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The Halfway Summit

Blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer talks No Barriers, getting stuck, and true greatness
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Today, the No Barriers Summit kicks off at Squaw Valley, bringing together hundreds of adventurers, artists, and dreamers. This four-day festival inspires disabled adults and children to push past barriers with four days of adaptive sports and activities, headliner speeches and a supportive community.

No Barriers USA cofounder Erik Weihenmayer is a legend. A world-famous explorer, he has summited Mt. Everest and the rest of the Seven Summits — the highest peaks on each continent — and kayaked the entire length of the Grand Canyon. His barrier Erik contracted retinoschisis as a child and lost his vision by age 13. He felt like a prisoner of his disability until he learned how to reach out, ask for help, and persevere through hardship.

Erik toppled every obstacle in his path and became world famous, but after the great mountains were summited and he returned home, he questioned whether his accomplishments as a climber were enough to fulfill his life. He started asking what he could do to bring his groundbreaking spirit to others, with and without physical disabilities.

Erik brought this spark to fellow barrier breakers Mark Wellman, known for his ascent of El Capitan as a paraplegic, and Hugh Herr, a double-amputee and biophysicist who developed the most sophisticated prosthetic limbs in the world. Together, they formed No Barriers USA, an organization dedicated to expanding the definition of “challenge” and breaking through both visible and invisible barriers.

Moonshine Ink spoke with Erik Weihenmayer over the phone about No Barriers, overcoming obstacles and his own wild adventures. The Q&A is below.

What inspired you to take your findings and go beyond your own life to mentor others with disabilities, ultimately to start Global Explorers, and then No Barriers? The sherpas on Everest always talk about the summit, and they say the summit of Everest is not the true summit; it’s the halfway summit. What they’re talking about is that you’ve got to get down. Getting down is the true summit. I sort of took that a bit further, thinking okay, what’s the true culmination of a life or what’s the true purpose behind your life? I love climbing mountains but at the end of standing on the summit and banging your chest, is there something else? I think some people may climb mountains out of escapism, but beyond that I think it’s taking those gifts that you’ve earned through that experience, through that struggle of climbing or the struggle of these things that we’ve all done in our lives and you take those moments and use it to do something. For me it was really an honor to come back from the mountains and try to take what I’d learned and use it in some way.

I’ve seen a lot of people, including family members, who have big dreams. They’re innocent, great dreams, and they get broken along the way. They get stuck. They get moved to the sidelines. Nobody wants to be there, and you don’t know how to climb your way out. I think No Barriers became the extension of that.

I teamed up with Mark Wellman, who’s a paraplegic who lives in Truckee. He was the first paraplegic to climb El Capitan. I teamed up with another guy named Hugh Herr. He’s now head of the Biomechatronics Laboratory at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. He’s a double amputee and he builds the most sophisticated prosthetic limbs in the world with microchips in the ankles. They both had a lot to talk about and to teach about barriers. We teamed up and we started No Barriers with the hope that someday it would be a kind of movement.

It started obviously with people with physical disabilities but then we realized, wait a second, we’re pigeonholing ourselves, because the physical disability world is pretty small. It’s an important core of our community, but what about the people who have had traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder, or just trauma, sexual trauma, people who can’t get out of bed. What about those who have been trapped in poverty who’ve done nothing wrong, but they haven’t had life experience? What about kids in the suburbs whose barriers are invisible? They’re lost. They’re drifting and they don’t know what to do. They don’t know what their life intends.

The things that you’ve accomplished and that the other founders have accomplished are so grandiose that I think it’s hard for a lot of people to imagine doing them. I’m sure there were multiple points along the way where you just wanted to quit. I’m wondering what was the process of overcoming that? No Barriers is definitely not teaching people to climb mountains or to climb Mount Everest or to scale scary rock faces or to kayak the Grand Canyon. We use the outdoors as kind of a laboratory to teach this No Barriers life. We use the outdoors as our classroom but it’s really more about living fully. We had one of our summits at Squaw Creek in 2007. This is when I first started seeing the inkling of this movement.

We had a lady attend who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), and she wanted to ride bikes with her kids but she couldn’t keep up with them anymore. She felt left out. One of our people had this cool electric motor that you can attach to your bike. When her MS makes her feel tired and debilitates her the motor kicks on and she’s cruising right along with her kids.

It’s using innovation. It’s using problem solving. We had a guy who wanted to walk down a flight of stairs. He’d been injured and we fit him with these special trekking poles and sure enough he walked down the flight of stairs, and he cried at the bottom. He hadn’t walked down a flight of stairs in three years and he said, “This is my Everest.” So we’re not teaching people how to climb Everest, we’re teaching them how to break through barriers. They can be big ones and small ones.

I appreciate the pioneering aspect of life. I was a teacher for six years in my twenties. I could have done that forever. I loved it. But I had this idea of being an explorer and trying to make my life in the mountains and so I quit teaching and I’ve been climbing 20 years now. Who knows what motivates people?

This is the second time No Barriers is at Lake Tahoe. Why did you choose to come back? One, the mountains are spectacular. It’s a beautiful setting. If you’re getting people to think about their potential, and all that untapped potential before them, why not be smack in the middle of a beautiful mountain range. This is for those who can see, but even if you can’t you can still feel things, touch things, smell things. We always pick a place that inspires people. Also the community was really embracing. They wanted us to be there. The community just rallied around us and showed such support. You definitely want to come to the places where people welcome you.

In America do you think people with disabilities receive enough support in their communities or on a national level? Is there more that could be done to support those with disabilities? I think people try to do a good job. There are a lot of advocacy organizations. We’re lucky to live in America, but the problem is that somehow we’re not doing enough to come together. So No Barriers tries to solve that problem. We say look, don’t sit at home. Don’t sit in your basement eating ramen noodles and blaming the world and the accident and all the things that got you there. That’s not productive.

Have courage and get out of that dark place and join this community. Be proactive and say we’re not going to wait around for ideas to get plopped in our lap, or help to be given to us. We’re going to come together as a community. We’re going to get stronger. We’re going to problem solve our way and live the No Barriers life and we’re going to be better as a group and as individuals.

You want to be around like-minded people. When you sit at No Barriers at a breakfast and everybody is heading off to their different activities, there might be someone who’s struggling with obesity and he’s lost 50 pounds to be there, and there might be a kid who struggles with poverty and has never been off the pavement. But the thing is, even though they look different and their stories are completely different their mindset is the same. They all are sort of striving for the same thing and it’s super energizing. I’ve been to events all over the world and climbs all over the world and when I come I come to No Barrier’s summits it fills my cup for the year.

We’re bringing a kid that was burned pretty hideously, and he’s not crawling under a rock. He’s coming out to No Barriers to make his life better. There’s a kid who was blinded in Ethiopia and he made his way to America with a foster family, and he’s coming. There might be a little bitterness, the world is not necessarily a safe place, but he’s trusting us enough to say maybe there is good stuff out there.

You mentioned that one of your biggest realizations was that you could ask others for help and rely on them, and work together, and I think a lot of times people forget that, especially in our culture which is so individualized. Could you explain the value of this realization? One hundred percent. Every veteran who comes into our program who’s hurt in some way, that’s an incredibly courageous thing to say, ‘I need some help, I can’t do this alone.’ Sometimes your culture or your family teaches you wrong messages, like you’ve got to suck it up and just suffer in silence. If I ask for help I’m a wimp. It’s all about ego, and their ego and these ideas put them in a prison. So it’s tremendously courageous to see people stepping out of that prison. I felt like I was stuck in that prison for a while, so I can relate.

Your book No Barriers just came out in March. You say this message is something that our country is craving right now because of the fear from everything that’s happening. What advice would you give those who feel paralyzed by all of these changes and the atmosphere we find ourselves in? It’s kind of a crazy idea, but we work with folks with PTSD, and I think the country may be sort of in a collective state of PTSD. With some people all the turmoil and the trauma and the energy happening in the world, in Washington, their hormones get elevated. They can’t turn off the radio or the TV. Their hormones are sort of feeding on this and they’re hyper focused. Some people are blaming and lashing out, blaming immigrants. It’s exactly the stuff I wrote about in the book and that we teach at No Barriers.

That is the path of least resistance thinking, and it’s the easiest way to think. The brain loves path of least resistance thinking but that’s not the thing that takes you anywhere. [It’s] just wasted, dead energy. Focus on the things that are more important.

I’m not saying politics is not important, but don’t just let your awareness be a sliver of a sliver of all that. Widen it to things like No Barriers, to being proactive, thinking how do I want to lead, how do I want to grow, how do I want to mentor others? That’s what I think we have to focus on, because that thing, “Let’s make American great again,” that’s right here but people don’t focus on it. If people come to the summit they will see greatness right there, real people struggling to figure things out. That’s what I love. In real life there’s way more flailing and bleeding, and that’s beautiful.

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July 12, 2018