Ups and downs
December 16, 2003
Vail’s Eric Alexander and climbing partner Erik Weihenmayer completed the Seven Summits – the highest peak on each of the world’s seven continents – last year, the toughest challenge in climbing. They’re not a pair with a natural aptitude for leisure, or having their feet on flat land – which more or less explains how they ended up in New Zealand last month climbing Mt. Cook, New Zealand’s toughest and tallest mountain, and meeting Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to summit Mt. Everest.
The original plan was to paraglide off Mt. Cook to terra firma far below, but unsteady weather conditions combined with a well-honed sense of self-preservation led the pair to decide to live and climb again.
You just can’t keep a good man down.
Our story so far
Alexander and Weihenmayer gained a large measure of notoriety when Alexander led Weihenmayer – who’s blind – to the summit of Mt. Everest. They finished the Seven Summits last fall and were looking around for The Next Big Thing to climb.
They landed in New Zealand on Dec. 8.
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In true climbers’ fashion, they were immediately stopped cold by the weather.
“Cook got hit with 5 feet of snow and the weather was not clear,” says Alexander. “We did not wish to head up into avalanche danger, nor nasty weather. So we waited.”
While they waited, they did about everything except bungee-jet-boating and bungee-rocket-sky-diving to keep their minds off of what they were not doing – climbing Mt. Cook.
On Dec. 19, they finally made their assault.
“We departed at 11:30 (that) night – after saying a prayer for protection and guidance – under a full moon,” says Alexander. “The route was perfectly lit and the night was beautiful.”
Places to stop and rest on mountains in general, and this mountain in particular, are conspicuous by their absence. And so they climbed – up 45 degrees of ice and snow that made a couple serious attempts to kill them.
“At 2 p.m. we cautiously inched our way along the 2-foot wide summit cap,” says Alexander. “It fell away 4,000 feet to our left over the east face and 4,000 more down to the right a 70-degree ice-slope.”
Alexander says Mt. Cook boasts a spectacular summit and a wonderful view. “But it’s not really a place to celebrate with pictures and hugs, especially when your partner can’t see that his ice axe just went in one side of the cornice and out the other,” he says. “We saved our celebration for later.”
Alexander and Weihenmayer were the last ones off the peak, and all the previous parties had made holes all over the descent route making it a minefield for the “sightless legend” as the Queenstown paper had called “Erik.”
The Seven Summits is something every climber dreams of doing, but almost no one ever does. Alexander and Weihenmayer finished it Sept. 13, 2001, when they summitted Australia’s Mt. Kosciusko. They had originally wanted to paraglide from the top of that mountain, but the 60 mph winds kept them on the ground – sort of. They skied down, but then, they also skied up.
The night before their Mt. Kosciusko summit assault it rained. The mountain was glazed in ice by 4 a.m., 60 mph winds had kicked up and the clouds were so thick they had to find the summit with a compass.
It was, they laughed later, about as much fun as a person could have while tied to another human being.
It seems Alexander and Weihenmayer spend about half their adult lives lashed together. Alexander led Weihenmayer up all Seven Summits, and on almost all their other adventures. If they’re not actually roped together, Alexander is Weihenmayer’s bellman – Alexander rings a bell and Weihenmayer follows the sound to the summit.
The Seven Summits is insanely difficult for people blessed with all five senses. Weihenmayer went totally blind several years ago.
Adventures Beyond Limits
These days, Alexander runs a local program for at-risk kids called Adventures Beyond Limits. He does motivational speaking to groups of all kinds, and leads disabled and at-risk kids on adventure trips.
The object, Alexander says, is to help lead the kids 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 – sometimes it’s something even they didn’t think they could do,” says Alexander. “Finally they realize that if Erik can do it, they can do it.”
It’s all about goals, Alexander adds, and what you’re willing to do to achieve them.
“If you don’t have a large goal, you will probably never achieve anything close to it,” he says. “Start big; think big. Maybe you’ll achieve something big. Maybe you’ll have to settle for something large.”
Some of the kids have taken his advice to heart. They’re planning a trip to Denali next summer. Weihenmayer wouldn’t miss it.
Alexander can be reached at 390-2060, 845-8410, or firstname.lastname@example.org