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Climbing mountains and opening doors

Erik Weihenmayer climbing up Mount Everest.

When Erik Weihenmayer reached the summit of Mount Everest on May 25, 2001, he made history—not to mention the cover of Time magazine—as the first blind person to climb the world’s tallest peak.

But there was another world record set that day, one that Weihenmayer recounts with every bit as much pride: 19 out of his 21 teammates also made it to the summit, establishing the mark for “the most people from one team to reach the top of Everest in a single day.”

“That was cool to not only stand on the summit myself, but to have my team stand there as well,” says Weihenmayer, who will deliver the commencement address to the Class of 2007 and will receive a Doctor of Humane Letters honorary degree on Monday, May 21, in Goodman Stadium. “For me, it’s really fun to be part of a team in that way and try to figure out how to bring out people’s best in that team situation, so that when you need help, people step up. That’s the reason why you ultimately reach the top. That’s a terrific, really powerful feeling that you look for in life.”

Weihenmayer, who scaled the Seven Summits—the highest mountains in each of the seven continents—within a seven-year period, concedes that mountain climbing “is a selfish sport in a way. You leave your home and your family and you go for three months and you work like crazy to stand on top of a mountain.”

But he believes that his climbs, which have been the subject of two books, two documentary films, and countless newspaper and magazine articles, also demonstrate “the power of a cohesive team.”

And the former fifth-grade English and math teacher understands that his exploits can help educate people and break down stereotypes.

“A blind guy climbing is like a Jamaican bobsledder—the words don’t connect right away in people’s minds,” Weihenmayer quips.

He was born legally blind, and completely lost his vision at age 13. Being able to climb Mount Everest and other formidable peaks can reshape or even shatter “people’s perceptions of what’s possible and impossible and right and wrong,” he says.

“And that’s a good thing, because then you have to rebuild your perceptions of what’s possible. And because of that, doors open up,” he adds.

His achievements have earned him the Helen Keller Lifetime Achievement Award, the Freedom Foundation’s Free Spirit Award, an ESPY Award, recognition by Time magazine for one of the greatest sporting achievements of 2001, and Nike’s Casey Martin Award. He has also carried the Olympic torch for both the Summer and Winter Games.

His latest book, The Adversity Advantage, co-written with Dr. Paul G. Stoltz, draws on his life experiences to illustrate how adversity can be turned into “a potent fuel that has, over the history of humankind, done more than anything else to power the world forward.

“It’s not that I want to wish adversity onto people, but in a way I will because through adversity, we grow, we innovate, sometimes we’re able to absolutely change the course of society, we’re able to nudge society forward, we’re able to open up doors of opportunity,” Weihenmayer says. “And oftentimes adversity isn’t the impediment. It becomes the pathway.”

Weihenmayer vividly recalls when he first grasped that lesson. In the early 1980s, he was watching the then-hit TV show That’s Incredible!, when it featured a segment on Terry Fox, a Canadian who had his right leg amputated because of cancer. The show chronicled Fox’s courageous run across Canada to raise money for cancer research.

The last of his precious eyesight fading, Weihenmayer remembers pressing his face up against the television screen so he could see this amazing tale of valor.

“He’s limping along and he’s got this old prosthetic leg and he’s sweating and he’s panting and he’s kind of awkward-looking as he’s running,” Weihenmayer recalls. “I can’t remember but I think I maybe saw on that episode that he’d gotten blisters on his stump, so he was struggling with these blisters and how to connect his prosthetic to his stump. So he’s suffering from pain, and the look on his face was a contradiction. It was exhausted, yet exalted. That’s when I kind of first came up with the thought, `What is it inside people that responds to that kind of frustration, that kind of hardship, that kind of challenge?’”

Weihenmayer came up with a name for people like Terry Fox: “alchemists.”

“They’re able to take all the lead that life piles on top of them and figure out how to transform it into gold,” he says.

--Jack Croft

Posted on Friday, May 18, 2007

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