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This is the best time in history ... to be a pioneer

Erik Weihenmayer addresses the Class of 2007.

Thank you very much. It’s wonderful to be here today celebrating with you all. I feel extra special because I know so many people in the school, including my cousin, Will, who is graduating today. I know you’re out there somewhere.

It’s been really exciting to be a blind climber, to be adventuring around the world, to climb the Seven Summits. Obviously, as a blind person, there is a great physical dimension to climbing, but more interesting than the physical piece has been that it has been a mental journey. It’s been a journey to study and discover people around the world, to see how they face change, to see how they face adversity—whether they succeed and flourish in the face of it or whether they are crushed by it. To see how people deal with uncertainty. I know that all of us face lots of uncertainty in our lives. Meeting a blind person for the first time can be a little bit uncertain. I was talking to this lady one time and I could tell that she wanted to ask me how long I had been blind, but I think she was afraid to use the word “blind.” Maybe she was thinking that if she used the word “blind,” it would remind me that I was blind and maybe I’d start crying or something. So, she said, “Erik, how long have you been a person of sightlessness?”

Oh, brother.

In a way, being a blind climber is like being a Jamaican bobsledder—you know the words don’t necessarily connect right away in people’s minds. So it’s nice not only to get to climb mountains, but to share a message that we can do things in our lives that are very much unexpected. A few years ago, I got to climb the tallest peak in Europe: 18,500-foot Mt. Elbrus. We wanted an added bonus, we wanted to ski down from the summit, which we did about 10 thousand feet from summit to base camp. My friend, Eric Alexander, he skis behind me and yells out very precise directions—similar directions that the Blue Angels use when they fly in formation. And he was skiing down behind me in an absolute whiteout—it’s called “zero-zero.” If you can see, you can’t tell the difference between the ground and the sky. Everything loses its contrast. So, Eric was skiing down behind me in the storm yelling out directions, and it was later that he told me he had been using the bright orange contrast of my jacket to tell him where the drop offs were. It’s good to hear that stuff later, I think.

I took a year off of the climbing scene to take part in what some call the toughest adventure race, the toughest multi-sport endurance race in the world. Nine days, 60,000 feet of elevation game, no time outs. You start in teams of four; you have to cross the finish line in teams of four. Towards the end of the race, you’re starting to actually hallucinate on your feet because you’re only sleeping about an hour a day, and towards the end of the race, I was hallucinating. Of course, I hallucinate with my ears. I can’t hallucinate with my eyes, so I would hear my fifth graders. They’d be in an imaginary playground and they’d run up to the chain link fence and they‘d shake the fence and they’d say: “Go Mr. Weihenmayer, you can do it.” And I’d shake my head and I’d realize I was in a boulder field at midnight. My friend and teammate, Jeff, on the other hand, would hallucinate with his eyes. He would see little gnomes and wizards and trolls. They’d jump out of the woods and bite his toes. He’s been to over a hundred Grateful Dead concerts—that’s probably what’s happening here. We were one of 42 teams out of the 80 elite teams from around the world to actually cross the finish nine days later. The rumor was we wouldn’t make it past the first day.

My first of the Seven Summits was Mt. McKinley—Denali, the great one, the high one in the Inuit language—20, 300 feet. We flew Cessna planes onto the glacier and 19 days later, we crossed the summit ridge and stood on the summit at about 4:30 in the afternoon. It turned out to be Helen Keller's birthday. And we were worried about getting down, because lots of accidents happen on the way day. But we were also very excited because we had timed it perfectly. We had radioed down to our base camp manager, who radioed out to a small airstrip in Talkeetna, the nearest village, and now that we were nearing the top, my Dad and my two brothers and my wife were circling above us in a Cessna plane watching us take our last steps. We all had orange suits on. We looked identical to each other. We were waiving our ski poles at the plane and cheering and I said to Jeff: “Hey, I want them to know that I’m here, that I made it.” He said: “Oh yeah, Erik, they’ll know—you’re the only one waiving your ski poles in the wrong direction.”

It’s good to have friends.

We got down safely to our igloo that we had built there and I crawled into the igloo and I lay in the snow for a long time. Half of me knew I wasn’t cut out for this life. I wasn’t tough enough, I wasn’t resilient enough. I mean, this is the last thing blind people were supposed to be doing. But the other half of me wanted to figure out how to climb forever. I climbed into the igloo and Chris Morris, our team leader, cooked up a big pot of celebratory freeze-dried spaghetti, which I immediately gave back to the mountain gods, if you know what I mean. Chris is from Alaska and he’s got these great philosophies and great witticisms about life. My favorite is what he calls “positive pessimism.” You’re sitting out in a terrible storm, you can’t even believe you’re there, and Chris will look up with a big smile on his face and say something like: “Sure is cold out here, but at least it’s windy.” Or, “Sure been climbing a long way, but at least we're lost.” On the top of Aconcagua, the tallest peak in South America, I got to the summit behind Chris and he gave me a hug and said: “Erik, you may be blind, but at least you’re slow.” I wasn’t expecting that, but I said: “You know, Chris, you’re not the nicest guy in the world, but at least you’re stupid.” And in the igloo, I said: “Chris, I am so sorry. I didn’t mean to throw up in the entranceway to the igloo.” And he did something so nice—he slapped me on the back as hard as he could, and he said: “Anyone who stands on the top of North America, I’ll crawl through his puke any day.”

And he did, and I was touched.

I’ve had a lot of fun in the mountains, lots of fun getting to the tops of mountains and coming down with friends around me. Summits are very much goals. They’re linear, they’re step-by-step, they’re tangible, they’re reachable. I love goals. I know each of you has multitudes and multitudes of goals in front of you. But in my life, and I hope in yours’ too, there’s been something that’s been more important than any one goal, and that is what I would call a vision. I see a vision as being deeper than a goal. It’s where all of our goals spring from. It’s how we see ourselves living our lives and serving other people and impacting the world—what kind of legacy we want to leave behind us. I see people sometimes creating these long lists of goals that can become isolated and fragmented and ultimately go unfulfilled, or even lead you in directions you never wanted to go in the first place. When really I think we need to reconnect with that unifying vision that takes those goals and binds them together and gives them purpose and power. I think first has to come a vision and I think a vision is very much a manifestation of our values. It takes a lot of discipline, a lot of courage, though, to figure out how to live within the framework of that vision we creatCanada. He got such bad blisters on his stump that sometimes, at the end of the day, he was on a pair of crutches. And the look on his face was an absolute contradiction—full of exhaustion, yet at the same time, full of exultation. And I thought to myself, there’s something inside of us that I can only describe as a light—a light that has the ability to feed on frustration, on failure. In fact, a light that can use those things as fuel. The greater the challenge, the brighter that light burns. That light has the ability to make us more focused and more driven and more creative and, from time to time, can even transcend our own limitations and give our lives power.

I’ve met lots of people over the years like Terry. I call them alchemists. They’re able to take all the lead that life piles on top of them and they’ll figure out a way to transform it into gold. With an alchemist, you know they’ve done more than just dealing well with adversity or even “overcoming adversity,” as we hear quite often. They’ve actually taken another step—they’ve figured out how to seize hold of that storm of adversity that swirls around us to harness its energy and use it to propel themselves forward into new places that they might not have gone to in any other way. With an alchemist you can throw them into the midst of a fierce competitive, chaotic environment, you can throw roadblocks in front of them, and they’ll still find a way to win. And I would argue that they don’t find a way to win despite adversity, they find a way to win because of it. If we want to grow, if we want to innovate, if we want to throw out the old way and create a whole brand new way in front of us, the way we seize hold of our challenges and harness their energy may be our greatest advantage. Imagine if adversity was no longer an impediment, but instead the pathway to greatness.

I’ve met other alchemists over the years—my friend Sabriye Tenberken comes to mind. Sabriye is a blind lady from Germany and when she graduated, she wanted to join the German equivalent of the Peace Corps. But they said: “We don’t send blind people overseas. They’re a liability.” So she funded her own way over to Tibet, which she had studied in college. She rode horseback through these remote villages and found blind children that were three and four years old who hadn’t been taught to walk. And she realized this was her calling. She fought through tons of bureaucracy and tons of superstition, and every now and again, the government would kick her out of the country and she’d have to trek over the Himalayans to Nepal while she waited for a new visa. She met with lots of failures, lots of setbacks. The tougher the situation got, the tougher she got. She was guided by the simple vision that these students she would ultimately train in Tibet would not ask for respect, they would demand it by becoming the best educated kids in Tibet. So she started a school.

She started with a few blind children, three or four of them, and now she trains over a hundred blind students a year. They learn braille in three different languages. They walk proudly through the streets of Lhasa, Tibet with their long white canes. They learn how to use computers. In just 10 years, Sabriye almost single-handedly has nudged an entire culture forward. She wrote me a letter and told me that the school had followed my Everest climb. She said that blind children in Tibet are seen sometimes as having evil spirits inside of them. They’re blind because they have done something bad in a past life to deserve it. She said people call them blind fools and they throw rocks at them. And she asked, “Would you ever come over for a visit?” Well, we thought we could do better than a visit. We went over, we trained six of her blind children to climb, and we came back in the fall and took them on a month-long climbing expedition. We pushed through cold weather, through rocky terrain, across crevasse fields. Ultimately, all six of those blind Tibetan teenagers, myself, Sabriye, my Everest team—we all stood at 7,000 meters, that’s 21,500 feet, on the north face of Everest. These were blind kids who were told they had evil spirits inside them, kids who were tied to beds in dark rooms, kids who were sold in and out of slavery, and now they stood higher than any other team of blind people in history.

I think leadership is contagious, and we pass it from body to body, and life to life. And we give all the people around us the courage to do great things. As graduates, you will be entering a world of tremendous uncertainty and tremendous adversity, with wars and with overpopulation, with climate change, with disease, with hunger, with a clash of cultures and ideas. It’s a chaotic world. It’s harder and harder to predict the future. Quite often, I think you’ll feel you’re climbing blind. But I don’t think this is the time to be clouded by fear and doubt, to be swept to the sidelines and forgotten. I think this is the best time in history, the most precious time in history, to be a pioneer, to reach out, to seize hold of adversity and the challenges that we face, to harness their energy not only to transform our own lives, but to elevate the world around us.

Helen Keller said: “I’m only one, but still, I am one. I cannot do everything, but still, I can do something. I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.” And I know that as each of you begin your adult lives, you won’t refuse to do the something that you can do. To the class of 2007, climb high! Climb high! Thank you very much!

Posted on Thursday, May 31, 2007

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