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Blind Ambition

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

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Erik Weihenmayer leading an ascent of Red Tower in the Dolomites (Photograph: Charley Mace)

 

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.

3 Responses to “Blind Ambition”

  1. Bryan Brown Says:
    December 10th, 2013 at 11:07 pm

    This has already been done. Here’s the press release:

    Blind Hoosier Kayaker Runs Grand Canyon

    Lonnie Bedwell Completes Epic Whitewater First with Team River Runner

    On August 21, 2013, U.S. Navy veteran Lonnie Bedwell became the first blind kayaker to solo the Grand Canyon, which is well established as one of the most challenging whitewater venues in the world. Bedwell traveled in the company of Team River Runner, a kayaking organization designed to help American veterans cope with serious injuries. The Grand Canyon has a well-earned reputation as one of the most challenging whitewater venues in the world, and requires boating skills that generally require years to develop. Once Mr. Bedwell, who lost his eyesight 16 years ago in a hunting accident, focused his attention upon kayaking, however, he developed the necessary boat-handling skills in roughly one year by practicing in the pond on his Sullivan-County, Indiana, property. He also undertook training on various well-known whitewater stretches in the Appalachian foothills.

    The Grand Canyon trip, which took 16 days to complete, involved three additional whitewater kayakers who were sighted, and who coached Lonnie through some 200 highly demanding (Class IV and Class V) rapids with voice commands that he was somehow able to hear over the roaring of the rapids. One paddler generally preceded Lonnie through a set of rapids (occasionally backwards to facilitate communications), and two paddlers followed him closely to be readily available in case he capsized in the waves, which can range from 3 feet to roughly 30 feet in height depending upon the rapid.

    Mr. Bedwell, who is highly involved in a number of other outdoor activities as well as kayaking, thanks Team River Runner for its efforts on his behalf and actively supports the organization in its endeavors to help his fellow veterans recover from their injuries.

    Contact Information
    Lonnie Bedwell
    7794 E County Road 250 S
    Dugger, IN 47848-8117
    Telephone: 812-648-2373
    e-mail: lonnie.r.bedwell@att.net

    Links for Review
    http://www.teamriverrunner.org/

    http://www.indystar.com/viewart/20130906/NEWS/309060034/Blind-Indiana-man-completes-226-mile-kayak-trip-through-Grand-Canyon

    http://www.sullivan-times.com/

    http://www.grindtv.com/outdoor/excursions/post/veteran-becomes-first-blind-kayaker-to-paddle-grand-canyon/

  2. Theresa Says:
    December 13th, 2013 at 10:36 am

    I read this article on a flight this week and was totally inspired. Thank you for sharing Weihenmayer’s story.

  3. sandra Carol Says:
    February 13th, 2014 at 1:06 am

    Thanks for sharing this blog

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