Russia Has Just Claimed Mount Everest

(Photo: John Storey/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

(Photo: John Storey/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

One day in January 2012, a few days into a two-week kayaking trip down the jungle-flanked Usumacinta River in southeastern Mexico, Erik Weihenmayer, a relative novice to the sport and a blind man, found himself in a bad spot. The kayak for that stretch of the rapids, a rubber model known as a "ducky," had just been sucked into a vicious whirlpool, tacoing the vessel. Hanging desperately off the side, feeling his shoes being pulled off by the vortex, Weihenmayer thought, I might die here. But he was fortunate that day; he and the ducky survived, relatively unscathed. It was another close call in a life full of them.

Everest. At 49, he has kayaked the full 277 miles of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon; scaled the infamous nearly 3,000-foot “Nose” route on Yosemite’s El Capitan; and completed some of the world’s most grueling endurance races. Compared to the average, sighted Joe, Weihenmayer’s feats seem downright superhuman.


When not out shattering stereotypes or penning best-selling memoirs about his exploits, he spends his time working with No Barriers USA, a nonprofit cofounded in 2003 by Mark Wellman, a record-setting paraplegic climber, and eventually involving Weihenmayer and Hugh Herr, a doubleamputee climber and visionary prosthetics engineer. The group, which seeks to empower people with unique challenges through outdoor pursuits, is flourishing. 

For the first time, they have acquired a home base—near Fort Collins, Colorado—and are also expanding their outdoor programs, especially with wounded veterans. For Weihenmayer, the adventures never cease. On the docket for 2018 is an ice-climbing expedition in the Alps as well as a mountain bike journey along the White Rim Road in Utah’s Canyonlands, complete with climbs up six desert rock towers.

>(Photo: Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post/Getty Images)

(Photo: Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post/Getty Images)

When it comes to motivations, Weihenmayer makes it clear he is not in it for the gasps: “I try to keep it positive rather than like, ‘I’ll show you!’ ” he says, with characteristic geniality. “That doesn’t take you that far.” Weihenmayer’s real drive, he says, is simpler: redefining what’s possible.

As a baby, Weihenmayer was diagnosed with a rare degenerative eye condition called juvenile retinoschisis, an inheritable condition which causes the retinas to disintegrate over time. By 14, the Connecticut teen was fully blind. It would have been easy to fall prey to despair, but the headstrong Weihenmayer took pains to stay active—and it was painful. Activities became harder as his sight diminished, and as he initially spurned standard assists like canes and guides, he often fell: down stairs, on trails, in matches with the high school wrestling team.

When he was 15, Weihenmayer went rock climbing for the first time. Where the others struggled, he emerged as a natural, able to feel his way up a route like a gecko, following the chime of a small bell worn by a guide above. That freedom he felt on the wall empowered and inspired him. It left a mark: He would build a life chasing that feeling and, with some breaks and bruises, perfecting the art of sightless sport.

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