Erik Weihenmayer Interview: Alpamayo Ascent
7/28/10 - When he was 13, just heading into his freshman year of high school, Erik Weihenmayer lost his eyesight, impeding his ability to play baseball, soccer, and basketball—some of the things that define boys in their teenage years .Due to retinochisis, a retinal disease, Weihenmayer gradually lost his sight. His dad signed him up for an outdoor adventure program in Massachusetts about three hours from his home in Connecticut, and one weekend he discovered rock climbing.
Now 42, Weihenmayer has climbed Everest and the rest of the Seven Summits, carried the Olympic Torch, led a group of blind teens up Everest, and has been interviewed on news stations and talk shows across the world. One of his latest adventures was achieving the first blind ascent of Alpamayo, a 19,511-foot peak in the Peruvian Andes. Along with friend and fellow climber Eric Alexander and local Peruvian guide Rodrigo Callupe, Weihenmayer summited the mountain. Now back in Golden, Colorado, Erik spoke to Climbing about the Alpamayo climb (watch the video here) and the way he views the world.
What stood out about Alpamayo, compared to the other mountains you’ve climbed?
Well, I like ice climbing a lot, so I’ve been looking lately, but not for Mount Everest–type mountains. With them there’s a lot of flogging involved, and just a lot of suffering and a lot of time away from home and sleeping in the snow and dirt. I have two kids, a 10-year-old and an 8-year-old, and I don’t want to be away for three months. I look for 20,000-foot peaks that I can do in two and a half weeks, and more technical peaks. I'd much rather climb technical faces, and the French Direct route on Alpamayo was one I heard opened up. It’s just a beautiful line. The summit’s a little boulder of ice about 20 feet across. It’s super cool, super dramatic. It’s not an extremely long day, but it’s a really fun, technical day where you’re really climbing.
Even at only two and a half weeks, it still sounds like it could be a rough trip at times.
Well, you’re physically tired, but it’s also very uncomfortable. You’re cold the whole day, and I had everything on—all the layers. And I was still cold. And I was sick. You get pretty bad dysentery over there, because even though you boil the water, at that altitude there’s not much you can do. When you gotta go up there on the wall, you gotta go.
But without the elements of discomfort and uncertainty, it’s not an adventure.
What was the scariest part of the trip?
Eric’s pulmonary edema was the scariest part. Everything’s scary a little bit—crossing the bergschrund (a giant crack at the base of the peak), and rappelling down the route, since I can’t see where I’m stepping, and Eric’s below me yelling left or right. It’s always scary when you go flinging into space. There are a lot of scary parts with the blindness thing, never knowing what’s around the corner. Crossing crevasses is scary, too, even jumping across two-foot-wide spaces and not knowing where to land.
What was your favorite part of the experience?
I just love these technical faces. Ice is so beautiful. It’s a perfect forum for a blind person. It’s not so specific like rock; I scan my tool across the ice and find a weak or concave spot to plant it. it’s a very rhythmic, beautiful motion. It’s really, really fun, that feeling of movement.
When did you start ice climbing?
I though about ice climbing when I was 27. I didn’t know that I could do it. I had some friends who were like, “No way, that’s impossible, you have to know where you’re swinging your tool. If you don’t plant it right, you’ll knock off a huge chunk of ice.” So that put a stop to my thoughts and plans for a while, until I got the gumption to call a friend of a friend, a guide in Ouray named Mike O’Donnell. At the end of the call, I was like, “Hey, I gotta tell you something, just so you know and you can back out.” And I told him he was blind, and he said that that was even cooler. We’ve climbed all over the world together, and he’s been a great partner and a great friend.
Are your limits while climbing different than any other climber’s?
I scrabble for whatever I can get. World-class climbers are very strategic. My philosophy is this: a lot of times when you’re aid climbing, you’re standing on these ladders and leaning back and putting in a tiny piece of gear. I can’t really look at the crack and see where to put the next piece of gear. I have to climb to the top and feel where I’m going to put my next piece of gear, then climb back down. Essentially it’s extra work, and if you analyzed it, you would probably find that there are more cons than pros in that system. I don’t really see it that way; I’m just happy to be out there in the game. Sure, there are a lot of people that climb harder than me and a lot of people that don’t climb as hard as me, but I don’t think of it in that way.
What’s it like using senses other than sight?
Definitely hearing and touch are my two primary senses. Hearing is important; I get some clues from the sound of the ice and from the sound of space, the way vibrations bounce off objects and come back at you, or the way they don’t bounce off objects. I can tell if there’s a boulder, I can tell where the drop-offs are, I can kind of tell how steep the face is.
I would say even more I use my sense of touch. As much as climbing for me is using the sound, it’s almost more about the vibrations, the feel of ice when I tap my tool. You scan your pick across the ice and feel those little weak spots and natural spaces to swing into, where you know your tool’s gonna bite. When I’m hiking, I’m using my poles to feel my way.
You’re an inspiration to a lot of people, but who do you find inspirational?
I find anybody who does something pioneering to be really inspirational. I wrote a book I’m re-releasing this late July called The Adversity Advantage, and in that book I start with the story of something that happened to me just as I was going blind. I could see just a little out of one eye, and I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I was frustrated. I would just sit and watch TV—I could see if I got super close to the TV set, literally with my nose touching the screen. One time, I saw a guy named Terry Fox who lost a leg to cancer. He decided to run across Canada, thousands of miles. This was in the early 1980s, and nobody was doing that. Now it’s like the door’s been blown off; you have people with transplanted hearts climbing Kilimanjaro and El Cap, and disabled people doing everything. That was a great decision he made. Rather than just retreat and focus on survival, he decided to attack and squeeze every bit out of life with the time he had.
What’s next for you?
We’re heading in October to the Himalayas to climb a mountain next to Everest called Lobuche East. The tenth year of my Mount Everest climb is approaching, so we thought it would be cool to climb with 12 injured soldiers—arm and leg amputees, individuals with brain injuries—men and women, branches of the military from the Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force. We’re calling it Soldiers to the Summit. They’re integrating themselves back into life.
I’m training personally right now for the Leadville mountain bike race, one of the toughest mountain bike races in the country.
Find out more about Erik's achievements at touchthetop.com.