As part of Comcast’s observance of National Disability Awareness Month, XFINITY TV interviewed author and adventurer Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to summit Mount Everest. Weinhenmayer, 45, has since stood atop the highest peaks on all seven continents. XFINITY On Demand also features his movie “High Ground,” a documentary that chronicles a team of Everest summiters, including Weinhenmayer himself, leading a group of newly disabled Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans on an expedition up the 20,000 foot Himalayan giant Mount Lobuche. “Imagine,” Weinhenmayer has said, “if adversity was no longer your enemy, but your ally, no longer an impediment, but the pathway.” The following is a transcript of his interview with XFINITY:
I went blind when I was 13 from a rare eye disease, so I went blind before my freshman year in high school. Because of the liability I couldn’t take the bus with the regular kids and I had to take this bus that said on the sign above it it said, Carrying Handicapped Children” and I did not like that at all. I used to gripe to the driver like, “Hey, I’m not handicapped. I don’t belong in this car.” I was like just a little jerk. At one point, I got out of the car and he said, “Hey, catch this” and he threw a basketball and it bounced off my head. I was so mad and he went and got the ball. He said, “Hey, you didn’t catch that ball. You’re blind. You better get used to it.” He said, “But this time I’m going to tell you when it’s coming and I want you to put your hands out.” He threw it and I caught it in my hands. He said, “Let people help ya. Stop fighting the world. You’ll learn to catch it.” That was cool because that’s the message I needed.
I kind of worked my way through that like any person who goes blind and I started rock climbing at 16. I realized I wasn’t going to be a very good baseball player. There was a group of blind kids that were going rock climbing as part of this rehabilitation program and I climbed my way up the rock face. I was kind of a scrappy little kid and I thought wow. I thought going blind meant the adventure of my life is over. That was my fear and getting to the top of this rock face, I realized no it’s really just kind of beginning. I was climbing a rock face at one point and my buddy said, “Hey, you know we should try summin’ bigger.” I thought what like a bigger rock face. He said, “How about Mount McKinley?” I was think like that’s the tallest peak in North America, it’s 20,000 feet. I know nothing about mountaineering but I’m sort of a sucker for new ideas. When he planted that seed I thought okay, I wonder if that is possibly.
My gosh, we went to Mt. McKinley and struggled through storms and just lots of hardships and 19 days after we got onto the glacier I reached the summit of that mountain with my team. It turned out to be Helen Keller’s birthday that we summited. Climbing is a retrospective sport so you work so hard to get there. It’s not just even the time on the mountain, it’s the time that you’ve spent training years and years getting fit, getting mentaly ready, physically ready.
Once you’ve climbed to the summit of Everest and you find yourself on the summit, it’s like your mind can’t even believe that you’re there. It’s like your body’s standing there and your mind is still going is this really happening. Am I really here after years of work after going blind and not even being able to find a bathroom, now I’m here on the summit of Everest? I knew I couldn’t have done that alone. I had a great team, great friends, a architect and a geologist and photographer and personal fitness trainer. Just friends who are great climbers who came together to support me on that and we all got so much out of that experience that 10 years after Everest we said how could we give back and we thought let’s work with some injured soldier. We knew that people were coming home and they were hurting and we thought let’s use climbing as a metaphor for going through a heroic journey in your like and transforming and growing, which is always very, very painful.
It started out as a one off and we made the film High Ground. It was directed by my good friend Michael Brown and Michael Brown produced our Everest documentary as well and we’ve worked together quite a bit. The reason it’s such a good film is because it’s very cinematic. It seems like it’s not a documentary, it seems like it’s fiction. There’s this amazing physical journey of a mountain yet the deeper journey is really the psychological journeys that these soldiers are all in trying to actually climb mountains that are way harder than physical mountains. It takes a lot of discipline to be able to say, “Okay, this is my new life and if I look back into the past too much, it’ll sort of destroy me.” you have to sort of like understand that part of transformation in your life is letting a part of you die and letting a new part of you be reborn.
I think High Ground is a great film. Not only is it entertaining but it’s about awareness. The awareness of what these veterans go through, the struggles that they have. They get hurt in some way, some catastrophic change that happens to them and now they’re thrown back into this civilian world and they don’t know how to go forward. I think High Ground is the best film out there that really shows that struggle. I’ve been to higher mountains and harder mountains around the world but standing up on the summit of Mount Lobuche with those soldiers was like the proudest moment of my life.
That was our first experience and then after that we bought it to my No Barriers organization which is a nonprofit that I helped start. We said this is a perfect mission because No Barriers is about breaking though barriers and helping people live an important life and serve the world. Solders to Summits, this thing fits perfectly into our organization. We’ve made it now a whole facet of No Barriers and we do many S2S adventures around the country and then we do these [inaudible 00:06:39] adventures once a year. Every human being connects to having challenges that we have to get through in our lives. For people with disabilities a lot of those challenges are more visible and just you want to interact with the world. You don’t want to be shoved to the sidelines.
If we are able to take on kind of a no barriers mindset where we equip ourselves for our own journey, we’re not comparing ourselves to other people, we’re not trying to do things the way that a able bodied person does them or a sighted person does them we’re actually just saying I embrace my own journey. Everybody has challenges. I think what’s inside of us is stronger than what’s in our way.