At times, one wonders if only the brave and the strong are capable of adventures. Can a blind man scale the heights of the Himalayas? Read about Erik Weihenmayer.

Erik Weihenmayer was not just another yuppie trekker who’d lost a few rounds to the mountain. Blind since he was thirteen, the victim of a rare hereditary disease of the retina, he began attacking mountains in his early twenties.

But some time, Erik wondered if his attempt to become the first blind person to climb Mount Everest was a colossal mistake. Everest eats the unready and the unlucky: most climbers fail to reach the summit. Many— at least 165 since 1922—never came home alive, their bodies often lying uncollected where they fell.

Erik was so far out of his comfort zone that he speculated on ways how he could die: falling into a crevasse or getting hit by an avalanche. Higher up, he might develop cerebral oedema from lack of oxygen (and have his brain swell up), or become disoriented because of oxygen deprivation and take a ‘forever’ nap in the snow.


Maybe a blind person shouldn’t be out here, he thought. Maybe he shouldn’t be wandering through an ice field, measuring the distance over a six-metre deep crevasse with climbing poles and then leaping literally over and into the unknown.

The blind thrives on patterns: stairs are all of the same height, city blocks, roughly of the same length, kerbs, and the same depth. But in the Khumbu Ice fall, the trail through the Himalayan glacier is a totally random landscape, a diabolically cruel obstacle course for a blind person.

But even Erik’s qualifications were being tested on this mountain. A typ­ical assault on Everest requires each climber to do as many as ten traverses between Base Camp and Camp 1 through the ice fall, both for acclimatisa­tion and to help carry the immense amount of equipment for an ascent. The rest of the 13-member National Federation of the Blind team discussed his staying at Camp 1, listening to tapes, while they and the Sherpas carried his gear. “No way,” said Erik. He wasn’t “going to be carried to the top and spiked like a football.”

It turned out that climbing Mount Everest with Erik wasn’t that differ­ent from climbing with a sighted mountaineer. A team-mate attached a bell to his gear, and Erik followed the sound, scuttling along using his custom- made climbing poles. His partners shouted out helpful descriptions like: “Death fall half a metre to your right!” “Big crevasse to your left!” Erik was so fast, though, that one of his partners has scars from being jabbed by Erik’s poles when he slowed.


Still, many pros wouldn’t go near Erik’s team, fearing they might have to haul the blind guy down. “Everyone was saying Erik was going to have an epic,” says Charley Mace, a member of the film crew. (That’s moun­taineering slang for disaster.) Another climber planned to stay close, report­edly boasting that he would “get the first picture of the dead blind guy.”

As the team ventured higher up Everest, oxygen deprivation and other factors began to do strange things to their bodies. Heart rates increased, brain function declined, blood thickened, intestines went haywire. They knew that bad ideas could inexplicably pop into their heads, especially above 7,500 metres.

Ironically, Erik had some advantages as they closed in on the peak. For one thing, all the climbers wore goggles and oxygen masks, restricting their vision so severely that they could not see their own feet, a condition that Erik was used to. In addition, the final push for the summit would begin in the evening, so most of the climb would be undertaken in pitch darkness, illuminated only by headlamps.

On May 24, when Erik and the team began the final ascent from Camp 4, they had been on the mountain for two months. They’d tried for the summit once, but turned back because of bad weather. At more than 8,800 metres, the peak is in the jet stream, where winds can easily exceed 160 kmph, and what from sea level looks like a cottony wisp of cloud, can actually be a killer storm.


With only seven days left in the climbing season, most members of the expedition knew that this was their last shot. That’s why when Erik and Chris Morris reached the Balcony, at some 8,000 metres, they were terribly disap­pointed as the sky lit up with lightning and snow driven by fierce winds. We’re done, Erik thought.

By the time Base Camp radioed that the storm was passing, Erik and his team were coated in snow and ice. Inspired by a possible break in the weath­er, they pushed on. Looking like astronauts walking on some kind of arctic moon, the climbers moved slowly because of fatigue from their huge, puffy -down suits, backpacks with oxygen canisters, and regulators and goggles.

With a fall of more than 3,000 metres into Tibet on one side and a 2,300-metre drop into Nepal on the other, the South Summit, at about 8,750 metres, is where many climbers finally turn back. The roughly 180-metre long knife-edge ridge leading to the Hillary Step consists of ice, snow and fragmented shale, and the only way to cross it is to take baby steps, anchoring your way with an ice axe. Erik could feel the rock chip off; hear it fall into the void.

Finally, as they reached the Hillary Step, the 17-metre rock face that is the last major obstacle before the summit, the weather cleared. Erik clam­bered up the cliff, belly-flopping over the top. “I celebrated with the dry heaves,” he jokes. And then he walked 40 minutes up a sharply angled snow slope to the summit.


“Look around,” team-mate Jeff Evans told the blind man as they savoured being on top of the world. “Just take a second and look around.”

Summiting Everest, Erik says, is probably the greatest experience of his life. But then he says, there are summits everywhere. You just have to know where to look.