With their heads in the clouds
When Erik Weihenmayer reached the summit of Everest, he made history as the first blind climber to do so. According to Eric Alexander, one of Weihenmayer’s guides and an Eagle-Vail resident, their party didn’t feel as though they had more obstacles than anyone daring to strive for the top of the world’s highest peak.
Their journey is chronicled in the documentary, “Farther Than the Eye Can See,” as well as in Weihenmayer’s book, “Touch the Top of the World: A Blind Man’s Journey to Climb Farther than the Eye Can See.” The Vail Symposium brings both to the Ford Amphitheater, in addition to Weihenmayer, Alexander and other members of the climbing party.
Choosing to climb Everest was a natural step for Alexander.
“I’ve been a climber my whole life,” he said. “It seemed a natural step to take to climb to the highest point on earth. And we had the chance to do it in a unique way.”
The fact that Weihenmayer can’t see put a spin on the trip, but didn’t impede them in any way.
“Our obstacles were different than anybody else’s,” he explained. “Erik can’t see, but that’s the challenge – to always be open to new ways of doing things. … As we got higher, it was less important that he couldn’t see because of the terrain. The real obstacles were the weather, the altitude. It gets terribly cold, it gets windy, and your head plays games with you, wanting to turn around.”
The documentary captures all of it. It begins in Denver, in the planning and training stages, and follows the party up to the summit. Mike Brown, another local, was the primary filmmaker with the crew.
One of the more exciting aspects of the trip was the ladders, which serve as aids through the ice fall and over crevasses. They practiced for them using cinder blocks in the backyard, fairly flat and solid.
“When you get up there, it’s never flat and never solid,” said Alexander, laughing. “The film captures Erik’s first time across a ladder, and you can really feel his nervousness. By the tenth time across a ladder, we were chasing each other. The more you get used to them, the easier it becomes.”
When they reached the top, the group found itself without words.
“When we got to the top, we were all euphoric and kind of choked up,” he said. “I remember looking up and seeing that the sky was navy blue.”
Part of the joy came from realizing the people that told them they’d never make it were wrong. They were victorious.
Part of having a team is encouraging each other to go on. Weihenmayer and Alexander have been sporting cohorts for years. They rock climb, ice climb, paraglide and mountain bike together. Monday, they leave to climb the Matterhorn together. Later this year, Alexander and his mom will climb Kilimanjaro.
He recently returned from Peru with a group of at-risk kids. He’s begun a group called Adventures Beyond Limits, which focuses on kids with either physical disabilities or environmental challenges.
“Erik has been an inspiration with that,” he said. “I want others to have the same chances. The movie is a fund-raiser for it, as well as for the Vail Symposium.”