The Magnificent Seven
Rain the night before left the slopes glazed with ice by 4 a.m. The 60 mph winds buffeted them during the final ascent. Then clouds descended and they had to find the summit by compass. It was as much fun as you could have tied to a fellow human being.
For the uninformed, the Seven Summits are the highest peaks on each of the world’s seven continents. It’s something every climber dreams of doing, but no one ever does.
First, it’s almost inhumanly difficult for people blessed with all five senses.
Weinhenmayer, you might recall, is totally blind. Alexander, his long-time friend and guide, has led him through three of his Seven Summits adventures, as well as dozens of others. Later this month they’re taking off to New Zealand for Mount Cook, that country’s toughest and tallest mountain. While they’re Down Under, the goal is to paraglide off some of the other peaks in New Zealand.
Adventures Beyond Limits
These days, Alexander is running an organization called Adventures Beyond Limits, which works through Meet the Wilderness. Besides doing motivational seminars for almost any sort of group, he works to help disabled and at-risk kids find their way out of the wilderness that is sometimes their lives.
“We work with kids with disabilities, helping them accomplish things people say they can’t do – and sometimes things even they didn’t think they could do,” said Alexander. “If Erik (Weinhenmayer) can do it, so can they.”
It’s about goals, Alexander said, and what you’re willing to do to reach them.
“If you don’t have a large goal, you will probably never achieve anything close to it,” he said. “Start big. Think big. Maybe you’ll achieve something big; maybe you’ll have to settle for something large.”
The kids he’s working with now have taken his advice to heart. They’re planning a climbing trip to Denali next summer.
Motivation is something Alexander knows about.
Alexander almost wasn’t part of the Everest climb. While training in the Himalayas for the Everest assault, he had a near-fatal fall, plunging 150 feet onto a 3-foot wide ledge that saved him from another 500-foot drop. The incident left him with pulmonary edema and it became clear that he would need to be airlifted to safety. He had to lie still while zipped into an oxygen chamber to clear his lungs.
Alexander exhibits lots of spiritual gifts; lying still isn’t one of them. For eight months he struggled with pneumonia and was unable to train for Everest. The pneumonia didn’t stop them, although climbing up through a whiteout almost did.
On Everest, they made the summit just after sunup (10 a.m.), watching dawn break from the top of the world as they watched the shadow of Everest extend over Nepal. But they didn’t get to linger long. The storms that blow in during the late mornings and afternoons will knock you off the mountain, and that you won’t survive.
Besides the glories of making those Seven Summits, they also count other,
smaller victories. Foremost among them: Everyone lived (nobody even had frostbite). It doesn’t always happen that way. The weather on each of those seven peaks will make a couple serious attempts to kill you. Sometimes it gets it done.
“We were camped on Everest and our tent was right beside a guy who had
died there and was frozen to the ground,” said Alexander
Despite a bout with pneumonia the year before, Alexander and the team brought back five world records from that Everest summit: the first high definition documentary production on Everest, the largest expedition to ascend the mountain (19 climbers), the oldest climber and the first father-son climbing team to reach the summit; we prefer to say the oldest man in the world and the blindest man in the world to succeed.
It also brought about a meeting with President Bush in the Oval Office, who was suitably impressed. Alexander, Weinhenmayer and the rest of the team wore suits. In the Oval Office they looked surprisingly comfortable for a group of people dressed in clothing that had so little to do with their natural habitat, a mountain peak. They also caught the attention of Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to summit Everest, and may result in a meeting with the legendary climber.
From Russia with love
The Mount Elbrus expedition, the sixth of their Seven Summits, wasn’t exactly a pastoral stroll among friends, but it was as close as they would get at 18,500 feet.
“A dozen of us went to Everest, and we nearly all came back for Elbrus,” said Alexander. “Some of them were Everest alumni. It was like a high altitude class reunion.”
Mt. Elbrus is located in the Russian Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. It’s Europe’s tallest peak and stands at 18,510 feet. Mt. Elbrus is located in the Caucasus mountain range and is known by locals as “Ash-Gamakho,” which means “happiness-bringing mountain.”
“That proved true for us; we got the greatest 9,500 foot descent of our lives,” said Alexander.
The slopes of Elbrus are covered with glaciers. In fact, it is one of the most glaciated peaks in the world with more than 70 glaciers spilling from its slopes. While glaciers cover the top of this mountain range, the lower valleys and mountain slopes of the Caucasus are covered with pine forests and flower-filled meadows.
“It was here after a few Russian brews that we came up with the idea to paraglide from the summit of Kosi in Australia,” said Alexander. Weihenmayer, 33, is a climber, speaker, writer, world-class adventurer, acrobatic skydiver, scuba diver, long-distance biker, marathon runner, skier, mountaineer, and ice and rock climber. He is one of the youngest people to climb all of the Seven Summits. To date, he has scaled Mt. McKinley (1995), Kilimanjaro (1997), Aconcagua (1999), Vinson (2001), Everest (2001) and Elbrus (2002) and Mt. Kosciuszko (2002).
A former middle school teacher and wrestling coach, Weihenmayer is one of the most well-known athletes in the world. His feats have earned him ESPN’s ARETE Award twice – the only person to do so, the Free Spirit Award of the Freedom Foundation, and most recently, designation by Time Magazine as one of “Sports: Best of 2001.” This year, Weihenmayer also received a coveted ESPY award for the best disabled athlete. Alexander is a world-class skier, climber, and mountaineer. When not instructing disabled skiers in Vail, he directs Adventures Beyond Limits, an organization that educates and encourages youth with disabilities in the outdoors. Alexander grew up in the Colorado Rockies and started climbing in his teens. He was a member of the University of Denver ski team, which led him to pursue work as a ski patrolman in Vail and in the French Alps, and an appearance in Warren Miller ski movie, “Snowriders II.”
Alexander’s climbing abilities were continually improved and refined over the years with expeditions throughout the Rockies, Tetons, Mexico, and the French Alps.
The show must go up
The local connections runs deep in this team.
Director Mike Brown now lives in Boulder, but calls Eagle County his home and is a 1984 Eagle Valley High School graduate.
His film “Vision of Everest,” documents Wienhenmayer’s Everest experience. It’s the first high definition documentary production on Everest.
The film debuted last spring and was screened at the Banff Film Festival. “Erik has to trust his climbing team completely,” said Brown. “They travel across crevasses, through ice fields, up broken slopes, in an unforgiving environment, and he has to believe in them absolutely. It is a lesson in teamwork and trust, and it really applies to us all, in any endeavor. Especially filmmaking.”
Brown said filming at the top of Everest presented more than the usual locational challenges. Lack of oxygen and adverse weather conditions made the physically-taxing job of carrying a 30-pound camera even more arduous.
Outdoor gear manufacturer Mountainsmith had created a custom backpack for the high definition camera to make it easy to carry, but when the expedition reached the final stage of the climb, the Sherpas responsible for carrying the camera, Ang Khami and Chhouldim, were already tired after days of carrying heavy loads of oxygen tanks and supplies to Camp Four at 26,000-ft, the staging point for the final assault on the peak.
“The Sherpas made a superhuman effort to get the camera to the top,” said Brown. “I was already at the summit, and I could see Chhouldim below at the Bishop Rocks, about 50 yards from the summit.”
Brown said Chhouldim was sitting down, completely spent. The weather was deteriorating rapidly, with high winds and gusting clouds, and the team’s stay on the summit was down to minutes. Brown ran down and grabbed the camera. By the time he jogged back to the summit he was extremely hypoxic.
“The camera felt so heavy that I was having trouble getting it onto my shoulder and I could not make the frame level,” said Brown. “Luis [Benitez,] helped me get the camera up onto my shoulder, and I started shooting. We had only a few minutes to get the shots we needed. Luckily the team was greatly supportive and they remained on top to help us for just long enough to get the all-important shots.”
“Vision of Everest,” a production of Newport Productions in association with Aperture Films, is the latest of Brown’s adventure films.
Their climbing chronology
1998: Eric Alexander meets Erik Wienhenmayer
2000: Attempted Amadablam, fell and got high altitude pulmonary edema then pneumonia. Rescued by helicopter.
2001: Without much training went back to Everest and summited with Erik Wienhenmayer on May 21, 2001.
2002: June 13, climbed 18,500-foot Mount Elbrus in Russia.
2002: Sept. 13, climbed Kosciusko sub 7,000 feet in Australia. Skied from summit after winds denied them their paragliding descent.
2002: Dec. 8, depart for New Zealand to climb 12,000-foot Mount Cook. Will paraglide in nearby mountains as training for a possible trip to fly in Africa.
2003: June, Possible attempt in Denali with three at-risk youths.