Blind Mountaineer Conquers the Seven Summits

ByABC News via via logo

TH R E D B O, Australia, Sept. 5, 2002 -- After skiing down from the summit of Mount Kosciusko in Australia's Snowy Mountains earlier today, Erik Weihenmayer swooped right into mountaineering history.

The trek up the Australian mountain, followed by the trip down, made it official: Weihenmayer is the first blind person ever to scale all "seven summits," the tallest peaks on each of the seven continents.

Reaching the 7,310-foot peak (the smallest of the seven) put the 34-year-old Weihenmayer in rare company, alongside the world's finest climbers. Fewer than 100 people have ever reached the summit of the world's seven highest peaks.

The Denver man's biggest previous climbing triumph came on May 25, 2001, when he became the first blind man in history to reach the summit of the world's highest mountain, the 29,029-foot Mount Everest in Nepal.

"Blind mountain climber — it's like being a Jamaican bobsledder … the words just don't connect," Weihenmayer has said in the past.

But in his case they do.

Climbing Past the Naysayers

Just hours after his last big climb, Weihenmayer told ABCNEWS' Good Morning America that he hopes to be judged, as any climber would, simply on the merits of his climbing skills.

"I prefer to be known as a good climber who has done a lot in the mountains and done some pioneering things, but at the same time I happen to be blind," Weihenmayer said.

Bigger names in the climbing community had warned Weihenmayer against climbing Everest. One mountaineer even said he'd lead a rival expedition just so he could be the first to find Weihenmayer's body. But Weihenmayer got the last laugh. After climbing the famed peak he became an instant celebrity, role model and award winner.

"A blind guy climbed Everest," he said at the time. "He didn't get dragged up it."

Mountaineering isn't his only sport. Weihenmayer is a lifelong wrestler and the first recipient of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame's Medal of Courage. He's also an avid biker, runner, a skydiver and one of 12 blind certified open-water scuba divers in the United States.

Born with a rare genetic disease of the retina called retinoschisis, Weihenmayer grew up knowing that he would be blind by age 13. Even after that, he fought to have an active life, filled with dirt bikes and wrestling championships.

School bullies called him "Blinden-heimer" and "Googly Eyes," but the teachers at a summer camp for the blind that he attended at 16 had another name for him: Monkey Boy. The name stemmed from a sport that had become his new passion — rock climbing. He liked the sport because the mountain — unlike a football or basketball — was standing still.

That same year, when he was 16, his mother, a woman who had pushed the world to accept him as normal, died in a car accident. On all his climbs, he still carries an angel pin a friend gave his grandmother after the funeral.

In 1987, Weihenmayer scaled Peru's Machu Picchu, feeling his way with the once-despised white cane he used to throw away in sewers when he was a teenager.

That fueled his dream to scale the seven summits — an achievement that is considered the Holy Grail for mountaineering types. The seven peaks are:

Asia: Mount Everest in Nepal, 29,035 feet

South America:Aconcagua in Argentina, 22,840 feet

North America: Mount McKinley in Alaska, 20,320 feet

Africa: Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, 19,339 feet

Europe: Mount Elbrus in Russia, 18,481 feet

Antarctica: Vinson Massif in the Sentinel Range, 16,067 feet

Australia: Mount Kosciusko in New South Wales, 7,310 feet.

Some people count Indonesia's 16,023-foot Carstensz Pyramid (also known as Puncak Jaya) in addition to or instead of Mount Kosciusko. Weihenmayer plans to climb Carstensz Pyramid next spring.

Call Him ‘Superblind’

With the world's largest mountains before him, Weihenmayer didn't start small.

In 1995, he climbed Alaska's Mount McKinley, reaching the top on what was, coincidentally Helen Keller's birthday. He headed to Yosemite's El Capitan in 1996, where he climbed the tallest exposed rock face in the world.

Weihenmayer climbs mountains with a system he devised himself. He works with two long, adjustable trekking poles, leaning on one and scanning in front of him with the other. He climbs with a team, but does his share of the mountaineering grunt work — carrying loads, setting up tents, and building snow walls.

He's been given the nickname "Superblind" by his climbing buddies.

Fellow climbers attach bells to their gear to direct him, but Weihenmayer is mainly guided by his own touch, whether it is in searing heat or freezing cold. The latter weather conditions were in play when he climbed Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro in 1997. But halfway up that summit, he married his wife, fellow climber Ellen Reeve, in a mountaintop ceremony.

They now have a 2-year-old daughter, Emma.

Over the past seven years, one by one, Weihenmayer has conquered the seven peaks, finishing his sixth this last summer — Mount Elbrus in Russia. He skied 8,000 feet down the icy side of the mountain on that trip.

Now the seventh summit is done for a climber who appreciates being at the top, even without the view.

"I like being a pioneer and shattering barriers as a blind climber," he said.

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