“When you see that ladder over a bottomless crevasse and your heart rate increases through the roof, you think, why on earth would I step on that ladder?” climber Eric Alexander said. Photo courtesy of Eric Alexander
By Peter Jones
The idea of climbing Mount Everest seems challenging enough – until one mulls the prospect of doing so blind, or being the climber who serves as his sightless friend’s eyes as they scale the world’s highest mountain.
Eric Alexander did not so much climb Nepal’s Sagarmāthā “because it was there” – but because he could – and so could his friend Erik Weithenmayer, who had gone blind as a teenager, but never lost his vision for adventure.
The image of “Eric” and “Erik” climbing in tandem – working together, but not always getting along, at 29,000 feet of tension and thrill – may even have resonance to those whose “mountains” are metaphorical, but no less challenging.
“Your mountain might be cancer or a loved one who has it,” Alexander said. “I would just say it’s maintaining hope – that positive attitude where you’re looking up and ahead and not just focusing on the negative, because that will absolutely bring you down and cause you to fall.”
Alexander will bring those analogies closer to home on Thursday, Oct. 30, at The Wildlife Experience in Douglas County when he speaks for Wings of Hope at an annual benefit for pancreatic-cancer research. The presentation in the museum’s IMAX theater will include video and photos.
In his book The Summit: Faith Beyond Everest’s Death Zone, Alexander details his lifetime of climbing some of the most dangerous peaks in the world and the teamwork, courage and faith that he says made it possible.
The Villager recently asked Alexander about the mountains – literal and otherwise – that have taken him to the peak in more ways than one.
Villager: How would you describe the appeal of mountain climbing?
Alexander: It is the wilderness. It’s a challenge that’s tangible. It’s right there before you. You see that place and there’s just something that draws you to it. For me, it’s also inviting someone else in on that journey and the camaraderie and friendship that develops, the trust and the relationship. You help each other to get to the top.
Villager: What about during the difficult, frustrating and even terrifying times? Are you always able to maintain that camaraderie and trust?
Alexander: It can be challenging, especially looking at our Mount Everest expedition, taking someone who’s blind up there. It’s such a perfect Walt Disney story, but we had our moments where we didn’t get along and we had to work through it. But I think when you’ve got a purpose, something unites us, something that’s bigger than any one of you. You keep your focus on the goal, not on these little things that could tear us down or break us apart. You get friendships that can last a lifetime and they’re not really just built around climbing. They’re built around the trust that you develop.
Villager: How did climbing Everest with a blind person change your own perceptions about challenge?
Alexander: I’d spent time with people who had disabilities, but when Erik told me he was a climber, I’d never really met a blind climber. I thought he must mean he likes to hike on weekends. I think he was sizing me up in the same way. It taught me about adopting new ideas and just having an open mind to the way things can work. By taking my focus off of myself and focusing on him, I lost sight of my own fears. When you see that ladder over a bottomless crevasse and your heart rate increases through the roof, you think, why on earth would I step on that ladder? I don’t know who put it here or if it’s going to hold me. You turn around backwards and you look at the guy coming up on your heels who can’t see and you think, how am I going to get him across this ladder?
The Alexander-Weithenmayer adventure made the cover of Time in 2001.
Villager: As you were climbing, did Erik notice things you didn’t?
Alexander: It’d be sounds. I’m so focused on getting down the trail that I’m not really tuning into those things. Also in people’s voices, maybe sensing fear.
Villager: You really have to live in the moment as a climber, don’t you?
Alexander: That’s the draw, if we could do that in so many other parts of our lives.
Villager: Has climbing helped you to be more “present” in general?
Alexander: I don’t know. I think maybe it has. I’m married and I have two girls. I think I have learned to shift that focus more onto family and to be more in the moment with them.
Villager: Has family affected your risk tolerance?
Alexander: I consider it. I do my best to manage risk. I’ve got years and years of experience and I think I do a good job at that, but there are objective hazards out there that you never really quite know.
Villager: Any close calls?
Alexander: I had a close call in the Himalayas where I fell 150 feet down a cliff side. A rock shifted under my feet and sent me over the edge. I eventually came to a stop. To me, it was landing in God’s hand and him just saying, “I gotcha.” There was another 500 feet down and I certainly would have died.
Villager: How do religious beliefs affect you? Are you more of a risk taker?
Alexander: No, but it gives me confidence when I do take a risk. I know that death is not the worst thing that can happen to me, but I believe our time here is also precious.
Villager: For a lot of people, mountain climbing is a metaphor for challenge. Has climbing put the more figurative mountains of your life in perspective?
Alexander: It gives you focus. It gives you strength, and to some degree, hope. I look at climbing as a great puzzle. One thing I love about it is you find yourself in a sticky situation. Your hands are burning. You’re losing strength. You can’t see for the life of you where that next hold is and how you’re going to reach it. But by shifting a little weight here and adjusting a little grip here, maybe moving a foot over and then just reaching, you find a way out. Sometimes you fall. That’s the nature of it, but you can learn from those falls.
Eric Alexander and Erik Weithenmayer’s campsite on Mount Everest. Photos courtesy of Eric Alexander
Eric Alexander, author of The Summit: Faith Beyond Everest’s Death Zone, will speak Thursday, Oct. 30, at The Wildlife Experience, in a benefit for pancreatic-cancer research.
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