The world knows him as the first blind person to climb Mt. Everest and one of only 100 people to climb the highest peaks on all seven continents, or the Seven Summits. But Erik Wiehenmayer refuses to be typecast; he’s also an ice climber, paraglider, skier, hiker, marathon runner, adventure racer, whitewater kayaker, motivational speaker, author, nature lover, and supportive father.
He can add canyoneer to that list after his recent Zion Narrows hike with The Trust for Public Land—where we’re working to protect access to the trailhead at Chamberlain Ranch, a private inholding in Zion National Park. And he’s done it all without the advantage of sight. Erik took a break from preparing for “the Narrows” to speak with us about his love of adventure and the importance of the great outdoors.
How did you become involved with The Trust for Public Land?
I had a lot of fun with The Trust for Public Land when I took the inaugural hike to the summit of Wilson Peak in Colorado (after TPL protected it from development). I got to know the folks from TPL well and had a chance to learn about their work. I also got to climb Bridal Veil Falls when they opened it to the public for the first time legally. These are two very iconic adventures that I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy without The Trust for Public Land.
What is it about our mission that you relate to?
The Trust for Public Land does some amazing negotiating and work with complex, intricate issues, weaving the financial, political, and community building pieces together to form a coalition around a cause. That’s hard to do and important work that I really like to support because I think TPL has it right. It’s about those beautiful places all around us that need to be strategically preserved so we know they will be there forever. Not just wild, wooly, and far-off place, but places where people actually live. I’m a huge believer in all that TPL does—and when I have the ability to help I want to.
We’re so excited you’re joining us to hike Zion Narrows, rated #5 of America’s Best 100 Adventures by National Geographic. What was it about this hike that enticed you to come?
Well, it’s another iconic adventure and I’ve never done it before. It’s 16 miles and not the easiest hike, but to be able to hike the Narrows, it’s once-in-a-lifetime experience. I love adventure and I like to be part of new things and new projects where there is a little bit of perceived risk. I’m not an adrenaline junkie or anything, but I do like to push the limits. I think it’s built into my DNA code. Some people like to work the same thing, a boulder problem for example, but I would rather do something that I’ve never done before, experience something new with friends and experience a new part of the world.
Why do you think people need parks and natural lands where they live?
It’s so important for kids to have pockets of open space to learn and create and grow. Nature is linked to helping people with learning disabilities, PTSD, and more. I buy into that 100 percent. I remember just playing in the yard—climbing to the top of the tallest tree and playing cops and robbers and sitting on a box, pretending, escaping and getting an old cart or something having a friend pull me around, pretending. I just love that. As a kid you’re almost always half bored, but this is how you learn to use your imagination.
Richard Louve, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, spoke at The Trust for Public Land and I remember him saying that there’s nothing wrong with soccer, but if you want to send your kids to Harvard, don’t put them in a soccer league, put them outside.
Do you have children of your own?
Yes, I have two children, aged 10 and 12 and we hike peaks, but we also have foothills all around us and we go for hikes all the time. It’s the best time to interact with your family. I totally treasure that time. They go with me on kayaking trips, too. I kayak and they raft and we camp out on beautiful beaches. My kids are expert hikers, campers, and travelers – these times are the best experiences for my family.
You’ve climbed Everest. Is that the most extreme challenge you’ve ever faced?
I’d say whitewater kayaking is the wildest thing I’ve ever done. It’s like riding an avalanche down a mountain. There are people yelling directions at me, I’ve got my guide in the water behind me with a high-tech, waterproof radio that’s waterproof and he yells. Sometimes I get pinned on the rock or roll. When that happens, it’s game-on excitement.
You’re on the board for No Barriers. Can you tell us about that organization?
No Barriers is a complementary organization to The Trust for Public Land. The mission of No Barriers is to help people understand, to teach people that what’s inside of us is stronger than what’s outside of us. People have different barriers, and they are real barriers, but when we tap into the light of the human spirit we can better our lives by breaking through those barriers.
We use the outdoors in everything we do at No Barriers; the outdoors is the best teaching and learning environment. The environment is most powerful metaphor I can think of—it’s inspiring and challenges you to build the tools you need to live a full life. The Trust for Public Land is important because it enables our laboratory of open space and public land to be there. And then we use the heck out of it.
What would you say are the tools needed for a full life?
Climbing a mountain, for example, like we do with our Soldiers to Summit program, teaches returning soldiers how to come together and build a civilian team, come together with allies, with people who support you, and learn to innovate through their barriers. In the outdoors, in an adventure challenge situation like climbing, you need to be creative in your approach to strengthen your relationship with the challenges that are in front of you. You also need to be able to step outside of yourself and lead others. All of these things are best learned outside.
If you could say one thing to an inexperienced hiker or adventurer who wanted to get outdoors, but didn’t know where to start, what would it be?
There are so many opportunities to get out there; there’s something for everyone. I live in Colorado where you see 80 year-old grandmothers on the bike trail. Having open space near people, not middle-of-nowhere places, but accessible-to-people places like bike trails, parks, and greenways is so important. The Trust for Public Land is working to create and protect open space close to human communities. Take advantage of that.
Join a club—every state has a club—join a walking club or surround yourself with the kind of people who are doing what you want to do and that will help you get motivated. They’ll sort of pull you in the direction you want to go in. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never walked a mile before. Just take that first step.
You lost your sight completely at age 13. How did you get into outdoor adventure?
I couldn’t do ball sports after I went blind and could no longer play baseball. My dad found out about a weekend recreational program offered by The Carroll Center for the Blind in Massachusetts. He would drive me up there and we’d go canoeing, cross-country skiing, do the ropes course, and go rock climbing. It was climbing that sold me. It was such an amazing adventure; I was problem-solving up a rock face, using my mind and hands and feet to connect the dots on how to get my body from point A to B. I loved it, and the rest is history.
Do you think success in the outdoors parallels success in day-to-day life?
It’s all about developing the tools. In my book, Adversity Advantage, I write about the three types of people: quitters, campers, and climbers. Quitters, well, quit or never really get started in the first place. Campers reach a certain degree of success but something happens, and they camp out in their current success and stagnate. They never push it any further than the status quo. But climbers, they figure out how to challenge themselves until the day they die.
At No Barriers, we see people all the time who have checked out. But with the right tools, campers can become climbers again. So, yes. Absolutely.