I’ve always been a little put-off by the idea of superblinks – those blind people who do everything extremely well (have AWESOME jobs, perfect independent living skills, or are the first blind person to do something that would be a huge challenge for ANYONE), and think that all of us should be like them. Yet I have vivid memories of a news interview with Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to summit Mt. Everest, and thinking “WOW! That’s amazing!” – not in an amazing-for-a-blind-guy sort of way, but more like amazing-because-it’s-HARD. Years ago, I heard of Erik Weihenmayer’s first book, “Touch the Top of the World“, and when friends of mine described the author as a “superblink”, I put the idea of reading his book on a top shelf in my reading closet. After all, I’m not that interested in mountain climbing, and who wants to read a book about a perfect accomplished blind person? Not me!
But when I saw his second autobiographical book, “No Barriers” was being released early in February, which sounded like an interesting read, I figured I would go in from the beginning. Sure, I thought, I’m interested enough in mountains to make “Touch the Top of the World” worth my time, and maybe, just maybe, I could slog through how perfect this guy’s life was and how effortless he made everything seem…
Um… I was so very wrong.
About the Book
Erik Weihenmayer was born with retinoscheses, a degenerative eye disorder that would leave him blind by the age of thirteen. But Erik was determined to rise above this devastating disability and lead a fulfilling and exciting life.
In this poignant and inspiring memoir, he shares his struggle to push past the limits imposed on him by his visual impairment-and by a seeing world. He speaks movingly of the role his family played in his battle to break through the barriers of blindness: the mother who prayed for the miracle that would restore her son’s sight and the father who encouraged him to strive for that distant mountaintop. And he tells the story of his dream to climb the world’s Seven Summits, and how he is turning that dream into astonishing reality (something fewer than a hundred mountaineers have done).
From the snow-capped summit of McKinley to the towering peaks of Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro to the ultimate challenge, Mount Everest, this is a story about daring to dream in the face of impossible odds. It is about finding the courage to reach for that ultimate summit, and transforming your life into something truly miraculous.
Family Comes First
Erik has not always been totally blind. While he was visually impaired most of his early childhood, he still played sports with his brothers and friends at school. His family knew that his vision would change and eventually be non-existent, but Erik used the vision he had when he had it. When he discovered one day he couldn’t see things as clearly to ride his bike down the ramp that had been constructed, his father painted huge visible lines on it so he could still enjoy his bike tricks. Erik’s mother hoped for a cure for her son’s blindness, while his father (a military man) pushed him to do whatever he did to the best of his ability – even if it was done differently, even if it was scary, even if it included having others beside him and behind him cheering him on.
This sets up a backdrop of immense family support. When Erik lost his remaining vision and was forced to rely on a white cane, his anger boiled over. He would throw his canes into the river, purposefully break them, drop them down sewer grates. He refused to read braille and use other adaptive techniques. He was neither belittled or pitied, but was told to get back up and learn to deal. But he was not going to live his life of blindness alone. Sadly, his mother died very suddenly not long after Erik lost his sight completely. One of the main sources of encouragement and support was gone. But he still had his siblings and father to help him push through.
A Place of Acceptance
Something changed when Erik tried out for the wrestling team. He discovered that blindness was not a factor. He didn’t have to try to learn to do things differently because of his blindness, but he didn’t feel like he had to downplay it, either. He grappled and wrestled and got hurt and got back up again. And it made an incredible mark on his life; he later became a wrestling coach.
Somewhere along the way, Erik discovered that it was so much simpler to adapt to his blindness rather than fight it. He went on to college, tried to find a job (where, familiar to blind job-seekers the world over, he was told he couldn’t do job duties XYZ and shown the door), and continued with sports and hiking with his family and friends.
He landed a job teaching school in Arizona, where he met the two great loves of his life – his wife Ellie… and rock-climbing.
It’s Not Just about Erik
When you read news articles or hear interviews about Erik being the first blind person to summit Mt. Everest, the team beside and behind Erik – if they are mentioned at all – are downplayed. Not so in this book. The friends, family and guides who supported him with both practical and physical help when he began climbing rock faces – and, later, the tallest peaks in the world – are fully fleshed out. From one team member who was perpetually cracking practical jokes, to another who was constantly late or forgetting gear (most notably a headlamp, when Erik was the lead climber on a night-time descent), to a young man whose dream of summiting one mountain was cut short due to a serious health concern… Erik makes no apologies for being part of a team. Sometimes he felt like he slowed down the team, forcing them to accommodate him; and other times, his ability to navigate in the dark made him a strong asset. Those on the peaks and those on the ground were all part of this journey, and Erik is not shy about sharing this information.
We knew – upon publication of this book – that Erik had summitted Mt. Everest. This, however, was not detailed in this book. I didn’t realize until recently that he hadn’t hit the summit of the tallest mountain on each of the seven continents until 2008 (more than six years after the book’s publication). I can’t decide if this adds to this book’s charm – Erik Weihenmayer is a work in progress – or if I find the publisher’s summary misleading.
If you’re at all interested in books about mountaineering, this book is a unique look at the challenges and successes of a blind climber. Like many climbers, Erik has a deep respect for the mountains – for their unique weather, their surface, their ruggedness, their beauty. Blindness was sometimes a factor in climbing, sometimes not.
As a memoir of blindness, I found this book both riveting and complicated. Erik felt like both an asset and a liability on the peaks, but he was never afraid to pull his weight. Sometimes this meant learning to do things flawlessly – because his life, and that of his teammates – depended on it. He had to abandon more than one climb due to illness, injury, or poor weather. Sometimes he powered through intense pain to summit a mountain, and paid for it later. Sometimes he knew when it was time to let it go for now and try again.
“Touch the Top of the World” is more than a memoir about blindness, adaptation, or mountains. It’s about all three in a terrific combination. It’s about grit and determination, about learning your own limitations and sometimes redefining them. I laughed and cried at various points, both poignant and amusing. Erik Weihenmayer may have been described by my friend all those years ago as a “superblink”, but I’m not sure I agree. He’s a man who loves the mountains, who loves to set goals for himself, and realizes the important value of teamwork.