “You really want to avoid the left side right now.”
Skyler Williams, the business manager for Touch the Top, Weihenmayer’s business venture, shot video of the journey along with Aspen Times photographer Anna Stonehouse.
Weihenmayer shaved about five minutes off of his bowl hike time compared with the previous day.
“Yesterday I was huffing a little bit — a lot, actually,” he said. Acclimating for a day and night worked wonders.
Once at the summit, Weihenmayer soaked in the experience almost like a sighted person — feeling the wind in his hair, feeling the sunlight hit his face, shooting the breeze with others at the summit. After a quick breather, it was time to ski down.
“He’s climbed Everest so I knew hiking up wasn’t going to be a problem, so my job is to get him down,” Leavitt said.
They have skied enough together that Leavitt doesn’t have to worry so much about Erik spilling and sliding down the wickedly steep slope. They can focus on making his style look “pretty and efficient,” Leavitt said.
They have developed a unique system. Most visually impaired skiers are guided from behind. That way, the guide can keep an eye on the student and the terrain ahead. Leavitt, however, stays ahead of Weihenmayer.
“By guiding from the front, the skier is skiing toward the voice,” Leavitt explained. “It just puts them in a more forward, athletic position better for skiing.”
It’s also more challenging for the guide because they must swivel their head, constantly looking at the terrain in front, the skier behind and approaching skiers. The nice thing about the Bowl, Leavitt said, is there are no trees and relatively few other skiers.
Leavitt has a microphone with a speaker in a pack around his waist. He constantly provides commands so Weihenmayer knows where he is and knows what to do. Erik links several turns at a time until they take a breather.
Weihenmayer said he listens to the sound Leavitt’s skis make to get a feel for the terrain.
“I can hear him kind of drop off into space and go, oh, he’s in a steep spot,” Weihenmayer said.
Speaking of space, skiing the steep slopes of the bowl gives Weihenmayer a celestial sensation.
“On groomers, you don’t get that feeling of dropping into space on every turn,” he said. “So for me, I’d say it’s a pretty unique experience. That’s kind of a hard thing as a blind guy, that when you let go into space, you’re going to come around, ya know?”
Weihenmayer tackled the steep part of the bowl like the true athlete he is. Leavitt guided him down the ridge to the North Woods then curled into the terrain at the G4 and G5 paths in Highland Bowl. The steepest pitch in that terrain is 40 degrees. The average pitches are 36 to 37 degrees. The snow texture was delightfully chalky on the steep slopes, more slushy down below.
The mogul fields on the runout to the Deep Temerity chairlift provided more of a challenge because of their unpredictable peaks and troughs. Weihenmayer had a couple of minor spills. The only time he had any physical contact with a guide on the hike or descent was when he was locating his skis at the summit.
It was an awe-inspiring accomplishment to witness.
Weihenmayer has an interesting perspective on his quests for adventure.
“Look, life’s about what you choose to pursue,” he said. “This is what I choose to pursue. I have friends that are blind and they’re head of procurement for Sam’s Club. I look at that and say, ‘How in the world do you do that? How do you look at a spreadsheet when you’re blind?’
“It’s just sort of what you commit to and what you spend a lot of your time pursuing.”
Weihenmayer isn’t solely an adrenaline junkie. He is an author, co-producer of films, and a highly sought motivational speaker. He also is a husband and a father to two children. His income from his speaking engagements and other business ventures goes to No Barriers, a nonprofit he co-founded in 2005. No Barriers works with people with physical and emotional challenges — everyone from U.S. military veterans to kids in the foster care system.
“Sometimes traumatic things can either put a crust around you or kind of remove you in a way from life where you’re looking at your life through a window; you’re experiencing it and it’s once removed,” Weihenmayer said. “Fear kind of holds you back, too — kind of gets you in that window where you’re looking at your life and say, ‘How do I break through all the stuff and sort of make an attempt to live in some way?’”
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