My side of “Blind Ambition” begins with an email from the subject’s dad, Ed Weihenmayer.
In a cc-ed introduction to his son, Ed ID-ed me as “writer Chris, who has retinoschesis.” I remember that word buzzing on my laptop screen. Retinoschesis. He even spelled it right. How? Why? I’d never even heard it used outside New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, where I’d been told that it’s so rare in my demo I was a minor celebrity of the South wing. I knew I’d disclosed the fact I had an eye condition, but didn’t remember being specific, and wouldn’t expect that odd word to register.
Retinoschesis: the unexplained, progressive deterioration of the retinas. It turned out this was the “extremely rare eye disorder” I’d seen alluded to in every piece I’d read on Erik. That, or I’d blocked out the diagnosis every time I saw it mentioned. Erik was diagnosed at three, grew up seeing, and was blind by age 14. I was diagnosed in 2003, after losing a third of my vision. I took this piece coming up on my tenth anniversary. In most every feature I’ve written, introductory emails are part of the pre-commitment phase.
In this case, that phase was officially over. I met Erik at the Houston airport where we caught a flight to Mexico and I soon found myself reporting two pieces at once. The first was assigned: how a figure like this attacks a new challenge in such a foreign environment, how he works with his team, what systems and hacks they devise to undertake this collossal project. The second was personal: how a guy who’s about my age and raised in the same audiovisual culture that I was conducts himself years after having left it? I guess I wanted to follow someone who makes it work so well, in case I ever needed to. Below is a photo of the two of us when Erik was sidelined by a fever and we had a long conversation in the staggering heat.
I remember we were posted up here when we talked about movies and exactly what he means when he says he “saw” Skyfall. I asked him to name the last movie he actually saw and—lame as this sounds—his answer hit me harder than the genuinely tragic episodes from his childhood. The movie was Star Wars, which he saw when it came out in a Boston theater after an appointment with his eye doc.
The doctor had devised a little monocular to help him maximize his peripheral vision. “It was a little reward,” he remembered. “Like, ‘Hey, you’re going blind! Let’s see a movie!’” Using his good eye and the jury-rigged monocular, he sat in the dark and watched the defining visual event of our generation play out onscreen. I felt bad asking him what he thought, what he remembered about the movie. “It was the craziest, coolest thing I’d ever seen,” he said. “It was earth shattering. My eyes popped out of my head.”
He said he’d since seen the film many times in audio form, revisiting its story of a hero whose mentor places an opaque shield over his face to make him spar with a light saber sightlessly. A hero who pilots a tiny vessel at dizzying speed through a steep, dark canyon and, in the clutch, turns off his computer’s monitor, closes his eyes, and lets himself be guided by the Force. After this, I thought of Erik’s kayak, a Liquid Logic Stomper 90, as the rebel X-wing fighter called “Red 5.”
The kids above live in a tiny village called Arroyo Jerusalén, whose adobe schoolhouse teaches both languages: Spanish and the Mayan Chol. I speak one of these well enough to get that they’d never seen a blind person before. It’s a tough concept to explain to kids and I’m pretty sure I failed.
Late in our fourth day on the Usuamacinta, I climbed into Red 5 myself. Our group had pulled in to set up camp at a quiet little cove and I had a chance to try kayaking like a blind man. I got into the same eight-and-a-half foot long, 27-inch wide, 50-pound tube of plastic that I’d seen blast through a white wall of foam and drive straight through a narrow canyon whose nearby walls were jagged limestone cheesegraters.
I took Erik’s carbon-compound paddle and rested it on my lap as I tied a blue bandana tight around my eyes. With Rob Raker beside me in his kayak, I pushed off from smooth sand and drifted into calm water. In less than a minute, I couldn’t tell if I was headed up the river or down it.
“OK,” I heard Raker say. “Right now? You’re headed across the river….” OK—neither. I paddled hard right twice to correct my course. “How ‘bout now?” I heard Raker speak again from somewhere behind me and to the left. “OK. Ideally? You’d have your bow facing river-right—which is the right side as you face downstream.”
His pedagogical cadence was already pushing my buttons. “Yeah, but what do I do?” I felt the current take my boat, shift my course. I wondered about some whitewater that I’d seen beyond the cove. “Ok, hard right, hard right,” I heard—more urgently and from a greater distance than expected. I took two or three powerful strokes on the right, tried to level out my course.
“Hard right, Hard right.” Godammit! I paddled harder right, felt myself rotating. It’s a myth that when you go blind you develop Spidey-sense hearing, but it did start to feel like someone just cranked the world’s volume knob to the right forty degrees.
“Ok,” Raker began. “Right now? What you want to get your bow turned—” A breeze swept away the rest. “What?” “OK, hard left now,” said Raker, very quickly. “Hard left, hard left, hard left. You’re heading to a—” ” To a what? Say again?” His voice was getting harder to hear over the breeze and water. I couldn’t tell if I was headed toward the far shore, toward our side, toward a waterfall, or what. “Ok, there’s a—” “Could you please just give me a FUCKING DIRECTION?”
This time I heard Raker chuckle, suddenly really near my boat. Before long my bow bumped against the soft sand. Then the nickel dropped: I was moving at two miles per hour, on flat water, under the supervision of at three guys trained in Search and Rescue—yet still wound up enough to throw a punch. And all I had to do was take off the blindfold.
You can’t try out being blind. You can’t understand what it’s like if you’re not. This goes both ways. Before Weihenmayer set off for the Himalayas, he got a letter from John Krakauer, whose Into Thin Air documented an Everest tragedy he saw first-hand in 1996. “He’s a really nice guy and I knew him,” says Erik, who met the author-alpinist on the same Antarctica climb where he met Raker, the two of them working on the NOVA show. “He wrote me a really nice, private letter, saying, Hey, I’m a big fan, I respect all the stuff you do. But Everest is high altitude, it’s scary, it kills people, I just don’t think it’s worth it for you.”
Weihenmayer respectfully disagreed. “I felt I had as good or better mountaineering skills as anyone up there,” he says. “I had a great team, and I knew that I didn’t need to push myself until I fell dead in the snow.’” But a quote in Men’s Journal, from Himalayan climbing expert Ed Visteurs, didn’t sit as well as Krakauer’s letter. Visteurs said, “When I guide, I like people to become self-sufficient. With Erik, they’ll have to be helping him, watching out for him every step of the way.” Over a decade later, Weihenmayer struggles to be diplomatic.
“He’s one of many who probably don’t know a blind person, and didn’t know much about blindness, and just kinda projected himself into the mind of a blind person,” Erik says. “And he said, ‘How the hell would you ever do that? I can’t imagine doing that.’” Nonetheless, such a reaction suggests amazingly selective vision. “I mean, he wasn’t seeing my dedication, my endurance, my athletic ability, my climbing skills,” says Weihenmayer. “He only saw that one thing about me.”
Such people couldn’t imagine a climber like Weihenmayer, because there simply hadn’t been one. Even today, it’s still hard to fully grasp the extent of the accomplishments he’s had. Or just how wildly he diverges from the standard disability narrative of a brave handicapped boy who masters the tasks of normal folks, functions in society, and wins the tallest midget contest. When he was training to climb Denali, Erik took up an offer from the non-profit American Federation for the Blind, which obliged him to make promotional appearances on daytime TV. He soon found these more taxing than he did running up fifty flights with a 70-pound pack. The TV host’s typical introduction went: “A blind mountain climber! Even I, who can see just fine, wouldn’t think of climbing a mountain.”
This kind of compliment needs a lot of improvement to be left-handed. “It’s like, you cross a road without getting hit by a car,” says Weihenmayer. “’Wow, isn’t he inspiring.’ You’re in a car and tell the driver to go left and in two streets turn right, and it’s like”—in hushed voice of wonder—“’I can’t believe your doing this. It’s amazing.’ You hear the amazing and inspiring comment your whole life and it’s almost like saying, ‘Look, you’re an amazing blind person.’ When a compliment comes from really low expectations, it’s not a compliment. I hate to admit this, but when I do something really cool—really inspiring—I want people not even to know what to think.”
Since the recent news from Everest involves unqualified millionaire climbers and Sherpa revolts, it’s worth reiterating Erik’s achievement there over a dozen years ago. Even now, nine out of every ten people who climb the mountain fail to reach the summit, and one out of every six successful attempts, one ends in death. “The word we heard going around was that Erik was more likely to die than summit,” recalls Jeff Evans, who guided him through this life- and history-changing climb.
It’s an ascent whose strongest disincentive comes surprisingly early in the trip. Just above Base Camp looms a huge, collapsing section of glacier known as the Khumbu Icefall. On this extreme-slo-mo river, crevasses yawn without warning from packed snowfalls and ice boulders ranging from basketball- to Astrodome-size tumble as topography changes with the day’s temperature. Climbers must traverse the Khumbu Icefall several times to get their gear up to Camp I, the average trip taking between four to seven hours each way. Weihenmayer’s first one took 13. He ended it staggering into camp, sick from altitude, his face bleeding from accidental contact with a partner’s ice axe, utterly drained. He had eight more trips to go and no way to back out. He spent every minute of his first passage over the Khumbu Icefall improvising a system for each new obstacle. On his second and third trips, his climbing style underwent a basic transformation.
“When I continued to go through the icefall, I started to figure out some patterns and ways that I could get through it with less energy and fear. I’d know, OK, this is a nice slope upward and it moves left. This other section, I’m going to have to work really hard for the next twenty-five minutes. “A lot of it’s in your mind,” he continues. “Because, now you know you’ve done this before. You have a sense of it. You’re getting better at embracing the chaos, the instability. You can get your brain wrapped around the fact that, ‘OK, for the next hour it’s gonna be different from what I’m used to.’ It becomes less important exactly where you put your foot than that you maintained this internal stability—where you’re able to respond to changes, in a groove, looser, ready.”
Thirteen years ago, Weihenmayer made his fifth trip across the Kumbhu Icefall in under five hours, en route to the highest peak in the world. In a few weeks, he’ll paddle the 227 miles of Colorado River that run a mile beneath the rim of the Grand Canyon. I don’t know what time he expects to make, but I’ll bet he knocks it out before the end of the month. when he’ll turn 46. The fucker.