Call Erik Weihenmayer, as he does, an “unrealistic optimist.” Weihenmayer, 35, was the first blind climber to scale Mt. Everest–an adventure he described in Touch the Top of the World (Penguin Putnam, 2001). He still climbs 50 days a year. But he also plans climbs for blind Tibetan children and talks to corporate crowds about seeing the world in different ways. Fast Company spoke with Weihenmayer about blue ice, alchemy, and the view from the top.
Fast Company: Why climb mountains, when you can’t see the view at the top?
Weihenmayer: I love the beauty of it. I love the feeling of the rock under my gloves. I love the idea of adventure. I love figuring things out. And I like strategically surrounding myself with good people who make me stronger.
FC: But needless to say, a blind guy faces a unique set of problems–and risks.
Weihenmayer: Definitely. When I started ice climbing–climbing frozen waterfalls–a lot of people said I was crazy, that I’d kill myself. A sighted person is looking for blue ice, healthy ice, instead of white, rotten ice. I can’t do that. So I’d tap my tool against the ice and listen for the sound and learn to judge the quality of the ice by the sounds my tool makes. There are so many ways to climb a mountain. I think people get trapped into thinking about just one way of doing things. Figuring out ways to cross those lines, that’s where the adventure lies.
FC: What do you look for in teammates?
Weihenmayer: I look for people who have an unrealistic optimism about life. I hear people say, “Seeing is believing.” I want people who believe the opposite, “Believing is seeing.” You’ve got to believe first in what you’re doing and be sure you have a reason to believe it. You can tell who those people are. You say, “Hey, want to climb Everest with a blind guy?” Pretty quickly, you’ll figure out who’s a believer.
FC: So anything is possible?
Weihenmayer: No–there are limits. I mean, I can’t drive a car. But there are good questions and bad questions in life. The bad questions are what-if questions. What if I were smarter, or stronger? What if I could see? Those are dead-end questions. A good question is, How do I do as much as I can with what I have?
FC: You turn lemons into lemonade.
Weihenmayer: Or more. My friend Hugh Herr lost both legs in an ice-climbing accident; he became an engineer and developed prosthetic legs and feet made out of rubber, and he’s a better climber now than ever. I call people like him alchemists. You can pile a lot of lead on them, but they’ll figure out a way to transform it into something good. Life isn’t fair. You’ve just got to take what happens and make it work for you. So when I’m climbing some hard rock 1,000 feet up, I’m not thinking, “If I could see that hold up there, life would be so much easier.” I just think, “Thank God I’m up here.”