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
ALONG WITH BOB WOODRUFF—the ABC News anchor who was severely wounded while reporting on the Iraq War in 2006—Amanda Boxtel is one of the Telluride summit’s biggest attractions. Paralyzed from the hips down by a skiing accident in 1992, Boxtel has gone on to become a celebrated adaptive athlete and ski instructor. She has established programs in Chile, Argentina and Iceland, where paraplegics can descend a mountain on specialized skiing equipment.
Like Weihenmayer, Boxtel has become a celebrated figure in the No Barriers community and is known to be a highly effective motivational speaker, but her presentation today in the summit’s main auditorium is more about what she does than what she says. As the lights come up, the 46-year-old native of Brisbane, Australia, walks—not wheels—onto the stage, courtesy of an exoskeleton she’s nicknamed “Tucker.”
The technology that allows Boxtel to do this is the work of Ekso Bionics, a California company that works in conjunction with institutions, including U.C. Berkeley, to develop and modify these wearable robots. As she makes her way to center stage, Boxtel’s steps are labored and require forearm crutches for stability. But the expression on her face is one of unequivocal, almost childlike glee. “I call that my ‘bionic smile,’” she says later. “It’s the giddy grin people get when they get out of their wheelchair, into an exoskeleton, then stand up and start walking.”
As Boxtel begins her presentation, which is more homily than lecture, the wheelchair users in the audience fidget, rolling back and forth. “The first time I used an exoskeleton it was very emotional. I had long dreamed of walking and this was exactly how I imagined it,” she tells the crowd, before offering a litany of medical benefits, which include reducing atrophy and retraining neuropathways.
“But for me,” she continues, “it’s allowed me to give someone a standing, heart-to-heart hug, with no wheelchair between us. It’s hard to describe just how liberating that is.”
Here, Boxtel pauses until the room becomes silent. “I think that two years from now, we’ll be pushing these exoskeletons to new limits,” she says finally. “We’ll be hiking mountains soon!”
The crowd erupts. When the cheering subsides, she looks directly at a group of audience members in wheelchairs. “For those of you in wheelchairs,” she says, “get ready to walk!”
A mother bends over her son, who’s watching mesmerized from his wheelchair, and embraces him fiercely.