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    A blind climb to the top of the world

    “Blind people have to take chances in order to grow up,” says  Erik Weihenmayer (1968- ), the first blind person to climb Mt. Everest.

    A blind adventurer, motivational speaker, author and former middle-school teacher, Weihenmayer knows all about taking chances. He is an acrobatic skydiver, long distance biker, marathon runner, skier, mountaineer, and ice and rock climber. He followed the climb to the summit of Mount Everest by completing climbs of all Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each of the seven continents.

    Blinded by a rare hereditary disease at age 13, Weihenmayer learned to wrestle in high school and won the National Junior Freestyle Wresting Championship in Iowa. After earning degrees in English and math and a master’s degree in Middle School Education, he taught grade five students at Phoenix, Arizona, coached the wrestling team, and began climbing the toughest mountains.

    In 1998, he and his father, a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, rode a tandem bicycle 1,200 miles from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, raising money for a children’s rehabilitation centre.

    His toughest climb was the 2001 ascent of Everest. The risk of death is a constant companion on every Everest climb: a fall down a 1,000-foot crevasse; an avalanche burial; a brain explosion caused by lack of oxygen; disorientation; an untimely nap that lasts forever. Illness—fever, dysentery, or other ailments—it hits nearly every climber. Barely more than one in 10 Everest climbers reach the top. More than 200 have died in the attempt.

    Particularly unwelcome is the need to defecate or urinate into a plastic bag if you are trapped in a small tent, while a driving blizzard screams outside and the temperature is -30 F. “It can be a little bit gross,” Weihenmayer told Time. “But if you go outside and take down your pants, you’ll have two inches of snow in your pants in about 10 seconds.”

    After two years of planning, the climb and a documentary movie did not start well. Weihenmayer slipped into a small crevasse. His climbing partner reached to catch him, but his partner’s climbing pole scratched Weihenmayer’s nose and chin. Wounds heel slowly at high altitudes. Weihenmayer stumbled into Camp 1, “bloody, sick, and dehydrated,” and passed out in his tent. The expedition leader, other team members, and even Weihenmayer himself began to wonder whether he had tackled more than he could accomplish. But determination prevailed.

    The climb required expedition members to make multiple trips from the base camp to Camp 1 at 20,000 feet, partly for acclimatization, but also to carry an immense amount of equipment to Camp 1. Weihenmayer rejected an offer to rest at the base camp while others toted his load. He insisted on carrying his full share. “I wasn’t going to be carried to the top and spiked like a football,” he said.

    The sound of a pack bell on the climber in front helped guide Weihenmayer up Everest, while members of the team shouted timely advice and warnings: “Death fall two feet to your right.”

    Nineteen members of the expedition reached the top, including the oldest person to make it, 65-year-old Bull Sherman.

    Weihenmayer reached the 29,029-foot top of Everest on May 25. “Look around, dude,” his companion Jeff Evans told the blind climber. “Just take a second and look around.”

    Notes from Karl Taro Greenfield, “Blind to Failure,” Time, June 18, 2001. David M. Eskes, “Aiming High,” Biography, August 1997.  Wikipedia.org (accessed January 15, 2012). www,tiouchthetop.com.

     

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