Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa
For world-class adventurers, living on the edge is as exhilarating as it is perilous, adrenaline and relentless goal-setting fueling ambitious quests. It is a dangerous zone to inhabit, requiring keenly honed senses and tremendous fortitude. For Erik Weihenmayer, it is also a proving ground for breaking through notions of what can—and cannot—be accomplished. Erik Weihenmayer, one of the most renowned adventurers of the 21st century, is blind.
Mr. Weihenmayer is best known as the first blind person to summit Mount Everest, the “Rooftop of the World.” The Time Magazine cover story describing his successful team trek in 2001—ascending to 29,035 feet on one of the world’s most notoriously dangerous expeditions—brought him worldwide recognition.
This achievement was but one in a growing roster of adventure challenges that Erik Weihenmayer has taken on to show what can be gained by reaching beyond expectations. In 2008, when he reached the top of Carstensz Pyramid, he became one of only 118 mountaineers in the world—and the only blind climber—to ascend the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each continent. He has climbed the 3000-foot face of Yosemite’s El Capitan as well as the infamous and even more technically demanding frozen waterfall Losar in the Himalayas. He completed the Primal Quest, billed as the toughest adventure race in the world, and his three-man team took 2nd place in ABC’s Expedition Impossible, beating an NFL team and 11 others in a race across the mountains, deserts, and rivers of Morocco.
In September 2014, following six years of training, Erik completed another historic challenge: solo kayaking the full 277-mile stretch of the Grand Canyon’s Colorado River, including some of the world’s most challenging whitewater. Of all his accomplishments, Erik calls this the hardest thing he’s ever done—and his has been a life of difficult challenges, not all of them chosen.
Born sighted, in early childhood Erik Weihenmayer was diagnosed with a degenerative retinal disease that would slowly reduce his central vision and finally take his sight away altogether. As Erik’s vision dwindled, his parents made creative accommodations to keep him engaged in the sighted world and pushing the boundaries of what he could do to overcome his limitations. As he was entering high school, just before his 14th birthday, Erik’s vision went completely dark. And for a time, so did his hope for his young life, an anguish intensified by his mother’s tragic and untimely death.
To help the family heal, Erik’s father took him and his brothers on adventurous journeys in unfamiliar places: into the Indonesian jungle, up the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, to the top of the Karakorams in Pakistan. It was on these treks that Erik began learning to trust reaching into the unknown, extending into the darkness to find that which he could no longer see. An invitation to a rock-climbing class for blind teens opened another vista of learning physical skills through tactile sensation. The instructors claimed he quickly learned to scale the rock face like a monkey.
After graduating from Boston College with a double major in English and communications and earning his master’s degree in middle school education at Lesley University, Erik became a middle-school teacher and wrestling coach at Phoenix Country Day School in Arizona, where he met fellow teacher and his future wife, Ellen Reeve. Yet it was his triumphs over some of the world’s most formidable mountains that began fueling Erik Weihenmayer’s aspiration to invest in a different kind of education—to take the lessons he learned in the mountains to help others shatter barriers in their own lives.
In 2004, invited by the founder of the first and only school for blind children in Tibet, Erik and an expert support team led an expedition of six blind Tibetan teenagers to 21,500 feet on the north side of Mt. Everest. Outcast by Tibetan society for their blindness, the teen climbers found purpose, courage, and camaraderie in their first ever mountaineering expedition, and each found victory in their ambitious life goals following the climb. Blindsight, an award-winning documentary chronicling the expedition, was released in 2006.
This desire to help others conquer limitations has become the guiding force of Erik’s life. Of his many extreme undertakings and triumphant finishes, Erik considers the co-founding of the nonprofit No Barriers to be his greatest achievement. Directed by the motto What’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way, No Barriers serves 10,000 people annually through programs focused on injured soldiers and veterans, families of the fallen, paraplegics and amputees, deaf and blind, people struggling with multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy, and young people with limited opportunities, including children in foster care and kids from the inner city. The signature event, the annual No Barriers Summit, brings together people who are passionate about its boundary-breaking mission.
Erik is also deeply committed to the preservation of and access to public lands. He works with the Access Fund and has been involved in several notable projects with the Trust for Public Land: the opening of the iconic Bridal Veil Falls in Telluride, trail access to Wilson Peak in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, and the land grant for the entrance to the Zion Narrows in Zion National Park, to name a few.
He is the author of the best-selling memoir Touch the Top of the World, which was made into a feature film, and The Adversity Advantage. Erik’s latest book, No Barriers: A Blind Man’s Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon, is more than an adventure story; it illuminates how we move forward in our lives toward growth and purpose, despite the barriers that may lie in the way.
Since learning to rock climb as a teenager, Erik Weihenmayer has become one of the most renowned and accomplished athletes of our time. And by challenging preconceptions about what it means to be blind, he has inspired people around the world.