When you go blind it’s not like anything changes, you’re still the same person. I still had hope, and even though this devastating thing had happened to me I didn’t want to think my life was over at 14.
Climbing is very physical, but it is also problem-solving, really engaging and beautiful, and it really awakens your senses—my ears, my sense of touch and balance. But the best part, honestly, was that I got to connect with people. It’s hard to connect when you’re blind.
I loved the fact that I could be a partner to someone and we could climb together, and I could trust them and they could trust me. That is really powerful.
The biggest, most extraordinary part of my life is the luck or the good fortune to connect with good people who have mentored me and shown me things I wouldn’t be able to do myself. That’s the backwards gift of blindness. You’re not going to climb Everest alone, you have to trust people. You have to do that to another degree when you’re blind … a trust that goes beyond normal life.
I wrestled in high school and into college so I kind of knew about groveling and struggle. But Denali [in 1995] was really hard, and I hadn’t ever suffered like that before. There was one day going up to the 16,000-foot camp, and it was cold, and these frozen boot holes were really deep …. I was slipping and sliding and falling into these boot holes, and my shins were just getting hammered. Getting back to my tent, I had tears in my eyes.
I learned … to accept suffering. Most physical suffering is temporary. You learn how not to let it devastate and crush you.
I learned to aid climb and lead climb in Yosemite , did a ton that summer. People said you had to look into the crack and it would be kind of hard to do without seeing, but I learned to put my hand or finger into the crack and organize my gear to find the right piece for the right crack. I thought it was really cool that Hans Florine trusted me to lead a few pitches on El Cap. I led the Stove Legs, sliding cams up. He wrote later in his book that when he was watching me he was really nervous.
When I went to climb Everest, the naysayers said I was going to go kill myself and drag all these people into a rescue.
But the friends I was climbing and training with said, “Hey, you’re as good as 90 percent of people who go up there.” I learned to trust the people who matter. The others were judging me on what they thought blindness was. None of them knew me.
Our team leader on Everest, Pasquale Vincent, said to me at the end of that, “Erik, do me a favor and don’t make Everest the best thing you ever do.”
We all have our challenges, barriers that have almost killed us. Most human beings do, if you live long enough. [In co-founding No Barriers USA] I wanted to create a community of people who can lean into each other and get experience and education and inspiration and energy from each other.
Leading a veterans’ expedition to Lobuche in 2010 was one of the seeds of No Barriers. They were all injured in different ways, psychological, physical. A few of them said afterwards that the trip was better than five years of therapy at the V.A. So we realized there was something magical about the outdoors, on a climbing journey where people can learn to trust each other again and trust themselves again, and prepare themselves for when they go home.
I make money speaking and writing books but I give it to No Barriers. I’ve been fortunate. I look at my life and say, “Not every part of my life has been easy, but I’ve been blessed.”
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 258 (July 2019).