By JOANNE FOX
A graduate of a Catholic college credited the institution with providing him with the foundation to achieve an exhilarating and fulfilling life – never allowing blindness to define him.
“I learned how to be independent there and they provided me with amazing confidence,” said Erik Weihenmayer, referring to Boston College, a Jesuit research university located in Chestnut Hill, Mass.
Weihenmayer, the first blind person to climb Mt. Everest, was the keynote speaker at the 33rd annual Siouxland Chamber of Commerce dinner, Sept. 20.
Retinoschisis, an eye disease in which the abnormal splitting of the retina’s neurosensory layers takes place, robbed Weihenmayer of his vision at age 14.
“It felt like a brick wall was put in front of me,” he recalled.
However, Weihenmayer resisted the idea that blindness would sweep him to the sidelines of life and established himself as a formidable wrestler in high school, representing his home state of Connecticut in the National Junior Freestyle Wrestling Championship in Iowa.
“My biggest claim to fame was that I won that championship in Iowa,” he quipped to reporters at a press conference prior to the dinner. “And I know that wrestling is big in Iowa.”
As a teenager, Weihenmayer also discovered rock climbing and a natural dexterity for the tactile aspects of scanning the rock with his hands and feet for holds, setting the stage for him becoming the first blind person to reach the summit of Mt. Everest in 2001.
As he neared his graduation from Weston (Mass.) High School, Weihenmayer started looking at colleges.
“Part of the reason I choose Boston College was there were retinal specialists there,” he said. “The other reason was a friend took me to a football game and I got to go to a really cool party.”
He added, with an ear-to-ear grin, “I know that’s really shallow.”
Weihenmayer graduated in 1991 with a double major in English and communications from Boston College. He also earned a master’s degree in middle school education from Lesley University, Cambridge, Mass.
While Weihenmayer served as a teacher and wrestling coach at Phoenix Country Day School, his quest for adventure began to take shape.
Embracing the pop song’s lyrics, “Ain’t no mountain high enough,” in 1995, Weihenmayer ascended Denali the highest point in North America. He also climbed Carstensz Pyramid on the island of Papua New Guinea, completing the Seven Summits, the highest point on every continent. In 2014, Weihenmayer kayaked the entire 277 miles of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
Weihenmayer’s triumphs over some of the world’s greatest obstacles were fueling a growing aspiration to take the lessons he learned in the mountains to help others.
To advance this idea, Weihenmayer co-founded No Barriers. Its mission is to help people with challenges to face barriers head on, embrace a pioneering and innovative spirit.
“Sherpas told me that climbing to the peak of Mt. Everest is not the real summit,” he said. “It’s only halfway because you have to come back down.”
For Weihenmayer – dressed in a gray/blue plaid, pocketed shirt and khakis for the dinner – it was not enough “just to climb mountains, pound your chest, and say, ‘Look at me I’m blind and on the top.’”
“That felt good for a while, but you realize that that’s not enough,” he said. “You have to take those things that you’ve learned through hard work, through sacrifice, and those gifts you’ve been given, and bring them down into the world and use them in some way.”
Climb, not camp
Moving around a clear podium, while his guide dog Yuri camped next to him, Weihenmayer delivered his inspirational message in front of two massive, neon green peaks with the word REACH positioned between them. He emphasized that central to one’s journey is a mindset to continually grow and evolve – in Weihenmayer’s words, to “climb” while others “camp.”
“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 challenges we face, to harness energy not only to transform our own lives, but to elevate the world around us,” said the author of Touch the Top of the World: A Blind Man’s Journey to Climb Farther than the Eye Can See.
At Boston College’s commencement in 2003, Weihenmayer was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.
“I am a Christian,” he said when asked about his faith journey. “I don’t pretend to know things I don’t know. But I do know the most beautiful church in the world is out in nature. That’s where I feel a connection to something that’s ‘away’ from you.”
When Weihenmayer, who turned 50 on Sept. 23, is not climbing, skiing, paddling, skydiving or biking, the married father of two who lives in Colorado, continues to challenge himself to lead a “No Barriers” life.
His next big adventure?
“Coming to Sioux City,” Weihenmayer joked.