In Focus with Erik Weihenmayer

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This is a rerun from 09/12/17

Meet Erik Weihenmayer: He’s climbed the world’s highest mountains, kayaked down the Colorado River and is the first blind person to climb Mount Everest.

Weihenmayer went blind as a teenager, but that didn’t stop him from joining the wrestling team as a freshman in high school. Weihenmayer says he is driven to achieve anything he sets his mind on.

In his 20s, Weihenmayer moved to Arizona and became a teacher and wrestling coach at Phoenix Country Day School. It was there that he decided to train for climbing Everest. He reached the top in 2001 and on his way back down, his guide told Weihenmayer, to “not let this be the greatest thing he ever does.”

Since 2001, Weihenmayer has become a motivational speaker and a best-selling author. He started a foundation to inspire others to achieve their dreams and he continues to climb.

Ted Simons: Coming up next on this special in focus edition of "Arizona Horizon," an interview with Eric Weihenmayer, the first blind person to climb Mt. Everest and a proponent of the no barriers philosophy. An interview with Eric Weihenmayer next on "Arizona Horizon."
Made possible by the contributions of Arizona PBS, members of your PBS station. Thank you.
Good evening and welcome to this special in focus edition of "Arizona horizon." I’m Ted Simons. Our guest an adventurer in every sense of the word. He climbed the tallest mountain, kayaked the Colorado River, raced mountain bikes and parachuted while blind. He's Eric Weihenmayer. He's lived quite a life and he is a motivational speaker and author of a new book. Thanks for joining us.
Eric Weihenmayer: Yes.

Ted Simons: Do you understand why those who can see are so impressed? Do you understand why we're so impressed with you?

Eric Weihenmayer: We get so close to yourself, sometimes I just kind of giggle, you know? Your life is what it is. I've done awesome adventures. I don't feel special except for the fact that I’ve been able to connect with amazing people to do amazing adventures in life.

Ted Simons: And I was going to say, again, for those of us -- are you -- in a quiet moment, are you impressed with you.

Eric Weihenmayer: I don't think I’m ever impressed. In that kind of a way, we're always looking forward. I have a climb coming up in August where we climb this 3,000 rock base in the alps and I have to be ready for that. You have to kind of stay focused and be humble in the stuff that I’m doing. So I don't really take too much time to like be impressed by anything in the past. Because that's all in the past. It doesn't really matter. It's not going help me on many i next climb.

Ted Simons: That's an interesting way to put that. Let's talk about you. Lost your sight as a child? Talk to us about that.

Eric Weihenmayer: I went blind before my freshman year in high school. I was born with this rare eye disease but I could see until that point. Then slowly over time, I lost vision and then, yeah, right before freshman year, I went blind as a bat and couldn't see to take the test. Shocking would be an understatement. You're not really prepared even though you know you're going blind, you're never prepared.

Ted Simons: I was going to say, how did you handle it? How did your family handle it?

Eric Weihenmayer: I handled it with total denial. Anger and denial. Blindness. I didn't know what it meant like saying you have a terminal disease. You block it out and ignore it because your brain doesn't know how to handle it. It's too much. I felt there was an expanse between me and the world. I had to push the parameters of blindness. I knew I wasn't going to do it by denial or being angry or pushing the world away, that was the opposite of what I should be doing. You reluctantly realize there are things that are bigger than you and you have to accept them and work within those parameters.

Ted Simons: Was there an aha moment? A single moment where you say the anger, I got to get the denial. I got to get rid of this. I have to move on?

Eric Weihenmayer: I think of many steps. I joined the wrestling team. Tapped my courage always in the wrestling room and the wrestling team. That's my first tribe of boys. And it's something bigger than me. Bigger than blindness. Amazing. I love being part of that team. They drilled my head to the mat just like any other freshman. I love those guys for doing that and accepting me. And I turned out to be a pretty good wrestler. Then I got this newsletter in braille of a group taking blind kids rock climbing. I said okay. I went to New Hampshire and climbed this rock base and used my hands and my feet as my eyes. Problem solving my way up the rock base. And got to the top of this thing and could hear the sound of space ahead of me. Hear the echoes like bouncing off of the walls and coming back at me. And I thought, wow, this is beautiful. Like I saw blindness would be a prison but it's not. Like this is it the opposite of a prison. This is great. And that was at 16 years old, you know, 16 years later, I was standing on top of the world. So that first rock climb definitely, you know, affecting the trajectory of my life.

Ted Simons: I'm going say it had a mystical experience for you, didn't it?

Eric Weihenmayer: A rebirth experience. I think part of your life when you lose things or you know you have to say good-bye to those things, it's -- you know, you have to -- you have to let them die. So in a way, I had to let sight like you know seeing the world through my eyes, I had to let that die. And sort of figure out how I was going to experience the world and experience joy in other ways. And by hanging on to sight, I was -- you know, I was stopping myself, I was in the paralysis and so I had to let go of it. And again, wrestling --

Ted Simons: Wrestling, rock climbing. I mean, did parents, family, friends, did anyone say no or really shouldn't do this or be careful? These sorts of things?

Eric Weihenmayer: My mom was certainly nervous. Then my dad was just -- he was a marine. He was captain of the football team in Princeton. So he was always trying to figure out like how we were going to get into the mix. My parents never held me back or stopped me from doing things. I was driving and riding a mini bank around the neighborhood.

Ted Simons: My goodness.

Eric Weihenmayer: Barely seeing out of one eye. They put a nix on that.

Ted Simons: That's understandable there.

Eric Weihenmayer: Most of the time they were trying to figure out how I was going to do stuff. All of the kids going fishing. How is eric going to be fishing? Keep guest him out there. Make sure he's not left behind. My parents were the opposite trying to problem solve for me to get me out there to do the things other kids were doing.

Ted Simons: They did a great job. You did a great job. You wind up from Connecticut moving out to Phoenix. How did that happen? What went on there?

Eric Weihenmayer: He wears so many hats and being in charge of a classroom and interacting with kids. I went lined in middle school. Somehow your life is weird where you wind up as a middle schoolteacher. I went to phoenix country day school. That was an amazing experience. I got hired by the principal at the time. I loved teaching. I could have done that forever. Going to work every day. I was one of the proudest six years of my life working there, being in charge of the fifth grade classroom. And the kids would pass out papers. I would have them write on the board. They'd correct each other's quizzes. I listened to their essays or things like that on recordings or on my computer. I had all of the systems, all of the seating charts in braille so i knew where everybody was sitting in the classroom. It was a really, really fun part of my life.

Ted Simons: I was going to say, just your presence was an educational experience for those kids.

Eric Weihenmayer: Some parents say I want my kid to be in Eric’s class because he's a good teacher and the kids will get a good education and then some extra, you know, value. I guess, from watching the way I get things done as a blind person. I think it's cool for people to watch other people engaged in problem solving. That's a good healthy experience.

Ted Simons: The rock climbing continues. You end up on Mt. McKinley it was called then. First blind person to climb Mt. Everest. How do you go from I’m interested in rock climbing. A fantastic facility. We're next to a rock wall. And I say good luck, fella, you're not getting me near this thing. You're climbing mt. Everest, all this stuff. Was it I have to do it. How did you prepare for it? Did you go smaller to higher mountains? How does that work?

Eric Weihenmayer: I had a substitute teacher at my school. Sam Bridgem. He was a good rock climber. We started going out on the weekends climbing. We're climbing rocks out on the desert and stuff and he said, hey, we should try something bigger. I said like what? Like a 200-foot rock face. He said how about Denali? That's a snowy glaciated peak in Alaska. I said yeah, let's train for that. We trained for a year and a half. We didn't summit any mountain, we summited nothing together. We sum milted everything we tried on our practices. We thought we had ready because we experienced so much suffering and learned so much. June 27, 1995, the sum milt of Denali after 19 days on the mountain. We found out it was Helen Keller’s birthday.

Ted Simons: My goodness.

Eric Weihenmayer: That was cool.

Ted Simons: No kidding. Correct me if i'm wrong, you got married 13,000 feet in the air, correct?

Eric Weihenmayer: Yeah, well my next -- I got intrigued by the seven summits. The tallest peak in every continent. I thought it would be amazing to make your life as an adventurer. So I left teaching in 1997 after Denali and after I climbed El Captain. And the next thing I wanted to climb was Kilimanjaro because I wanted my family to experience the mountain. I brought my girlfriend, my fiancée up there. We got married at 13,000 feet on the plateau. The local porter threw rice at us. Cooked rice, they didn't know it was supposed to be dry. They didn't have all of their traditions down. But it was special.

Ted Simons: That sounds fantastic. 21,000 feet of mt. Everest and 2004, what does it feel like at 21,000 feet? Your senses, I’m sure, are more attuned to things than the average person.

Eric Weihenmayer: Yeah.

Ted Simons: When you're at 21,000 feet, do you feel it?

Y Eric Weihenmayer: eah, you definitely feel it. The summit of evidence vest 29,300 feet. It's where planes are flying. I didn't know if I would be able to reach the summit. I had an amazing team. I trained as hard as I could train humanly possible. I had a lot of systems and strategies for tools going up there. I swing my tools I know if it's a good swing by the sound and the vibrations, how to put on cramp-ones, the spikes on your feet. How to tie knots, cook meals on the stove, set up tents. You have to be able to do it and I wanted to be as independent as I could. I didn't know if I was going to summit Everest. I knew I was poised to have the best chance possible.

Ted Simons: You succeeded. You got to 21,000 feet for goodness sakes. When you got there did you say -- again, did you have another one of those spiritual experiences?

Eric Weihenmayer: The summit of Everest, you're in on an island in the sky, as I said, at 29,000 feet. So you're -- you stand there and, again, listening to the sound of space moving out, there's nothing for the sounds to bounce off of. It moves infinitely through space. Its's an awe-inspiring sound of just infinite space. You're swallowed by sky. And then you have to get down. So you might be thinking about world peace or how to solve poverty or -- but you really have to get down. 90% of accidents happened on the way down. So after you cry and take your photos and just like blown away, you have to put your guard back up and say, okay, I’ve got to get down. Every step matters. So you trudge down six, seven hours back to camp. And every step is -- could kill you. So it's a -- it's one of the sports where you just cannot make a mistake.

Ted Simons: I hope this is not an insensitive question. But you saw things in life. You remember seeing things. When you're at the top of mt. Everest, when you're at the top of the mountain, kayaking down the Colorado River, do you see in your mind what you're doing?

Eric Weihenmayer: Yes. Yes. So I’ve done a lot of research on neuroplasticity. Just reading up on it. This guy is amazing. He invented the idea of the brain being plastic. The brain -- you know, one thing is damaged, other parts take over. And so he created this technology called the brain work and it's essentially a camera that I wear on my head that translates through a microprocessor through a plate -- like a vibrating plate that I wear on my tong. So I am getting tactile manuals on that camera on my tongue and get projected to my brain and the visual cortex of my brain is visualizing what my tongue is feeling. It's the most amazing stuff. Seems like science fiction. Yes, as I’m getting the clues, as I’m hearing the wall here, my brain is creating images inside. So it's a good lesson that hearing, vision, touch, those things don't happen in the eyes or in the ears. They're happening in the brain. So for sure, my brain is, i think, seeing in a way. But it's just -- it -- the eyes are blocked so I’m not getting it through my eyes anymore.

Ted Simons: Fascinating what the brain can do. So you can remember being on top of a mountain and kayaking down a river and parachuting. But you remember in a different way, perhaps, than others would.

Eric Weihenmayer: Yeah, I had the visual stuff in my brain. And I also have the sense of touch and the sun on my face and the sounds and the culture and, you know, what the -- what the snow felt like as I crunched through it or swung my tool. And also there's another thing, it's not a sense, but it's just the beauty of movement, of moving forward in this really rhythmic way breathing, you know, near the top of Everest. You're breathing six times and you take a step and another six breaths and take a step. Movement is really, really beautiful, especially when you're blind because, you know, it's an internal sense.

Ted Simons: That is absolutely interesting, fascinating stuff. You are seeing the world in a very different way.

Eric Weihenmayer: 100%.

Ted Simons: In 2005, you co-founded No Barriers USA. What is that?

Eric Weihenmayer: When I got down from Everest, our team leader is an amazing leader. He pulled me aside and he said, hey, do me a favor. I thought he was going to congratulate me or something. Don't let Everest be the greatest thing you ever do. And that's where no barriers begins, I think, the book and the movement and the idea which is like where do you take these things and move forward and come down the mountain, i guess, and take those gifts that you struggled, that you struggle through to earn and use them in some ways to -- in your life at home, not on the mountain but off of the mountain in your normal life. I was one of the co-founders of the movement, an organization, no barriers. I started it with a paraplegic friend of mine named Mark Wellman, the first para to climb el captain, did 7,000 pull-ups up the rock face to climb that mountain. And a guy named Hugh who's a double leg amputee who builds his open legs and uses them to climb. He's an amazing climber. Two really great people I co-founded the organization with. It was basically looking at those two and saying, okay, they created the amazing ways to break through barriers in their life, what can you take out of people and translate to others? What -- you know, what are those elements that you have to cross through on all our journeys that we have to confront and cross through to better equip ourselves? Things like I noticed that Hugh and Mark did something I call alchemy. They take everything bad, everything tragic and they turn it around. They turn it to something good. They're complete alchemists. I thought, okay, that's an amazing quality that I want to flesh out of these people and I want to show others how to perform alchemy in their lives. How do you build great teams around you to support you and lift you up. So no barriers became that map of how we move forward in our lives from the very dark place to an amazing place and illuminate what that map looks like through the elements along the way.

Ted Simons: I want to get back to more no barriers. But you mention that your friends say don't let this be the last big thing that you do. Was there a bit of a letdown? I mean you climbed Mt. Everest for goodness sake. Was there a bit of a letdown afterwards?

Eric Weihenmayer: You know, I wouldn't say a letdown. You go to the big celebration tour. You're the grand puba. You're growing candy to kids. You have this moment of quiet and, you know, from time to time, and that -- in that energy when you think like, I don't -- and people are throwing all of the ideas at me like you have to go run with the bulls in Spain and, you know, we're going to shoot you out of a cannon. And it's like I don't want my life to be full of stunts. I'm not like some blind stunt man to go to the next scarier, more dangerous, riskier thing. That makes your life cheap. Like I wanted to figure out how do you use these experiences as catalysts that move you forward? And I think life is a storm. So like to throw you forward in that storm, and kind of new, surprising, unexpected ways, and hopefully towards new discoveries. But not to use those experiences of like, okay, I pounded my chest, I did it, I’m arrived and I never have to do anything again. I never have to question myself. I never have to like prove myself to myself anymore. Then your journey is done and I didn't want that to be the case.

Ted Simons: And I noticed you have persevering through challenges to innovate. Alchemy harnessing, summits through the gifts earned through the struggle. You write about these things, you talk about these things. Did you learn these things on your own? Did you learn over time, did others teach you?

Eric Weihenmayer: One of the reasons I wrote the book. Try to create the seed of this idea. We work with 5,000 people a year now, all walks of life. Really cool. Somebody had to sit down and create the seed. And I thought, you know, if you look at movies, you look at fictional books. You talk about growth and this kind of motivational poster type of way. When real growth is like a volcano erupting lava, it's messy, it's tumultuous. You're flailing, you're bleeding. Right? You're -- there's a -- there's dozens and dozens of times when you think I’m insane. This is the dumbest thing I’m doing. Your brain is trying to sabotage you. It will be really important to give people an idea of what this real growth process looks like. And all of it was learned through one, my experiences, two, my team. Amazing people that I met along the way where I said, okay, I’m going to study those real people. Because, you know, they're real. They there are people who are despite their challenges, despite getting stuck, despite getting crushed, they sort of figure out the insights to break through the barriers and move forward towards fulfilling things in their lives and those are the people I thought worked better.

Ted Simons: Are you a patient person? I ask that because you've accomplished so much and you've broken down, through so many barriers. When you hear somebody whining and complaining, and I mean someone who has got everything in the world, do you lose patience of those kinds of people?

Eric Weihenmayer: I whine and complain like everyone. I'm really impatient with myself.

Ted Simons: Are you patient with others?

Eric Weihenmayer: I'm really patient with others. Sometimes with my wife I can be more patient, I guess. With the No Barriers folks we work with, I’m really patient. I'm not patient with myself but I’m patient with others. Because when you go blind or when something happens to you that you have to wrestle with, and I’m not -- I think everyone is in the same boat. Most people are not blind. But they do wrestle with things that they feel are stopping them, they give you empathy to other people's experience. So I watch, you know, people I work with when I go on expeditions with veterans and, you know, I see them struggling with trauma in their brain. And they're trying to break through and it gives you huge amounts of empathy for human experience so we're all -- as we say no barriers, we're all in the same boat. You know, I may be blind and somebody else may be dealing with trauma and somebody else may be struggling with obesity and somebody else may be a cancer survivor, whatever it is, we're ail in the same club. And it's our barriers that we're striving to break through that connects us in that club.

Ted Simons: That's a great message. Last question. Do you think -- and this is abstract here, do you think you would be the same person right now if you had not lost your sight?

Eric Weihenmayer: I used to try to answer that question by saying yes, I think I would be the same person. But as time goes on, that's not really true. Because if I could have seen, I never would have experienced blindness. I loved baseball, basketball, traditional sports. I never would have searched out those things. And those things would have never affected the trajectory of my life. So that question is like asking me if I wound up being a different person, you know, what would my life be like? And it's like so open ended. It's impossible to answer. So I’m pretty happy with my life and I want to keep doing the things that I’m doing. I want to keep climbing. I'll run out of cartilage before I run out of mountains and rivers. Catching no barriers. Really catching on. Started with tiny little groups of people and now we have thousands of people show up. And I think it's a uniting message for us all.

Ted Simons: You are a remarkable person. You are a great inspiration. Congratulations on all of your success and continued success. Thank you for joining us.

Cool, thank you. Love it. Take care.

That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons thank you for joining us on this special in focus edition of "Arizona horizon," you have a great evening.

Erik Weihenmayer: Motivational Speaker

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