World at His Fingertips
IN FADING LIGHT, STILL DEEP IN CALIFORNIA’S YOSEMITE National Park back country, Jeff Evans couldn’t see the trail down from a rock climb. “We were lost,” recalls Evans, who was leading the way, with fellow climber Erik Weihenmayer just behind. Then they traded places. In minutes, Weihenmayer had located the path and picked up the pace. On the way down they encountered a party of headlamp-equipped hikers on the way up who marveled at Weihenmayer’s nighttime navigation. “They said, ‘You guys must see really well,’ ” Evans remembers. “We didn’t say anything. We just left it at that.” Telling them that Weihenmayer was blind, the two climbers figured, would require too much explaining.
Seeing a path in the dark—with the help of his hiking poles—is only one of Weihenmayer’s gifts. Blinded by a degenerative eye disease at 13, he was determined to lead a life of adventure. “I like doing things that are new and thrilling,” Weihenmayer explains. Over the years his idea of fun has been wrestling on his high school team, trekking in the Andes and jumping out of planes. Last year he even reached the summit of Alaska’s 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley, North America’s highest peak.
And that was just act one. This week the 27-year-old middle school teacher will take on Yosemite’s El Capitan—a sheer, 3,000-foot monolith that is one of rock climbing’s greatest challenges. First topped in 1958, El Cap has never been climbed by anyone sightless—something that says less to Weihenmayer about his own limitations than about the imaginary ones set by others. “Blindness,” he declares, “is just a nuisance.” As for climbing, he says, “you just have to find a different way of doing it.”
Weihenmayer has been testing the alternatives this summer during training sessions in Yosemite with climbing partners Evans, 27, Sam Bridgham, 30, and Hans Florine, 32. As is common among sighted climbers, the partners shout out the locations of promising hand-and footholds. But though Weihenmayer never climbs alone, he uses his sense of touch to find promising cracks and ridges. His buddies are impressed. “He can pretty much follow anything I can lead at this point,” says Bridgham. Adds Florine, who has climbed El Capitan 37 times: “His feet just go up to where a foothold is. And I ask, ‘How’d he do that?’ ”
It’s a question Weihenmayer’s friends have been asking ever since retinoschisis—an extremely rare congenital illness in which pieces of the retina fray, then detach—began stealing his eyesight when he was a toddler. The youngest of four children of Edwin Weihenmayer, a Weston, Conn., investment bank executive and former Marine pilot, and his homemaker wife, Ellen, Erik kept playing tag and jumping his bike alongside siblings Suzanne, Mark and Eddie until his vision finally faded to black.
After years of fighting his disability—ignoring braille lessons and once tossing his cane beneath the wheels of a car—the teenager decided to embrace it. “I made blindness a part of me, rather than something that was attacking me,” he says. Weihenmayer not only went out for the Weston High wrestling team but became its cocaptain and a state champion runnerup in the 147-pound class. And when he first hoisted himself up a rock wall—on a climbing trip for blind teens—he sensed something transcendent. “It was such an independent feeling,” he recalls. “You could just go all out.”
After graduating from Boston College and earning a master’s degree in middle school education at Boston’s Lesley College, Weihenmayer took a job in Arizona at the private Phoenix Country Day School. If Weihenmayer stands out there, it’s because he’s the only writing and mathematics teacher who spends his weekends scaling cliffs and jumping out of airplanes—with the help of a buddy falling alongside, an altimeter that beeps when it’s time to pull his rip-cord, and radioed instructions from the ground. “It’s the ultimate fear,” Weihenmayer says, “but afterward you feel incredible.”
That’s an attitude that wins Weihenmayer the admiration of his climbing friends. “The cool thing about climbing with Erik has nothing to do with him being blind,” says Bridgham. “He thinks big. He dares to dream and carry it out.”
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Yosemite