No Barriers – Q&A With Erik Weihenmayer

This week on the podcast, I had an incredible guest talk with me for episode 046 and 047 next week. His name is Erik Weihenmayer, and in 2001 he became the first blind person to climb Mount Everest and all of the seven summits. In 2014, Erik, along with blinded Navy veteran, Lonnie Bedwell, kayaked the entire 277 miles of the Grand Canyon.

Erik continually seeks out new adventures, focusing on empowering people, traditionally swept to the sidelines of life. He founded No Barriers, which helps people with challenges tap into the human spirit, break through barriers, and contribute to the world. Erik is the author of the best selling memoir, Touch The Top of The World, which was made into a feature film, and Erik’s newest book, No Barriers, is a dive into the heart and mind of the turbulent human experience.

It’s an exploration of the light that burns in all of us. The obstacles that threaten to extinguish that light, and the treacherous ascent towards growth and rebirth.

Today, I’m giving you a rundown of my Q&A interview with Erik, so you can learn more about his struggles, hardships and setbacks, but also about how he overcame all of that and accomplished his biggest goals. Let’s get started:

 

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Q: Back in 2001, as you climbed Everest, shattering people’s expectations and doubts of you (and even doubts you had yourself), how did it feel for you to get to the top and overcome that noise in your head?

A: It wasn’t just me – it was my friends. I was training, and I had a lot of great friends who believed in me and this project 100%. It’s not like it was me against the naysayers. No, it was like a small group of amazing friends, against those naysayers. When they’d say things in articles like, he doesn’t have a chance, that he’s gonna go kill himself… my friends who climb with me would say, “Look, you do have a chance. You have a better-than-good chance. You’re stronger than most people on the mountain, and I think this person is judging you just on the basis of knowing one thing about you – the fact that you’re blind.” In my mind, I was thinking, “Okay, blindness is a major deficit. It’s a major thing to figure out, but it’s not the only thing.”

There’s other things that are really important. Your commitment, your talents, your fitness, your team, your climbing abilities, your abilities to be really efficient, your mindset.

The Sherpas have a saying, and it says, “The nature of mind is like water. If you do not disturb it, it will become clear.” It’s this idea that we’re always trying to still our minds or at least separate our true selves from the noise. This idea of trying to still your mind like water… you are able to accomplish that in climbing.

It’s a real blessing, when you feel that. You’re just there. You’re one. You’re hyper-aware and focused. You’re just incredibly in the moment. Time sort of slows down, and you let go some of that baggage.

 

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Q: When you crossed that last crevasse after summiting, I know that you had an interesting conversation with expedition leader, Pasquale. He said to you, “Your life is about to change. Don’t make Everest the greatest thing you ever do.” Did you feel like you were able to take some time to celebrate your accomplishment, or did that feel just overwhelming, to not know what you might do next?

A: I had just, as you just mentioned, shattered my own perceptions of what I could do. It’s like a muscle. When you shatter it, when you break it down, it rebuilds bigger. I was sort of awe inspired by this process that I had gone through, working step-by-step through this process of fear and doubt. Then actually reaching the summit, after so much adversity and standing on this little island, the size of a single car garage, and then coming down safely with my team, and I was going to go home to my family. I was so happy. It was such a high, and then Pasquale, he says this and I didn’t know how to process it.

What he said was so prescient because there was a lot more to come, and that was hard to envision. What he was trying to tell me, after years of reflection, was that adversities can get you stuck, but everything can get you stuck. Even the biggest success in the world. You do it – you stand on top. You reach your ‘summit,’ and you pound your chest, and you go, “I’ve done it and now I go home, and celebrate for the next 50 years and sit on the couch, and say I did something great 50 years ago.”

And Pasquale was saying those things can become your funeral. You have to stay committed to this wonderful, mysterious process of continuing to reach out.

 

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Q: How do you dig in deep, when the going gets so tough, when you want to turn around and just say, forget it?

A: Well, that’s a great question to answer because when I first climbed Denali, it was my first of the seven summits. I suffered so much. I remember walking up this steep part of the mountain, and I was sliding into these deep-frozen boot marks. People would stomp a path, and then that hole would freeze and I couldn’t see them and I was just sliding in and my shins were just hammering against holes of ice.

You say, “Okay, big deal.” But when you slip and slide every step for 10 hours… I got into my tent and I cried. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I was crying, thinking, “I can’t go through this anymore. I’m not cut out for this life. I’m not tough enough.”

So, it’s a struggle as you sort of grow that muscle of suffering. I would argue that you’re not looking for suffering in your life, but life is suffering. There’s a degree of suffering in everything big you ever do, and you have to learn to sort of grow that muscle. I will say that my ability to suffer these days, is way bigger than it was 20 years ago, even though your body physically breaks down a little bit, your mind just keeps getting stronger.

 

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Q: What I think sets you apart, along with your friends and fellow climbers, like Mark Wellman, who’s paralyzed from the waist down, and Hugh Heir, who’s a double leg amputee… it isn’t that you’re afraid of these big challenges. You’re not afraid to ask for help either. You give, and you receive help from one another. Why do you think that is so hard for so many to accept that they need help?

A: I think a lot of people are very good at helping, and they’ve defined themselves as helpers, and then they don’t know how to be helped. We have a lot of people within our No Barriers organization who participate in our programs. A lot of the veterans that come in, they’re used to leading and serving. They’re not used to being helped.

My brother, Mark, I wrote about him in the book, was one of these guys that would give you the shirt off his back, but he didn’t know how to be helped. Sometimes that leads to disaster in your life, and death even. Mark wound up passing away, due to complications around alcoholism, and it was because he just couldn’t accept that vulnerability of asking for help. We had a lot of people like that. They’ve gone out and they’ve gotten hurt. They’ve experienced trauma and they come into our programs. Sometimes they leave before they give it a chance, because it feels safer than to truly let your guard down.

It’s a profound lesson that I’ve had many times over, that when I’m on a climbing team, I’m not the token blind guy getting dragged to the summit and spiked on top like a football. I may not be the strongest, or the fastest, or the guy with the best eyesight, but I’m leading. I am leading that team. I’m a reason why the team is getting a few more feet up the mountain that day, and that’s really a proud feeling of leadership.

When you are reaching and trying for things, it is so messy. It is so uncertain. It is so tumultuous. Change happens in a very gritty way. I honestly thought people were getting the wrong messages. That was one of the reasons I wrote the book, because I wanted to illuminate people that go through this very honest process of change, and how different it is from everything you’ve learned.

 

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I want to continue talking and discussing things like overcoming our fears and struggles with failure. In order to go in depth with these topics, I continued to talk to Erik in part 2 of our interview for episode 047.

I encourage you to listen to both 046 and 047 to get all the details Erik shares about his life and adventures. And you can visit his No Barriers website to learn more about his mission and organization.

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Tonya Dalton
Tonya Dalton