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Climbing Blind: An Unbelievable Trek Up Everest

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Erik Weihenmayer & Jeff Evans

First Blind Climber and his Climbing Guide to Summit Everest

Story from When Turtles Fly: Secrets of Successful People Who Know How to Stick Their Necks Out by Nikki Stone

ERIK & JEFF: Sixty days in and, jointly, seventy-five pounds lighter, we found the peak of Everest finally within striking range. The last two months had taken their toll on our bodies, whether blind or sighted. Dysentery had set in and our bodies were cannibalizing themselves in order to get the proteins they needed for energy and survival. The extreme altitude would be enough to slow us down even if we'd been in peak condition. We were quickly running low on our oxygen supply and had to make sure we'd have enough to get back down the mountain. Neither of us had ever summited Everest, and it was a dream we were going to keep pushing each other to achieve.

The night before our final ascent on the summit of the tallest mountain on earth, 29,035 feet above sea level, we came upon two sets of ropes that led up the southeast ridge in different directions. One rope went out 45 feet to the left and proceeded up a steep, craggy band of rocks and then continued on 100 more feet up to the south summit. The other set of ropes went straight up to the ridge in an easier path, but the ropes were buried under a couple feet of snow.

JEFF: I realized I had an enormous weight on my shoulders and one of the biggest decisions of my life to make. The path to the left would be much easier for me, but much harder for Erik. But if I used the extra energy to pull the other ropes out of the snow, I knew that I would, in turn, be sacrificing my first and only summit.

After much contemplation, I kept coming back to the decision that, deep down, I knew I would make all along. This expedition wasn't about me. Our team was here for Erik. My summiting Everest wouldn't be the thing that inspired a group of young, blind Tibetan teenagers to climb a 23,000 foot peak. My summiting Everest would not cause jaws to drop. My summiting Everest would be a personal victory. I had to swallow my ego and get to work on those ropes.

Dig, chop, pull, dig, chop, pull. Two hours later, with every last ounce of my reserves spent, the ropes were finally freed.

ERIK: I could feel Jeff's eyes on me as he declared, "This is going to have to be my summit. I left everything I had out there on those buried ropes."

I truly felt as if I'd been punched in the gut. The wind was immediately sucked out of me and I was completely deflated. How could I go on? We had always put ourselves out there together; we had done everything together. How could I continue without him? I just didn't want to summit without Jeff. He had sacrificed everything for me.

I suddenly felt his arms around me. And, in that embrace, I realized that it was my job to summit. Everyone had worked so hard for me, and if I didn't reach the summit, I would be letting our whole team down. If I succeeded, we all succeeded. That one embrace was so telling of the person Jeff was, and why I couldn't let him or the rest of our group down in this challenging pursuit. Louis, another teammate, was ready to take the reins and guide me toward team glory.

JEFF: I watched Erik push forward and let go of his fears to attain a goal that no other blind man dared attempt. Being on so many adventures with Erik, I had long since stopped being inspired by his feats. The sight of him scrambling up a rocky ledge or standing on top of some snowy peak now seemed commonplace.

But as I looked up and saw Erik start along the ridge toward the highest peak on earth, those initial feelings of inspiration were suddenly rejuvenated. Erik was pushing out of his comfort level to show the team how grateful he was for everything we had done for him. He was surpassing limits, smashing preconceptions about what a sightless person can accomplish. He was sticking his neck out...for me.

That tank that appeared to be on Empty unexpectedly had fuel to burn. Through sheer inspiration, Erik was giving me the energy I needed. I saw him pushing himself those last few steps toward the summit and I reached deeper within myself to summon the strength and will to push toward the top. I slowly pressed on, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other.

ERIK: With forty feet left, my breathing slowed. Six breaths between each step. Only half an hour to go... One of my teammates, Chris Morris, gripped my shoulder and said, "Big E, you are about to stand on top of the world." A smile spread across my face.

The exhilaration of my last step was only eclipsed by the sound of a voice that shortly followed. It was the best thing I had heard throughout the entire journey: "I wasn't going to let you stand up here, and have to hear about it the rest of my life." Jeff was right there by my side.

ERIK & JEFF: One by one, our teammates took that final step. We ended up having nineteen people from our group summit that day, the most people from one team to ever reach the top of Everest in one day. It was a mutual effort and there is no way any of us could have done it alone. Time Magazine even listed us as one of the best teams ever to climb Everest.

After a long embrace, we knew that everyone was thinking about that same unspoken fact: it only counts if we get down. The majority of those who die on Everest do so on the descent.

ERIK: I had purchased a roundtrip ticket and intended to stick to that itinerary. I readied myself for the grueling trip back down. The snow squeaked behind me as I sensed Jeff edge up alongside me. "Hey Erik, I know you're anxious to start down, but take a minute to look around. You're likely only going to be here once. And it would be a shame if you didn't take it all in."

I'm so glad that Jeff encouraged me to take the time to appreciate that moment. I reached down and touched the snow through my gloves, and stopped and listened. Even in silence, I could always hear sounds of the world around me bouncing off the peaks of other mountaintops. But at the top of Everest, all I heard were sounds of space. I felt as if I was being swallowed up by the sky. Though I lost the use of my eyes long ago, on that day I saw a glorious vision.

JEFF: Spiritually, emotionally and professionally, it was the most powerful experience I ever endured, and the view from the top took my breath away. Erik's depiction made us all perceive that mountaintop experience much differently. Who would have thought that a blind man would be the one to truly help me see?

Motivational Weight Management Tip

My experience of working with the Biggest Loser contestants and Symtrimics has inspired me to leave motivational diet, health, and wellness tips at the end of all of my blogs. These tools will be driven from the actual advice shared in my weekly motivational Transformation Talks. This week's tip: You will only go as far as you think you can. If you think you can only lose five pounds; you'll only lose five pounds. If you think you can only run one mile; you will only run one mile. Why not aim for the top of the mountain?

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