017: Erik Weihenmayer, The First Blind Person To Climb Mt Everest on The Catalyst for Confidence
We have another very incredible guest. This guy’s name is Erik Weihenmayer. The thing that makes this guy so interesting is that he became blind around sixteen years old. He literally had vision up until that point. The doctors told him he had a certain kind of disease that was going to lead towards this situation. It was hard for him to go through, obviously. You’re one day can see everything and progressively, it gets worse and worse, which it did. Rather than put his head in the sand, this guy went out and has done just incredible things. He became the first blind person to ever climb Mount Everest, climbed the Seven Summits. He has done the Leadville 100, which is this insane mountain bike race in Colorado, Leadville, small town, 10,000 feet. He has kayaked 277 miles down the Colorado River. That would be like tossing a bottle in a Category 5 hurricane but you’re in a closet. You’re getting bounced and turned upside down and spun around.
He did all these things with the help of other people. He just has this no barriers life. That’s his whole motto. There’s nothing that you can’t achieve, nothing that you can’t do. His other senses like his hearing are heightened. He just hasn’t lay down and felt sorry for himself and made that victim role. For that, I very much appreciate him, his honesty. He was just very truthful and straightforward in what it has been like. Also, he started this other foundation where he’s out taking people who are disadvantaged and helping them overcome these different things. Author of several books, really fun interview. I’m learning so much from all these different people and it continues to inspire me. Just another one in a long line of folks we’ve had on the show. With that said, please continue to rate and review on iTunes. It is helping. Great things are happening. Let’s get on with the interview.
Erik Weihenmayer lives a “no barriers” lifestyle even after becoming blind during his childhood. He is an adventurer who has climbed the seven summits, biked the Leadville 100, kayaked 277 miles down the Colorado river, and was even the first blind person to ever reach the summit of Mt. Everest. Erik is very honest about his life, writing multiple books and sharing his story while helping disadvantaged people conquer their own goals in life.
Listen to the podcast here:
Erik Weihenmayer, The First Blind Person To Climb Mt Everest on The Catalyst for Confidence
I think it’s very appropriate for somebody overcoming a lot of adversity and doing just amazing things out in the world. I’m talking to Erik Weihenmayer. How are you doing?
I’m doing great, thanks.
Let me just start off with this so everybody knows. I’m not sure if I’m saying this right, but you are legally blind and you’ve been that way since you were a teenager or younger.
Blind as a bat, I like to say. None of this legally blind stuff. I’m full blind.
I’m just trying to be politically correct. You can appreciate that. The other thing about you and the way you lead your life and then we’re going to get into all the different things that you’ve done, is you’ve got this whole motto about a no barriers life and that’s carried over to a lot of other people. I want to set up one other thing. Erik is a guy who’s had all these different amazing accomplishments, actually things I’m trying to do myself. One of those things is climb the Seven Summits. He’s been on top of Everest, the first blind climber to do a lot of these different achievements, which just is amazing to me. Let’s go back to when you were a child growing up on the East Coast. You were born with vision and then you lost that vision. How did all that happen?
I grew up pretty much like just a normal kid. I was in Connecticut. It’s flat. There’s not any mountains or anything there. I was born with this disease called retinoschisis. It was a genetic disease and I guess I’m missing some gene. The doctors basically said there’s no cure. They said, “You will lose your sight over middle school and by the time you are a teenager, you will be blind. There’s not much we can do.” You do what every kid would do I think, which is completely block it out. Just deny it like, “What does blindness mean?” It’s like somebody saying, “One day you’re going to die,” so I just blocked it out. I was a kid and I tried to do all the things like played basketball. I got pounded in the face by the ball a lot but I hung in there. Running around through the woods and riding my mountain bike. I’d fly down my driveway and jump over these plywood ramps that we would build because Evel Knievel was big back in the ‘80s, so I just had fun.
Middle school, I noticed that I can’t see the hallway when I come in from recess or I can’t see the whiteboard anymore. I can’t read stuff. I can’t find my way to the bus stop. The shadows and the light are confusing me. I don’t know where I am and just stuff like that. Even then though what’s crazy is I still denied it. I still pretended like it wasn’t happening. I would make up excuses like, “Maybe I didn’t eat a healthy breakfast this morning and I’m just lightheaded or something.” Your brain makes up crazy things. When I actually went blind for real, it was a week before my freshman year in high school. I was so blind at this point I couldn’t take a step. I didn’t know how to walk. I didn’t have a cane or anything. It was terrifying.
Part of what you’re talking about is because you blocked it out, you didn’t prepare yourself necessarily of learning how to read and walk and use a cane or a dog or the other things that people use to navigate life.
People tried to prepare me. My parents and my teachers were trying to teach me Braille but I wanted nothing to do with it. I was like going blind would be defeat. It would be like something I didn’t want to confront. I didn’t want to be seen as a blind person. Being a blind person was just like you’re sitting there on the side of the street. You have your hand out and you’re begging, you’re shaking your coin dish or whatever. I just didn’t know how to handle it. I just felt completely overwhelmed.
In writing of No Barriers, which is the latest book, I realized that people who go through adversity like I have, which is most of us by the way, everyone feels the same. Everyone feels hopeless, powerless, overwhelmed. The brain is so overwhelmed it’s just spinning in space. That is not a unique thing I realized that I went through.
There are a couple of things to that. What you were saying to me really resonates because one of the things that I have found over time that has become my biggest strength is never to give up. My biggest weakness is not calling it at the right time. It sounds similar to what you’re talking about that you blocked it out. You weren’t going to be defeated by this thing that was coming up on you. You turned your back on the things when maybe you would have been more forward ahead if you would have embraced that this is happening and not had your brain go there. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. It’s just an observation and that’s one of the things I’ve learned over time. It’s a hard thing.
It’s called being stubborn.
It is being stubborn. For me, it served me well in the NFL. I played D1 at the University of Washington and it served me well there and it has served me well in some businesses, but it’s not going to serve me well in certain circumstances, in mountain climbing, if there is just crazy, insane weather that you keep pushing. You’re not putting yourself in a position to turn around and call it.
It can be a huge asset and it has for the most part of my life. It can sometimes bite you because like with the teams and the things that we pursue, sometimes I’m the last one to call it. It drives me nuts, honestly, because I see people wanting to call it so soon. There are ten things that you could do to still influence the situation and create the result that we want. Sometimes I’m the last to call it, which can bite you. Blindness was like that. When I finally fell off enough stairs and pounded my head against the wall and I actually fell off a dock one time and did a flip in the air and landed on my back on the deck of a boat, I realized, “This thing is bigger than me. I’m blind. I’m scared now.” I’m not scared of being blind. I’m scared of dying; I’m going to kill myself because I’m in such denial.
This acceptance got beaten into me. I just realized your life is such a tricky, tricky situation of what can you influence and what do you have to let go of. Blindness itself was something I had to let go of. I could not change it. Within blindness, there were tons of things I could influence. I could learn to use a cane. I could learn to read Braille. I reluctantly learned that stuff and I found that those tools brought me back to the world. Motivation is one thing or being inspired is one thing, but then you have to put in the crazy amount of work it takes to become adept at all those tools and skills and eventually develop the right mindset that pushes the parameters, that pushes you into new places.
Do you think by being blind actually was a benefit or has been a benefit for you when you’re not visually seeing some of the dangers that are ahead? If we’re talking about mountain climbing or kayaking, visually you’re looking down like, “What am I getting myself into?” where the people who can see, they’re assessing the danger on a different level.
No, I don’t really think so because I use my hearing. Blind people have something called flash sonar or they can develop something called echolocation. You can hear the drop-offs. You can hear the exposure, the sound vibrations moving out through space and bouncing off of things. You use your hearing for that sense of exposure. Crossing ladders on Everest, you’re on these wobbly ladders, four or five ladders latched together. There are hundreds of feet below you. What’s scarier, falling into something you could see or falling into the unknown? That’s a toss-up. You put your boots on in the morning, you know what you’re doing. You’re not “blind” to the situation and the dangers and the risk that you’re out there doing.
In kayaking, it’s just full on insanity. You’re going down a river and you’re getting hammered. Waves are hitting you left and right. You’re bouncing off of rocks and spinning around and doing 360s and slamming left into something else. It knocks you over and you’ve got to roll up. Another thing hits you and knocks you over and something else sends you into a cartwheel and you’re up. You’re getting thrown left and right by eddies and whirlpools. I’d say there’s really not much of an advantage to being blind in any of this except, I will say this, I think one of the keys to my life has been to find the advantage in everything you do and to make everything as much as you can into an advantage. I couldn’t see to kayak so I wound up building this amazing team of people around me that could communicate with me. Those people have enriched my life. I’ve done things with those people that I could have never done alone. I think there’s a bit of finding the advantage in everything and using it to grow.
[Tweet “Your life is such a tricky situation of what can you influence and what you have to let go of.”]
You sent me this book, No Barriers: A Blind Man’s Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon. It’s amazing. Looking at some of these photos, it’s just like you kayaking through a Category 5 hurricane in a closet. Let’s go back to high school. You’re wrestling and now your vision goes away. You’re navigating that. You’re learning some new skills and tools to help you mitigate your communication and embrace you coming back into the world. Where did the climbing kick in, this aspiration to start the Seven Summits?
It didn’t start off with the Seven Summits or anything, but I will say I read a book in Braille. My teacher was making me learn Braille and it was one of those things I hated. She started hooking me by sending me these articles or Brailling out these articles and one was of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbing Everest. Then, she started Brailling out stuff about people skiing across Antarctica and just all these adventures where I was like, “This is really cool,” even though I hate reading with my fingers. Over time she tricked me. I had smart teachers. I had heard that blind people could wrestle so I joined the wrestling team. That was my first family because the captain of the team wrestled all the freshmen the first day of practice just to humiliate them. I was third in line and he took me and dragged me out and slammed my head against the mat just like every other freshman. He put me out of my misery really fast. I loved that because he didn’t baby me, didn’t treat me differently. That showed me just great respect and empathy and love. That was my team. I loved wrestling.
I couldn’t do ball sports as much anymore. There was a recreational program for blind people. They were teaching blind people how to use a cane and stuff like that. It was a place that you went to. They also had a monthly recreational program. They’d take us out sailing and skiing and stuff like that, horseback riding. One weekend, they took us up to North Conway, rock climbing. I know this is cheesy when people say this, but it changed my life. It changed the trajectory of my life because feeling my way up this rock base with my hands and my feet as my eyes and deciphering the pattern in the rock, trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B with these holds that I can only feel, I find the hold and I start to unlock that puzzle. It was just everything that I imagined adventure to be. Sixteen years later, I was standing on top of Everest.
It almost sounds like through this outreach program where you’re horseback riding and skiing and doing all these different types of activities, you’re just eliminating that ceiling for which you can and cannot do, which loops back into your whole no barriers life. It’s just like, “The sky is the limit. I can do anything, but I need to be smart in the way I go about bringing my team together to allow me to do these different things.”
I think I made a subconscious decision at that time. You’re bummed out because you’re blind. You feel like you’re in this prison, but I never lost hope. People are like, “Were you on the verge of losing hope?” I don’t think I ever was. I was incredibly frustrated but I wasn’t ever hopeless in that sense. When there were opportunities that sprang up, I would say, “Yes, yes, yes.” Even dumb things like going into New York City on the train and getting fake IDs and all that kind of stuff too. Sometimes saying yes to opportunities led me to some crazy keg parties and places I probably shouldn’t have been to. Some of the things were healthy and one of them was saying yes to these opportunities that came my way. As a kid, you don’t know what you’re going to be good at. You have no idea. It wasn’t like I was destined to be a climber. I just tried this thing and loved it and continued with it and continued to grow it. It led me to some place really cool.
The name of this podcast is called Finding Your Summit and it’s about overcoming adversity. You said this best, which was if you haven’t gone through some adversity, and everybody’s got their own range on what that is, then you’re pretty much lying. Everybody has some stretch, strain in their life that they have to mentally get over. The question becomes, “What are you going to do about it?” The thing I love about what you’re talking about and what you’ve done in your life is not played the victim role. You’ve done just the opposite. You’ve accepted what is. I interviewed an old Raider buddy of mine, a teammate, named Jerry Robinson. The first thing he said when I said, “Jerry, how are you doing?” and he goes, “Mark, every single day, I wake up with an attitude of gratitude.” I think you can always take your situation and look at somebody else like Kyle Maynard. I was sitting there on a rock at about 22,000 feet on Aconcagua when he came crawling by. For everybody who doesn’t know who this guy is, he’s the super stud dude who was born with no arms and legs. If you can imagine, this guy on stubs crawling up a mountain. All of our problems are all relative to ourselves. When you put it out there like you’ve done and you’re going, “Maybe I’m blind and that’s not the best thing in the world, but at least I have my arms and legs.” It’s relative.
Kyle is saying, “I may not have my arms and legs, but at least I’m not blind.”
He’s got that attitude too. I spent some time talking to him. It just blows your mind on what kind of guy he is. Let’s talk about what the journey was, how you cooked up the Seven Summits, and you wanted to climb Everest. I’ve got my own story on that because I’m trying to do those things. You started off on Denali.
Before that though, you asked me about No Barriers. I just wanted to clarify for your community that No Barriers is a mindset. It’s a map that we use. It’s looking at growth and change and trying to figure out how you move forward. It’s also an organization. We work with about 5,000 people a year. They’re people with challenges, with barriers, which is all of us in this great big club. I realized very early on that most of the world is not physically challenged like me and Kyle. People have what we call invisible barriers. It’s fear and anxiety and doubt and trauma that is sometimes psychological. It’s like a psychological scar tissue in the brain that you can’t get through. Poverty can be a challenge. We work with kids in the foster care system who have lost parents to violence or war. So much of the barriers in our lives are not seen. That should clarify that. All the stuff we’re talking about isn’t just about blind people or an inspirational blind guy. It’s really about all of us.
I think you just nailed it right on the head of what we’re talking about. I haven’t thought about it that way but you’re right. So much of what goes on is going on between your ears. You said fear, anxiety. That doesn’t wear in your sleeve. That wears internally. It prevents people from moving forward in their lives and letting go of things and leading a positive life in a positive way. I’m glad you interrupted me and you went back and explained. Is that organization in Colorado?
It is in Colorado but we work all over the world. We do these expeditionary journeys with groups all over the world, from vets to people with all kinds of different challenges, all the way down to youth. It’s been really, really exciting to do that. The other universal thing is that all of us are moving forward and all of us get stuck. I remember going blind and just feeling stuck, sitting in the cafeteria, listening to all the excitement and laughter and joy. There’s so much great stuff out there and I’m sitting here at this table by myself just miserable in this prison. That’s the other thing that’s relatable to everyone. Everyone moves forward and then they just have these moments where they feel stuck along the way and they’re not being the person that they want to be. How do you get unstuck? No Barriers is a lot about how to get unstuck in life. We’ve developed a lot of curriculum around how to do that and some really cool experiential stuff that gets people back living again.
One of the things I say is, “Action creates reaction”. Even though you may not know exactly what you want to do or how you’re going to get there, being stuck does not move the ball forward. Making a choice, entering a program, reading a book, talking to a business coach, a life coach, whatever that thing is for you. As long as you’re taking a step, you’re going to know one way or the other, “Is this the right step or not the right step?” You don’t know that if you don’t do anything about it.
In fact, a lot of the people that come into our programs, they’ve had really tough stuff. If anyone should crawl under a rock and say, “The world is really a bad place, I do not trust this world,” these are folks who should be those people and they don’t. Some of them do, some of them self-sabotage. They explode the situation and they just blame the team and blame everything but themselves because that’s path of least resistance thinking. Some of the people, despite that darkness and the patterns that they’ve got stuck in, they keep an open heart. They go through this experience and they try to glean as much as they can from it. When they do that in this really vulnerable open way, these great changes happen. We have people take pledges at the end of their experience.
Just as an example, one guy made a pledge that he wanted to start a service organization for veterans training service dogs. This guy now runs an organization that he just built a facility down in South Carolina. He is training hundreds of service dogs. He’s saving lives of people that are suicidal, that are suffering from all kinds of challenges and he’s paying it forward. This is a guy that could barely function five years ago. That purpose in his life drives him forward. It gives him great energy. It’s a really cool process to watch happen. It’s not like in movies where growth is just like this nice arc upward with a nice crescendo at the top and then you eat some popcorn and you go home. It’s ongoing work every single day. This guy writes me probably once a week and says, “I feel so unqualified. I feel so unprepared.” I’m like, “Join the club.” That’s what we all feel from time to time so keep doing this great work.
The key is consistency and discipline. This is my impression. A lot of people go and they’re having problems or issues or they feel stuck in their life. They’ll go see somebody like Tony Robbins or a motivational speaker, and people will teach them how to take a step forward. They’re all pumped up and then they come off that weekend and they drop off because they don’t stick to that plan. It sounds like you have a mentorship program or something to continue to support and promote and encourage people to continue to do what they learned at your camps.
We could do a lot better. We’re growing and trying to be the best version of ourselves at No Barriers. We have a social worker who follows them and harasses them and facilitates good things to keep them on the right track. We’re really happy. We want to keep growing this idea of no barriers because I think people really need it in their lives. I think the country really needs it right now. Last summer, we were doing this other hiking clinic. It was really fun. We had this guy named Cole Rogers, he’s a great kid. He has this disease where he can’t move his muscles. He’s only probably about 90 pounds but he’s just total go-getter. He joined us and we figured out the right technology, this thing called the Action TrackChair that is like a tank. It’s got tank wheels and it’s a joystick. It has an electric and it charges up mountains. It’s really cool. He was climbing in his Action TrackChair. We’re all pushing and pulling and trying to get to the rocky sections. About 150 yards from the summit, the battery dies. We were like, “We’ll carry you to the top.” Cole says, “No, would you mind if I just try to get there on my own?” We were like, “Sure.” He gets out of his Action TrackChair, starts crawling through the alpine tundra like Kyle. Forty minutes later, he’s left a lot of blood and skin on that mountain but he’s at the summit. I’m thinking that’s what people got to experience. They’ve got to see that because that’s what we should all be tapping into. Enough blaming and attacking and reacting and responding; just tap into that and we will be better people.
The power of positivity, the power of self-improvement, the power of never giving up. Going back to Kyle, I saw that firsthand exactly what you’re talking about going up. There were different people on our climbing team who didn’t make it. I was a little gassed up there at high altitude. Now I’m looking at him, I’m like, “This dude is going up there with such a positive attitude crawling his way up. There’s no reason in the world why I can’t get up and march to the top,” which I did. It’s inspirational. It’s really great.
I think in a way, crabbing to the top of a mountain or being blind and groping your way to the top of the mountain, I think that’s the easy part. When I came down from Mount Everest, PV was our team leader. He’s just an amazing leader. He pulled me aside and he said, “Erik, do me a favor. Don’t make Everest the greatest thing you ever do.” That was a great challenge to me. That was the hard part because I thought, “Why do we go and climb these mountains?” Obviously, there’s incredible beauty whether you can see it or not. It’s a great physical challenge and it’s an amazing way to work with your teams and the people you love. That’s all wonderful. Then what do you do with this thing? What does Kyle do with this thing? What does Cole do with this thing? Cole went out as a result, I think No Barriers and that experience being the catalyst to some of his dreams, and started a self-defense organization for people with challenges. He can move a little bit and he’s out there teaching self-defense classes. I think he has a black belt in martial arts in one form or another. He’s out there teaching classes to people how to defend themselves when you have limited mobility.
These things have to be energy or catalyst to, like what we talk about at No Barriers as the last element in the journey, the most important thing which we call elevate. You stood on top of this thing whatever it may be. You’ve hopefully learned some things, some insights, some ideas, and you’ve earned those through some struggle. Now go down the mountain back into your life and use that stuff to change your own life and to elevate your family, your community, etc. It’s not enough to pound your chest on the summit of a mountain. For me, that was a great challenge that PV gave me which was like, “I’m 33 years old and I’ve got to do something with this now.” It was a great pressure to not waste all this experience.
There’s no question you’ve done that with your ride in Leadville 100, which by the way I want to do, and kayaking down the Colorado River for 277 miles something like that, climbing the Seven Summits which I’ve done more than half, and standing on top of Mount Everest. You’ve got a bunch of other projects I’m sure up your sleeve. Let’s go back to the actual climbing. When I was doing some research on you, it looked as though you may have started the whole Seven Summit journey on Denali. I was just on Denali. I did not get to the top, -60 degrees up there. We were just pinned down at that 14,000-foot camp for days on end, five days in the camp, got up to 16,400, went up that steep phase, fixed ropes, and I was feeling great. You could just see this Wicked Witch of the North, lenticular cloud just sitting right on top and it just would not lift. It was just insane, holding us up there in high winds.
That’s the thing about weather. Somebody could go up Denali and be like, “That wasn’t so hard,” because they got lucky with perfect weather. Then, somebody else goes up and gets in this horrendous storm. There’s so much luck and fortune in these big experiences on big mountains.
How did that go for you on Denali?
We went for the long haul. We had enough food for 21 days or maybe even 25 days. We could have sat it out. We got up and I think we were at 17,000 feet in a four or five-day storm. I remember getting so bored. Our guide, Chris Morrison, brought a kite. He went out and he was playing with his kite and then this wind came up and just cut the line and just sent his kite into oblivion. He had a kite experience for like 30 seconds up there. Anyway, the weather cleared and really cold. You’re wearing a down jacket, down pants and reached the summit of Denali. It was really cool. My family were waiting near the mountain in an airstrip. They flew a little single Otter plane over the summit and we waved our ski poles at the plane. It was really a special experience because, in a way, my family, my wife and my two brothers and my dad got to experience it as well.
I see those planes every day with the tourists flying over our camps. They’re obviously flying over the Alaskan range in Denali and checking that out.
I said, “Do you think they’ll know that I was up here, that I was one of the ones waving my ski pole at them?” He said, “They’ll know because you were the only one waving your ski pole in the wrong direction.”
In a chronological order of the Seven Summits, what mountain did you go to after Denali?
I went to Kilimanjaro next and I got married on Kilimanjaro. My wife and I got married. I wanted my dad and my wife to experience what the mountains were to me and thought that Kilimanjaro would give them a little taste. It’s a non-technical mountain, but it’s still hard physically. We got married at 13,000 feet on the Shira Plateau. Then I went to Aconcagua. I had to try that mountain twice. The first time, like you, we got in a huge storm that you couldn’t even stand up and then we ran out of time. I realized even in those situations where you meet this big storm and you’ve got to turn back at that time, there are things you could have done differently. The mountain is not going to change. The only thing that can change is you. You’ve got to change your approach. The next time, having learned a lot about Aconcagua, we pushed really hard, we got in position, we just waited. Sure enough, we’ve got the one good day in three weeks or something. We came down the mountain and another big snow storm came in and nobody summited for two weeks or something. You do learn a lot in these things.
[Tweet “The mountain is not going to change. The only thing that can change is you. “]
Then I went to Antarctica to Mount Vinson. I had a great experience there and then to Everest and then to Mount Elbrus, which is in Russia. We skied down that mountain. That was really cool to ski off the summit. My buddy, Eric Alexander, was out in front of me screaming, “Turn left. Turn right.” We skied 10,000 feet from summit to base camp. Then, on and on to Kosciuszko, which is in Australia. Then I went to Carstensz Pyramid, which is in New Guinea. That’s actually the eighth summit of the world because there’s the continent of Oceania out there, the archipelago of islands, and New Guinea being one of them. We flew planes onto a grass runway and hiked through the rainforest for a week and emerged at base camp and climbed this very cool Limestone Massif in a knife-edge, jagged ridge. A lot of climbers feel that that’s the real true seventh or eighth summit of the world.
I’ve had some buddies down there. Everybody who goes down there gets soaked in rain. I don’t know if that happened to you going through the jungle.
Yes. You get poured. It was a really hard trip. There were days where you hiked twelve hours through the rainforest. It’s not like flat rainforest. You’re hiking on a lot of roots. You’re ten feet off the ground and you’re hiking along big trees that have fallen. That’s the actual trail. It’s six or eight feet off the ground. You’re climbing down roots and mud with a crazy river that if you fall, you’re definitely going to die. Across these bridges that are latched together with ten vines and they’re shaking. There’s a 200-foot drop below you into this raging gorge. It was crazy. The approach was way harder than the climb itself.
I was in Nicaragua climbing volcanoes last Christmas. On one of the climbs, the same type of deal where you’re just going through this jungle. It was just miserable. You’re just not having fun.
Raining the whole time. It was horrible.
The entire time, I’m cold. I brought the wrong stuff so I was soaking through. Your shoes, you’re up to eight inches of mud. It’s just not fun.
The porters, I remember, they went into this tent that’s like tarped. They closed it off and they were all smoking cigarettes inside. I’m like, “It’s either stay dry and die of cancer or just stay wet and miserable and cold outside the tarp.”
Going back to Everest, I’m going to do Everest in 2019, that’s the plan right now. I know the Khumbu Icefalls are crazy because you’ve got these ladders. I can’t even imagine trying to go over these ladders and navigate that without being able to see where you’re stepping. I have done that before not on the Khumbu but on Mount Rainier. It must have been terrifying. How did you take that on?
The Khumbu Icefall is a blind person’s worst nightmare. It’s where the glacier drops off of Everest. It collapses under its own weight and tumbles down the mountain like a river of ice. It’s just like boulders and seracs and cornices and crevasses just jumbled up, boulders of ice every size imaginable. You’ve got to cross through that thing and it’s definitely the crux on Everest. For me, it was just incredibly hard. My first trip through the Icefall took me thirteen hours crossing through all those ladders. You’re training your feet to step over the rungs and lock onto the rungs with your crampon points in a certain way and do it by feel. I had practiced those ladders a ton in my yard, but then when you got to Nepal with these sketchy Nepali construction ladders, four or five of them latched together, it’s just a different animal, with hundreds of foot below you.
Your first urge is to crawl across those ladders. If you do that, the Sherpas, and you should know this forever, they’ll count you out. They’re really look down on you. You’ve got to walk across these ladders. You cannot crawl. I don’t know if it’s superstition or just coincidence but there was a guy who crawled across this ladder. The Sherpa turned to me and he’s like, “He’ll be going home in a week.” He was. He left in a week. Nobody forced him out or anything. He just went home because who knows, but something about attacking these ladders in the Khumbu Icefall in a bold way sets the tone for what’s ahead. I forced myself to walk across these ladders. Your legs are shaking. You’ve got what’s called Elvis legs, so it’s like sewing machine legs shaking back and forth and you’re hanging on these ropes. I think my first walk across this big ladder probably took me ten minutes. It was really, really hard. The crazy thing is you train your brain and over time, it gets easy. The ladders are easy. You’re just walking your crampon points over the rungs and you’re flying across these ladders. They’re the place you actually use to rest. I would say practice those ladders. It’ll be scary as hell at first and then it gets easier.
How was the summit day from camp four up to the top? How was that for you?
People have good days and bad days in mountains. I’ve had some bad days. Actually, when I summited Aconcagua, I remember I didn’t have such a great day. I really felt tired. I had altitude sickness in my brain where Chris, my guide, would say, “Turn left, move left,” and I’d have to really think about what left meant. It was like I was perceiving reality through a straw. My reality had really shrunk down. My awareness had shrunk down and I was just out of it. You have those days and then you have an Everest day where I felt great. I climbed up to the balcony. There’s a big lightning storm so we sat out of the balcony shivering for an hour. The weather started changing and the clouds started passing by. It seemed like it was getting clear so we pushed on. I inched my way across the knife-edge ridge just feeling my way. I climbed the Hillary Step, which wasn’t that hard because I had a rock climbing background. You’re about a half an hour from the top and I remember counting my breaths. I was taking six breaths between each step. When I trained a ton over the last two years, my friend, Gavin, had taught me this thing called the finish line game. I changed the name to the summit game. It’s like when you’re really tired, you envision yourself and your team standing on top like you really, truly put yourself there. You feel the tears, you’re holding the flag, you’re hugging your friends, you hear the photos snapping, you’re there. It’s just like this is the greatest moment. It gives you an energy to keep powering forward. I kept playing the summit game as I was counting my breath.
I used to do that. We call that in sports, visualization. In my case, I was a receiver. I visualized myself catching the winning touchdown 1,000 times. My first game I started, we were playing Michigan in Seattle. They were ranked number one in the country. We were down by fourteen in the fourth quarter. We came back with about ten minutes to go, scored a touchdown with about 30 seconds to go. The same thing happened. The play that I had imagined 1,000 times, it was a little fade route to the end zone, back to the end zone, jumped up over the top of the guy, grabbed it, came down, scored. We won the game and it was an amazing event. When the reporters were asking me about that play after the game, I said, “I’ve done that 1,000 times.” It’s the same thing. You’ve got to see yourself where you’re going to be and how you’re going to get there.
I was hiking up to base camp with Chris Morris one day. We had been resting down below at the highest teahouses. We went down to 14,500 feet and that’s low altitude at that point because basecamp is set almost 18,000 feet. We came down, we were resting, we came back up, and Chris Morris says to me, “How do you feel? What are you feeling at this point?” I said, “The Icefall has been so hard for me, sometimes I don’t think I have a chance. I feel like I’m just going through the motions. If it gets harder and mountains get harder as you get higher, if that Icefall is that hard, then sometimes I don’t feel like I have a chance.” He stormed off and he goes, “Then you don’t.”
Chris Morris is this great friend of mine. He’s very, very blunt. That’s all he said, “Then you don’t.” He didn’t say another word. I thought, “Damn it. He’s totally right.” If I’m here just to give a valiant effort and then fall short and just be able to go home and have an excuse or live with myself, then that’s one thing. If I truly want to open myself up to the possibility of standing on the top of this thing, I have to change my mindset. I have to be able to visualize and look up the mountain in my mind and do this crazy thing that we probably all do, which is to see yourself capable of standing on the summit. Almost like a mental schizophrenia, “I can see all the dangers. I can see all the pitfalls. I can see all the problems that could deter me back, but I see through that stuff.” It’s a very conscious discipline thing to be able to see through that stuff to what the summit looks like. As you just said, visualizing catching the pass. I would sit outside my tent and visualize myself on top every day. I made it an exercise so that it was a real possibility. I wasn’t just going through the motions.
There are two things to me and this is a big football thing. We used to always say, “Pain is temporary. Memories are forever.” That’s something I’ve really embraced over time. The last thing you want to do is quit and go home. Twelve hours later you’re sitting in a hotel and then you’re saying, “Why did I just do that?” Something I found that I think fits with everything you’re saying, this is a quote I believe from you which is really profound and I love it. You said, “What’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way.” That’s so true. Everything you’re talking about right now is the mental game of your body can do it, absolutely. It’s mind over matter and making sure that you don’t get caught up in the other things that really don’t matter. You’re a little cold or it’s getting a little tough or you’re hungry. Fix those things and get through it.
The Sherpas talk on Everest and the Tibetans, they say, “The nature of mind is like water. If you do not disturb it, it becomes clear.” That’s what we’re talking about. It’s a discipline of the mind because there’s so much distraction and doubt and fear and anxiety, all the stuff that floods into your brain and becomes weight and then it collapses. You’re getting drawn away from what your pursuit is. It’s all because of all this weight, all this clutter that’s actually become a distraction that actually is trying to pull you away because the brain has safety mechanisms trying to protect itself, trying to protect you. That mechanism doesn’t really work that well. It’s an idea of keeping your mind still.
This idea of the fact that what’s within us is stronger than what’s in our way, it’s something that all of our No Barriers work with our participants is predicated on. There are these barriers, they’re real, there are big mountains out there, and those things don’t change. What does change is you. Our first element is one, we talk about vision. Personally, I think that when people use the word vision, they’re using it incorrectly. They’re talking about having vision like, “I have a vision of me climbing the mountain.” You may do everything right and you may not stand on top of that mountain because of a storm or because of a myriad of things that happen. Predicting the future is not vision. What we talk about with our groups is vision is looking inside yourself and saying, “How do I grow what’s inside of me so that I can take on these big challenges, I can harness what’s inside of me and use it as energy to propel me forward on this journey?” To take those adversities and become bigger and stronger than those adversities, and use those adversities as a catalyst to go to incredible places, to have innovation and great teams and great purpose in your life. Vision is something that for many people is misunderstood, I think. It’s growing what you have inside and lighting yourself up and using that light to blaze the way in front of you instead of just this completely external factor.
There’s no question you’ve had a lot of vision for yourself. As you look internally and you’ve done all these amazing things, climbed the face of El Capitan and been down the Colorado River. To me, when I’m looking at this picture, it’s like somebody tosses a bottle up in the middle of the river. It’s just going down at any direction, getting tossed and turned. You’ve done the Leadville. For those who don’t know about Leadville, it’s in Colorado. It’s at 10,000 feet. Lance Armstrong won the first or second one. It’s just this intense 100-mile mountain bike ride. I’ve done the Catalina Gran Fondo over there. That was 55 miles and that was hard. That’s a long way on a mountain bike and you’re going 100. Of all these different things that you’ve done with your vision, what has been the most challenging of these particular athletic endeavors that you’ve done where you’ve come off and like, “That takes the cake right now?”
Honestly, it’s because your memory is always so short-term, it’s always the last one. I just got home from the Piz Badile. It’s a huge vertical rock climb in the Swiss Alps. It’s like El Capitan on the top of a glacier. For me, those are really hard experiences. You bivvy out beforehand. You’re climbing a vertical face so everything has to be on your back that’s going to keep you alive for the next few days. Feeling my way up every bit of this giant granite face, trying to feel the cracks and the holds and the little polished knobs and stuff that I’m going to use for my hands and feet, life is hard. I popped off a knob, one of these little holds, and went flying to space and smashed into a ledge and broke a rib. What choice do I have? You just keep going. Life is definitely hard. I’m not sure if I mentioned this but I wrote a second book. It was called The Adversity Advantage. We coined this category of people: quitters, campers, climbers. Campers are those people who stop at a certain point. Climbers are those people who continue to grow and evolve and challenge themselves every day of their lives. My goal for myself has been to be a climber, meaning to continue to push myself physically and mentally and try to grow things in my life and grow teams.
That brings me to the second thing, which is really growing No Barriers as a movement has been incredibly challenging and mentally demanding as well. Sometimes climbing expeditions can be simple. You build a great team, you go, you have one foot in front of the next and eventually, you can reach the summit. When you’re trying to grow an organization, you’re trying to bring all these coalitions together, all these different factions to bring them into one movement with one mission. Everyone’s on the same page, you’re using the same language, you’re going through the same rituals and ceremonies together and really trying to have glue that binds you together in a really authentic way. To me, I found that to be incredibly challenging and super, super rewarding as well. Not all my goals are physical.
I know you’ve written a lot of books. I’m trying to write one book. You’ve done four or five. I’m trying to figure out how I do this with all my other things I have going on right now. Where can people find you, download your books, buy them?
They can go to my website, TouchTheTop.com or they can go to places like Amazon or BarnesAndNoble.com or local bookstores. No Barriers is my latest book. It’s my try to understand this journey of one kayaking the Grand Canyon, but also using that as an experience to dive down beneath the surface and understand how my behavior and how my motivation has driven so much. Our awareness is a little slimmer on the surface and we’re trying to understand ourselves. Kayaking the Grand Canyon was an incredible journey in itself but it was also an experience to try to understand myself and my own journey. It’s also about these amazing people that I met along the way like Kyle Maynard, like Mandy Harvey who’s a musician, who’s deaf, and is singing right now in America’s Got Talent. She’s incredible. Any of these people with invisible challenges that are trying to build the map of their lives and what does that map look like. I think it is a messy map but there is definitely a map that we can follow. It’s an exploration of that and it was really fun. How you write a book? I just sat down and started writing. I gave up mostly everything else in my life and wrote for ten hours a day. Eight, nine months later, 400 pages later, you’re done.
The last question for you is what’s next?
One, I’m really careful about what’s next. I think you’ve got to be careful in your life because it’s like, “What’s next for me? Does that mean am I looking for the next challenge that’s harder and higher and riskier?” That leads you down a dead end path. I’m looking for things that help me grow and evolve and take the next step in my life. I have this great family. I have two teenage kids now. Soccer practice and soccer season is in the swing right now so I’m going to soccer games. I’m being a dad. My daughter’s got college visits and I’m going to visit colleges. The ‘what’s next’ question I think can get us into trouble because for me, I’m loving being home this fall, being with my family. In terms of what’s next in the mountains and the rivers, I’ll run out of cartilage before I run out of ideas. I have a list of 100 things that I want to do and I’ll never get to all of them. I’ll die worn out, I guess.
You’re a good dad I can tell. I’ve got two daughters myself who are in college. I’ve gone through all the volleyball and soccer matches in my past. You certainly are very accomplished. You’ve turned your adversity into a positive and a big-time way. Not just for yourself but there’s no question that you’ve affected so many other people in terms of really broadcasting that message and helping them along and saying, “You don’t have to feel sorry for yourself. You can make change too. You can be all that you can be and here’s how.” We all need that mentorship. We all need those people that we can look up to. In my case, there are a lot of coaches along the way that helped pushed me which was I’m very thankful for. It sounds like you are that guy for a lot of other people. Congratulations on that and all your successes.
Thank you. I have a lot of mentors, great people in my life too. Blind guys don’t climb Everest alone or kayak the Grand Canyon. I’ve had amazing mentors. When I probably think of the thing I’m most blessed and fortunate for, that’s my friends and my mentors in my life.
Erik, thank you so much. It’s been just an amazing interview. You fit exactly into the bucket that I’m trying to find about overcoming adversity and finding success. That’s why I call it Finding Your Summit.
Thank you. I love your community and what you’re building. It’s very no barriers.
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