Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest, is on a mission to get other would-be adventurers with disabilities to see what’s possible
Author Buddy Levy
TELLURIDE, COLO., is a barely perceptible smudge of light as I shuffle my feet along a narrow scree trail 1,000 feet or so up the wall of a box canyon. Erik Weihenmayer, my guide, walks ahead of me, flicking the edge of the path with his trekking poles, feeling his way with his feet and occasionally probing the void to our left. “Baby goat trail with consequences,” he says, anticipating the conditions ahead. And we are both fully aware of what these “consequences” involve: a crash course in the damaging effects of gravity.
We are navigating this Rocky Mountain town’s thrilling Via Ferrata. Italian for “iron roads,” via ferratas originated in the Alps during the First World War to aid troop movement. Telluride’s is a “horizontal climbing route” that starts near Bridal Veil Falls and runs down the canyon, traversing the side of a massive vertical rock face. It’s a three-to-four-hour technical route with fixed cable sections you clip into to cross the sketchiest, scariest, most exposed areas.
Weihenmayer moves with precision, even ease, running his hands over the limestone to find secure handholds. We reach The Main Event—Via Ferrata’s signature section—an exposed vertical rock face with the potential for serious consequences. Here the world sloughs away, vanishing into the nothingness below. I watch as he clips his carabiners onto the cable and, Spider-Man-like, moves across the face, his hands and feet gliding from one bolted U-shaped rung to the next. In less than 30 seconds he’s across, standing safely and confidently on a rock ledge on the other side.
“C’mon, Buddy, you got this,” he says. “Just one move at a time. Stay focused. Stay calm and remember to breathe. Oh, and don’t look down.”
I move slowly, palms sweating, legs quivering like a faulty sewing machine. With my guide’s encouragement, I manage to shimmy awkwardly across the face, clinging to one rung after the next. After a terrifying 10 minutes hanging from a sheer mountain wall, I’m standing next to him. “Way to go,” he says, patting me on the shoulder. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
The man who has just talked me across the abyss is one of the most celebrated adventurers in the world. He is also totally blind.