Adventure: Blind To Failure

Mountaineers scoffed at the notion that ERIK WEIHENMAYER, sightless since he was 13, could climb Everest. But a killer peak is no obstacle for a man who can conquer adversity

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When he saw Erik Weihenmayer arrive that afternoon, Pasquale Scaturro began to have misgivings about the expedition he was leading. Here they were on the first floor of Mount Everest, and Erik--the reason for the whole trip--was stumbling into Camp 1 bloody, sick and dehydrated. "He was literally green," says fellow climber and teammate Michael O'Donnell. "He looked like George Foreman had beat the crap out of him for two hours." The beating had actually been administered by Erik's climbing partner, Luis Benitez. Erik had slipped into a crevasse, and as Benitez reached down to catch him, his climbing pole raked Erik across the nose and chin. Wounds heal slowly at that altitude because of the thin air.

As Erik passed out in his tent, the rest of the team gathered in a worried huddle. "I was thinking maybe this is not a good idea," says Scaturro. "Two years of planning, a documentary movie, and this blind guy barely makes it to Camp 1?"

This blind guy. Erik Weihenmayer, 33, wasn't just another yuppie trekker who'd lost a few rounds to the mountain. Blind since he was 13, the victim of a rare hereditary disease of the retina, he began attacking mountains in his early 20s.

But he had been having the same doubts as the rest of the team. On that arduous climb to camp through the Khumbu Icefall, Erik wondered for the first time if his attempt to become the first sightless person to summit Mount Everest was a colossal mistake, an act of Daedalian hubris for which he would be punished. There are so many ways to die on that mountain, spanning the spectacular (fall through an ice shelf into a crevasse, get waylaid by an avalanche, develop cerebral edema from lack of oxygen and have your brain literally swell out of your skull) and the banal (become disoriented because of oxygen deprivation and decide you'll take a little nap, right here, in the snow, which becomes a forever nap).

Erik, as he stumbled through the icefall, was so far out of his comfort zone that he began to speculate on which of those fates might await him. For a moment he flashed on all those cliches about what blind people are supposed to do--become piano tuners or pencil salesmen--and thought maybe they were stereotypes for good reason. Blind people certainly shouldn't be out here, wandering through an ever changing ice field, measuring the distance over a 1,000-ft.-deep crevasse with climbing poles and then leaping, literally, over and into the unknown.

The blind thrive on patterns: stairs are all the same height, city blocks roughly the same length, curbs approximately the same depth. They learn to identify the patterns in their environment much more than the sighted population do, and to rely on them to plot their way through the world.

But in the Khumbu Icefall, the trail through the Himalayan glacier is patternless, a diabolically cruel obstacle course for a blind person. It changes every year as the river of ice shifts, but it's always made up of treacherously crumbly stretches of ice, ladders roped together over wide crevasses, slightly narrower crevasses that must be jumped, huge seracs, avalanches and--most frustrating for a blind person, who naturally seeks to identify patterns in his terrain--a totally random icescape.

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