2019 has already been one of the deadliest years for those hoping to reach the top of the world. The ascent of Mount Everest presents some incredible challenges, where the difference between life and death is negotiated one step at a time. That makes it all the more remarkable that one particularly brave climber attempted to do something no one had done before – to be the first blind person ever to reach the summit of Mount Everest. This is his inspiring story.
Mount Everest is the highest point on Earth at 29,035 feet. Few have ever made it to the summit and about 300 people have lost their lives trying. But in 2001, one man, Erik Weihenmayer, tried to do something no one had ever dared try – become the first blind person to climb Mount Everest.
“I love climbing,” he said when interviewed before the Everest climb. More than five years earlier, in 1995, Weihenmayer climbed his first big mountain, Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America, with a summit elevation of 20,310 feet above sea level. In 1996, he climbed up the Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite.
“Climbing tall mountains around the world as a blind person has taught me one fundamental thing – and that is that whenever you go through a process that’s never been done before, it’s natural to be afraid and doubt. Sure, being able to see is definitely helpful, don’t get me wrong. But there are a whole bunch of other things in the equation.”
It was a long learning process, one that Weihenmayer began when he started to lose his sight. For Erik, mountain climbing, like blindness, was about overcoming barriers one step at a time. “I realized that I was going blind from an early age. At first, I had a sensation of doom in the pit of my stomach. But I tried not to let it affect me. I just tried to be a kid, to do kid things, like jumping out of trees and landing in big pile of leaves.”
“When Erik was little,” his father said, “we noticed that his eyes were shaking. My wife took him to the doctor. It was a day that is indelible in my memory. After a lot of investigation and tests, the doctor’s words still ring in my ears. He said, ‘I’m sorry to inform you that your son will be blind by the age of 13.’”
Erik was born with retinoschisis, a rare disease that causes the layers of the retina at the back of the eye to separate. Over time, as the retina splits into two layers, eyesight deteriorates in pieces. The doctor told the Weihenmayers that there were may be a hundred people who had their son’s condition and Erik was the youngest.
“When anyone tried to force me to take a look at what was happening to me,” Erik reminisced, “I would block it out. When people talk about going blind, they usually say they’re afraid of seeing blackness. I wasn’t afraid of darkness. For me, the fear was more a fear of being obsolete, that I would lose out on so many things in life. That I’d be a bystander, sitting there on the sidelines, watching things go by or listening to things go by.”
“All I thought and all I prayed for,” said Erik’s father, was that his son “wound up with a meaningful life.”
Toward that end, Erik’s parents did everything in their power to make certain his childhood was as normal as possible. A lot of people recommended that Erik attend a school for the blind. But that was totally unacceptable to Mrs. Weihenmayer.
Yet, school after school rejected Erik because of his growing vision problems. Erik’s mom persevered, though, finally winning him admission to a private school on the condition that she provide him with extra help.
“My mom was just like a mother lioness,” Erik recalled, “protecting me and making sure that I didn’t miss out on any opportunity, that I was doing things that other kids were doing. When there was a class field trip, she would come along so I could take part of the trip and she would describe things to me.”
For years, Erik climbed with Jeff Evans, a career mountaineer and adventurer. Together, they had climbed the highest summits on three continents. Evans admits that before he met Weihenmayer, he had preconceived notions about blind people and their ability to be serious mountain climbers. But he realized right away their first weekend together that Weihenmayer was capable emotionally and physically. Most of all, he was driven.
Death Comes in Many Forms
The jet stream is all-powerful on Everest. It dictates precisely when climbers can attempt to reach the top and have a shot at surviving. For most of the year, the winds howl over the peak at speeds surpassing 110 MPH – hurricane force. And the temperature can hover at -100°F. Couple that with heavy snowfall that can deposit several feet in an eye-blink, and climbing Everest during that time is a guaranteed one-way ticket. Instead, climbers concentrate on the tight climbing season, from mid-April through the end of May. During this six-week period, the arrival of the monsoon shifts the jet stream north of Everest, creating conditions that are more hospitable to humans…relatively. During the climbing season, winds may be down to 50 MPH and the temperature at a “mild” -20°F.
Today, thanks to improvements in gear and more guides, over half of Everest climbers hit their peak and make it back down. Still, it’s common for climbers to pass dead bodies on the way up. At present, there are at least 200 dead bodies on Everest. It’s virtually impossible to retrieve them. First, cold and exhaustion make climbing alone hard enough. Add to this the extra effort, both physical and mental, of dragging down a corpse. Further complicating matters, the bodies are often dangerously close to a precipice and just reaching them involves extreme danger.
In April 2001, after two years of intense preparation and physical training, Weihenmayer reached Everest base camp, 17,400 feet above sea level, with a team of 19 climbers. This is where their quest to reach the top began. Erik’s father was there to see him off. “That was a very special moment with a lot of emotion, because it crossed my mind – and I pushed it out of my mind – that it could have been the last time I ever saw my son.”
The Khumbu Icefall
Their first major challenge was the Khumbu Icefall.
An icefall is a loose glacier, and that describes Khumbu well. It is at the foot of the Khumbu Glacier, a mile-wide mass of ice that drops off a cliff just above the camp. The ice slides downhill at a rate of three to four feet per day and it is extremely unstable. Dangerous crevasses (a crevice is called a crevasse when it is found in a glacier instead of in rock) can form very suddenly with virtually no warning. Even worse, some crevasses are covered by a thin layer of ice. A hapless climber may suddenly plunge hundreds of feet down when the thin snow bridge collapses beneath him.
But the most dangerous aspect of all are the huge seracs, blocks of ice varying in size from a large car to a massive castle, that hang precariously off the cliff above the icefalls. These ice blocks tumble down from above without warning. There is no time to run and no place to take shelter. In 1982, a Canadian cameraman named Blair Griffiths was helping secure a ladder in the icefalls when a six-story serac rolled down and crushed him.
Khumbu Icefall is not the greatest killer on Mount Everest. That distinction goes to the cold and exhaustion. Yet, most climbers agree that crossing through it is a thoroughly terrifying experience. Erik described it this way: “You have to jump from boulder to boulder and they’re shifting and rolling under your feet. When you’re jumping across those boulders, there are thousand-foot drops on both sides, and there’s hundreds of crevasses. Some are so wide, I can’t feel the other side with my pole.”
Indeed, Weihenmayer got off to an ominously bad start. Most teams do the Khumbu Icefall in four hours. It took him a grueling 13 hours. When he came into the camp, he felt like he was going to pass out. One of his team members said that he looked like he had just finished ten rounds against a heavyweight prize fighter. Mike O’Connell, the team leader, said, “Seeing Erik crawl into his tent so exhausted was a new experience for me, because he’s so fit, he’s so strong. His spirit seemed down. He seemed really exhausted. There was a moment where I think all of us were thinking maybe we bit off more than we could chew.”
Jeff Evans said, “I heard a lot of people say you’re crazy. Not only is he going to die, but he’s going to get you killed as well. I think emotionally it was really tough on him as well because he felt like he let himself down and he let us down.” Before the climb, skeptics in the climbing community warned of just such a scenario. His friends would have to be watching his every step. He’d be risking his life and the life of his team.
But Weihenmayer had faced adversity before. At the age of 13, as predicted by his doctor, he lost his sight completely. He drew on this experience as he fought his way up Everest. “It wasn’t until I actually found myself totally blind, where I couldn’t even take a step, that it struck me that this thing I had feared had actually happened to me. When it actually happened, it was just unbelievable.”
When Erik was 16, he enrolled in an outdoor program for the blind. It was there that he first went mountain climbing and immediately fell in love with the sport. “It was unbelievable. I mean, it was this tactile sensation of feeling all the textures and patterns of hot and cold as the sun touched the rock and trying to problem-solve your way up a rock face using your hands and your feet and your brain.”
Weihenmayer had found a passion that would guide him the rest of his life. With his mother’s unwavering support and encouragement, he was acquiring the skills he’d need to live an active independent life.
But just two years after he lost his sight, he received an unthinkable blow while attending summer camp. “My dad and my brother showed up at camp early. They told me that my mom had died in a car accident. It’s still hard to talk about it… In a way, going blind was nothing compared to this. My mom’s death showed me how important life was and how important it is to kind of live up to the potential that you know is inside you, to not take things for granted.”
The Death Zone
Now, just a few days after Weihenmayer and his team set out to summit Mount Everest, they found themselves exhausted and demoralized. The first leg of the climb took Weihenmayer more than three times longer than other climbers. Critics argued that a blind person should not have attempted to do what few sighted people could achieve. Despite the setbacks, Weihenmayer had the full support and trust of his teammates.
“There were plenty of occasions,” Jeff Evans recalled, “where I had to be on a rope and he’s secured in the rock. I trusted his skills. I wasn’t nervous. We’ve got a great team of people. If somebody gets in trouble, we’ve got each other’s back. We’re all working toward one common goal, which is to get Erik to the top.”
Despite the rough start, Weihenmayer and his team finally overcame their worst nemesis: self-doubt. “When you’re climbing a mountain like Everest, you kind of have to force yourself to believe in what you’re doing, that what you’re doing is possible, because as soon as you start thinking that you don’t have a chance, you don’t.”
After seven weeks on the mountain, the team reached 23,500 feet. They donned oxygen masks, because, at this altitude, it becomes harder to breathe, to move and to think clearly. They called it the Death Zone, because people just sit down in the snow, unable to process information, unable to make decisions. They go numb physically and emotionally. Weihenmayer, more than the others, depended on his brain because he couldn’t see. Not thinking and not seeing were an overwhelming combination. He had to muster every ounce of concentration and willpower to push on.
But he did.
Meeting Their Worst Fears
At 26,000 feet, Weihenmayer and his team prepared for their final assault. As standard practice, they headed out from their camp at 9 p.m. and climbed all night to reach the summit by morning.
The climbers realized their worst fears when, at 28,000 feet, they were hit by a sudden storm. Lightning exploded all around them. It felt like it was right on top of them. They huddled together. They weren’t sure whether to go forward or back. Snow and ice built up on their suits, making them colder than ever.
They delayed there for about an hour, but decided to push on, knowing that their opportunity to reach the top of Everest was in jeopardy. They walked all night, hoping to make it to the summit by morning.
Around 4:00 in the morning, Weihenmayer felt a little trace of sun on his face. He knew that the storm had passed and that they had made a good decision.
So Close, But So Far
After seven weeks on Mount Everest, Weihenmayer and his team were only 200 feet below the summit when they discovered a potentially deadly problem: The guide ropes needed to get them down were buried in the snow. When the weather turns windy and white, everyone goes blind. Without knowing it, a person can walk off the side of the mountain. A couple of people die on Everest every year. Indeed, the day before Weihenmayer and his team left for the summit, a Swiss man coming down from the summit had clipped into the wrong rope and fell to his death.
If Weihenmayer and his team could not find a way to descend the mountain safely, they would have to forfeit their only chance to the summit. Jeff Evans knew how important the ropes were, so he started digging. It took so much of his strength that after he was finished, he could not go on. At 28,800 feet, suffering from low oxygen levels, he made the agonizing decision not to go up to the summit with his teammates. He had sacrificed his opportunity to make sure his friend made it to the top.
Weihenmayer was deflated. He and Evans had been to mountaintops all over the world together. They trained together, they suffered together, and they had now almost completed the most important climb of their lives. But now, so close to their greatest achievement, Evans wasn’t going to be there to share the moment together.
Apex of the Planet
Weihenmayer made the final push without his best friend at his side. But when he finally made it, the feeling was indescribable. He had accomplished what only a select few in the world had done – and as a blind person, what no one had ever done before. He was standing on top of the world – literally.
“Your brain can’t believe it,” he said, later describing his feelings. “I could hear that sense of space of sound vibrations just moving infinitely forever. It was more like I was in space than on the Earth.”
Not far below, Jeff Evans said to himself, “There’s no way I’m going to let that guy stand on top and have to hear about it the rest of my life.” So he summoned a hidden strength and began climbing. With every fiber of every muscle in his body strained to the maximum, he crawled and clawed his way upward, until he made his way up to the top. Weihenmayer didn’t know Evans was with him until he patted him on the back and said, “Good job.” Then he said, “We’re on top of the world, apex of the planet.”
Weihenmayer was both elated and reflective. At first, his ego told him that he’s done something no one else has done. Then it struck him how he was just standing on the shoulders of good friends. It wasn’t his accomplishment. It was theirs.
For his efforts, Weihenmayer will always have a place in Everest lore and in the history of mountain climbing as the first blind person to summit the highest peak in the world. But beyond notoriety, the experience brought him great inner reward: “I think my reason for climbing isn’t that different from anyone else’s. People asked: Why do you climb if you can’t see the mountain? Well, with that attitude, I might as well never get out of bed. Why do anything if you can’t see? There’s so much to experience out there. Just because I can’t see doesn’t mean I’m not living.”
The mountain was first recorded in 1841 by Sir George Everest, England’s Surveyor General of India. Known first as Peak XV, in 1865 it was renamed after him.
Bar-headed geese have been observed soaring above the peak of Mount Everest during migration. How they survive so high remains a mystery.
Because the Earth is not a perfect sphere, when measuring from the Earth’s center, Mount Everest is only the fifth highest peak.
Mountaineers generally consider Mount K2 in Pakistan the world’s most difficult climb due to the horrendous weather conditions – worse than Everest’s – and inhumanly steep slopes.
The first recorded effort to reconnoiter Mount Everest took place in 1922. Two years later, the first attempt was made to reach the top. It was not until 1953, however, that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made history by reaching the summit. Since then, scaling Everest has become increasingly easier. In 1990, just 18% of summit attempts were successful, but in 2012 that figure was 56%.
The cost of summiting Everest per person varies between approximately $40,000 for discount expeditions to $100,000 for full service, 5-star operations. Much of this cost goes for permits and insurance.
In recent years, mountaineers have complained that the over-commercialization of the Everest ascent has made overcrowding a serious issue, likening the climbing path to a “traffic jam.” Until 1985, Nepal allowed only one expedition on each route to the summit at a time. No such strictures exist today.
Littering has become a big problem on Everest. So much so that new rules state that groups must return to base camp with eight kilograms (17.6 pounds) of garbage for each team member or they will forfeit their $4,000 deposit.
In 2013, there was a hundred person brawl at 23,000 feet during which three European mountaineers were told by a group of around 100 Sherpas: “Now we kill you.” It is reported that the Sherpas were disrespected by their wealthy clients.
On May 15, 2006, after 40 days of climbing, Mark Inglis became the first ever double amputee to reach the summit of Mount Everest. An armless man, Sudarshan Gautam, did it in 2013.
The youngest people to reach the top are 13-year-old American Jordan Romero in 2010 and 13-year-old Malavath Poorna, daughter of a tribal farm laborer from India, who did so in May 2014.