The Bottom Line: "Behind the moon / In the dead zone In the darkness where lovers all are blind" Fatima Mansions
Mt. Everest is a vile insatiable killing machine. It doesnt care what your lifestyle is, if you have a family, where you went to school, or, for that matter, if you even exist. It is a complete kingdom that is ruled by nature and it defies those that dare to approach it with either bravado or trepidation. On Mt. Everest there are no friends. The person you stand next to may be your best friend on Earth, a relative, or a complete stranger. Once you start your climb, you are an individual machine and, if need be, you will pass by that same person while they flail about, lost and suffering. You will leave them to die on the mountain, like they never existed in your life before that moment.
For this reason, I was completely enthralled with the premise of Erik Weihenmayer, a blind man, climbing Mt. Everest. To define him as a blind man really lessens his spirit, fierceness, and determination for life. I mention it in passing because it was so unbelievable to me that someone, anyone, would attempt this climb when they are so dependant on others and would often put them in harms way because of this. Not that it would be intentional but simply because on Mt. Everest you must put others aside and depend on no one and have no one depend on you.
The Early Years This book is rich in descriptive content. I really appreciated this fact because Erik actually takes you through his life practically from the time he was born. He was not born blind but rather with a genetic degenerative disease that would cause blindness. From an early age his sight was highly restricted yet he still did things sighted children could do, especially his Evil Knievel tricks on his bicycle.
My own impression is that Eriks family was more a handicap to him than his actual blindness. His mother insisted he be treated just like everyone else, even attending public schools. Because his mother refused to acknowledge the fact he was partially blind and rapidly losing what eyesight he had left, Erik did the same. He ignored all help and assistance and often floundered about in school.
Not that I think he should have been shunted aside, I just feel, because of her tunnel vision, he never received the skills for independent living that would be so necessary for him later. This is even more prevalent when his mother dies in an automobile accident when he was in his early teens.
On the other hand, it is the sense of belonging that also helped Erik adapt to his everyday surroundings. Because his family accepted him as sighted, he was able to continue, and excel, at many things you would never expect. Their insistence that he remain part of the landscape of their every day activities helped his future development.
Erik did not go blind immediately but in gradual stages. His details of how he reacted during each step, how his surroundings changed, and his own perception on the world, was quite insightful to read. I found his stages, and his reactions, to be similar to the grief process, with final acceptance the end result. Hearing his feelings, and the feelings of his teachers, friends, family, and work associates made it more real and clarified my comprehension.
Trying his wings Erik graduated from college and took a job as teacher to fifth grade students in a private school in Phoenix. When I think of this I am astounded. Think of all the pranks you could pull on your teacher if he/she wasnt aware of what you were doing. Think, also, of the turmoil for Erik; how to learn the difference between his students, how to post problems on the blackboard, how to even find the blackboard for that matter.
In addition, he was in a city where he knew no one and knew nothing about the surroundings. He had to totally rely on his faithful dog, Wizard, the babe magnet, to get him around. He was finally able to connect with his students and make his classroom a working model of independence for both the students and himself.
Of course, man, or woman, cannot live by work alone. They need interaction with people of their own species, not just fifth grade students. And it really isnt all that fun to snuggle up to a stack of papers that need grading on a long weekend.
Learning to fly With a friend he continues his love of hiking, especially the solitary trails in the desert. A unique bond is formed, as he and his friends develop almost a cadence system, allowing Erik the ability to travel on his own, since he finally figured out his dog couldnt keep up on a long hike. His next venture would be mountain climbing.
Erik had tried his hand at rock climbing during a camp one summer that dedicated itself to teaching the blind independence and the ability to reach for something they thought was beyond their capabilities. I would think something as treacherous as rock climbing, and eventually mountain climbing, would quality for that statement.
He chose Denali as his first attempt. Let me correct that, it was his first mountain success. By the way, and by coincidence, he summited Denali, his first mountain, on Helen Kellers birthday.
Between Denali and Mt. Everest there are a score of successes for Erik and his climbing buddies. It was so interesting to read his descriptions of each climb and the obstacles he met along the way. One thing he isn't short on is his ability to express himself.
Touching the top May 25, 2001, found Erik and his team standing on the summit of Mt. Everest. He went on, in 2002, to conquer Mt. Kosciusko becoming the youngest and one of only 100 climbers world wide that have accomplished the feat of the Seven Summits. And, oh yeah, he was also the first blind man to do this.
Eriks vision His motto is that some people are limited by their inabilities to reach while they ignore their possibilities. [I paraphrased that, it is not a direct quote] What else has he done with his life? Other than climbing the Seven Summits in addition to countless other climbing challenges, he was a middle school teacher, wrestling coach, wrestler in high school, paraglide, skier, won an ESPY award, induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, an ARETE Award for athletic performance, Helen Keller Lifetime Achievement Award, Nikes Casey Martin Award, Freedom Foundations Free Spirit Award, and carried the Olympic Torch in both summer and winter games. He travels extensively on speaking engagements, writes books, produces films, and undertakes new technology in teaching the blind to see.
However one of his greatest accomplishments was marrying his wonderful Ellen and the birth of his daughter, Emma. As he told friends, we have replicated ourselves.
Overall Impression This, by far, was one of the most enjoyable reads Ive had in a long time. It was both informative and inspirational. The language and flow of the book held both humor and sadness, yet it kept a nice stride so you wanted to stay in touch with it and find out what would come on the next page. Eriks description of his life and journey into blindness gave you depth to his character. Later it helps you understand his drive and need to succeed in whatever he attempted.
Like he says, during most of the climbs, since they are in darkness, they are all on a level playing field. Still, I believe it took a tremendous amount of courage on both his part and the part of his fellow climbers to conquer Mt. Everest, the dead zone.
This book is much more than another same old story about mountain climbing.
Publisher: Plume, March 25, 2002 Pages: 352 with 10 pages of B/W photos ISBN: 0452282942
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Susi Dawson (SusiDee34)
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The incredible, inspiring story of world-class climber Erik Weihenmayer, from the terrible diagnosis that foretold of the loss of his eyesight, to his dream to climb mountains, and finally his quest to reach each of the Seven Summits. Erik Weihenmayer was born with retinoscheses, a degenerative eye disorder that would progressively unravel his retinas. Erik learned from doctors that he was destined to lose his sight by age thirteen. Yet from early on, he was determined to rise above this devastating disability and lead a fulfilling, exciting life. In Touch the Top of the World, Erik recalls his struggle to push past the limits placed on him by his visual impairment--and by a seeing world. He speaks movingly of the role his family played in his battle to break through the barriers of blindness: the mother who prayed for the miracle that would restore her son's sight; the father who encouraged him to strive for that unreachable mountaintop. Erik was the first blind man to summit McKinley. Soon he became the first blind person to scale the infamous 3000-foot rock wall of El Capitan and then Argentina's Aconcagua, the highest peak outside of Asia. He was married to his longtime sweetheart at 13,000 feet on the Shira Plateau on his way to Kilimanjaro's summit, and recently Erik scaled Polar Circus, the 30,000-foot vertical ice wall in Alberta, Canada. Erik's story is about having the vision to dream big; the courage to reach for near impossible goals; and the grit,...