Erik Weihenmayer - ‘I can hear rocks and trees and even space’
1. We often hear other senses compensate to some extent when you are blind. From your experience of extreme situations, what do sighted people miss?
My view is different from a sighted person. I still get scenery… it’s just different. It’s not the big sweeping visual view from the summit; I get a more close up view. I get to touch the rocks and the ice, sculpted in such beautiful ways. I get to feel the crunch of the snow and the feeling of movement, and to sense the power of my body moving rhythmically up a mountain, swinging as I swing my ice tool. So I do get scenery – the wind and sun on my face. And, when high up on a mountain, or really anywhere, a blind person uses ‘echolocation’ – sound vibrations that bounce off objects and come back at you. It’s kind of like what a bat does, but humans can do it, too… although not quite as well as a bat! In this way I get information from my environment. So, I can ‘hear’ rocks and trees and even space. When I’m high up on a mountain the sound vibrations move outwards creating such an awe-inspiring infinity of sound.
2. Your climbs to the highest mountains must have taken you to the limit of endurance. Do you have a mantra or saying that helps you when the going gets tough?
The Sherpas on Everest have a very cool quote. They say, ‘The nature of mind is like water. If you do not disturb it, it will become clear.’ And I think about that because it’s very easy on a mountain, or on a river when you’re kayaking, or just in normal life to get so distracted. When there’s baggage in my mind I tend to do it – to seek that mindset. It counters the problems: Distraction. Worries. Doubt. Fear. Negativity. Those things are like muddy water that weigh you down and make the path forward seem murky – like you’re actually trying to push through that mud. So the secret is trying to keep your mind still, like clear water coming down a mountain stream. It takes discipline to do that. And preparation, too. If you just went to Everest without any preparation, it would be impossible to keep your mind still. But with all the preparation and the team, all the systems, strategies and tools that I have built up, and the ways I have learned to be comfortable in the mountains, I dispel all the ‘baggage’. By doing so, I expand my space of awareness, so that immediacy can expand and occupy more space than all that other baggage combined. That’s what I try to do in life, and in the mountains as well.
3. What do you tell your son about travel and adventure, and its place in life?
My son’s name is Arjun and he’s from Nepal. We adopted him when he was a little boy of about five. So he knows the world. When he first came to America he flew across the ocean and he looked at that little screen, the image of a tiny plane, like a little blip going across the globe. When he arrived in Colorado it was so difficult for him that he thought he was on another planet. One time he was looking at a book showing the galaxies. He pointed to Earth and asked, ‘That’s Colorado?’ Then he pointed to another planet and said, ‘That’s Nepal.’ I said, ‘No, no, they’re both on the same planet, and you just came across an ocean.’ So he has that sense of travel and adventure already built into him.
Now he’s in America, plays sport, does great in school, and has a sense of adventure. He’s an incredible kid. We have gone back to Nepal, and we trekked across the Mustang in western Nepal. They call it the ‘Trans-Himalaya’ because it’s on the Tibetan side and is one of the deepest gorges in the world. You trek on horseback through this incredible trading route that Nepalis, Chinese and Tibetans have been using for thousands of years. Arjun has a real sense of adventure. We have travelled all over the world and he loves travel. One of the fears of a parent, though, are social media and video games. Because whether kids admit it or not, they can get so much at their fingertips from their computers. I think it kills a little bit the desire to travel and learn, to struggle, fail and bleed. Why would you go and do all that, that massive effort, when you could experience comfort and such excitement and stimulation from your fingertips? I think social media and technology are a double-edged sword. As parents, we try to say ‘Technology is wonderful, but real life is wonderful too.’ And in that way you strive for a balance.
4. How do you find people in less developed countries react to your achievements?
I have been fortunate to be able to travel all around the world – all seven continents – and to have climbed the highest peaks in each continent. Once in Russia I was giving a talk about amazing people with challenges and disabilities, people doing utterly amazing things. The audience said. ‘Whoa, this is shocking to us, because we don’t see people with disabilities; they don’t really come out, and aren’t part of the fabric of society.’ Then in West Papua, trekking through the mountains there, the Yali people watched me trek. At the end of the journey they brought me into a hut. The tribal leaders, clad in bird feathers and penis gourds, sat us down and we drank something. The chief said, ‘Blind people in our villages stay in the huts. They might learn to weave or something, but you coming here and doing this shows us that there are more possibilities for our culture.’ And I think that’s really cool to be able to take people’s idea of what’s possible and improbable and break it up, and shatter it into a million pieces. So that folks have to then go through the struggle of rebuilding their perceptions. I think it opens doors in the world, and makes people more tolerant and more hopeful, and excited about their own possibilities.