@erikweihenmayer is the first and only blind person to summit Mount Everest, and his adventure sports exploits don’t stop there; he also solo kayaked the Grand Canyon. But this episode isn’t about all of the extreme things that Erik has done, it’s about getting unstuck.
How do you get yourself out of the darkness when life has knocked you down?
How do you keep your heart open to new opportunities when you go through something traumatic?
By the end of this episode, you’ll have renewed motivation for moving forward. No matter how big a rut you find yourself in, there’s always a way out.
Listen in to Erik Weihenmayer to learn:
- How to move forward after emotional or physical trauma
- What it means to live life with an open heart
- How to use success as a stepping-stone to greatness
What made you want to kayak down the Grand Canyon?
PV, who was our amazing team leader, helped organize my ascent of Everest and offered to lead us up there. There were no paid guides or anything like that, just friends.
We became friends.
We trained together, we bled together, and we shared in our success together.
On the way down from the summit, I had to cross this huge icefall, which was the most horrendous part of the climb. It’s really quite dangerous. It’s basically a river of ice that collapses and tumbles down the mountain.
As a blind person, that section was my worst nightmare, but I got down safely for the last time. It was actually my 10th time crossing through the icefall.
I was safe, I was happy to be alive, and I was happy to be going home when PV pulled me aside, gave me a hug, and said, “Hey, great job, your life’s about to change. Now, do me a favor? Don’t let Everest be the greatest thing you ever do.”
My first thought was, “Really bad timing dude, that is terrible timing, you need to let me go home and rest a little bit, maybe for the next 50 years.”
But the advice was great because it pushed me to do more over the next 16 years, and ultimately, to my journey down the Grand Canyon.
What PV was saying was that many of us have some successes that are sprinkled throughout our lives.
Maybe you started a business and then sold it, or maybe you’re the star player on a sports team, or a great college athlete, which is great, but do those successes become your legacy? Or do they act as a catalyst to propel you forward to even greater accomplishments?
How can past successes help us to achieve even greater achievements?
Nobody can see into the future, so it’s difficult to say exactly how to move from one success to the next, but you have to commit to getting back into that storm of life and riding that energy forward toward wherever it takes you.
You have some control over that storm of energy that you’re riding, but you really don’t know where it’s taking you.
Sometimes it takes you to great discoveries, and sometimes you fall short and you’re disappointed. So there is a risk to riding out that wave of energy you get after achieving something great, but in my case, the alternative was to just pound my chest and be secure.
“Sure, I could have said, “Hey, I climbed Everest and I’m great now and I never have to do anything else again.” But that just seems like checking out; that seems like an ending rather than a beginning.”
I hate endings.
No Barriers, my new book, is all about the process of personal growth and change.
How do you take an ending and turn it into a beginning?
How do you take pain and turn it into joy?
How do you take lead and turn it into gold?
We see people doing it over and over again. It’s incredibly powerful and I’ve tried to live my life based on that premise too.
Everest, even though I wasn’t taking something bad and making something good with it, was an amazing accomplishment, but it could have been the end. Instead, I decided, I’d rather make Everest the beginning, and so it’s lead to some incredible things for me and some disappointments too of course.
Can you tell us a little more about the idea behind No Barriers?
Well, I would say that first of all, it’s not a motivational poster. It’s not a nice little soundbite. I’m not saying after you get a divorce to go out and shout, “Great! New beginnings!”
You’re crushed, you’re destroyed. Most people after a divorce are in a very dark place and I’m certainly not saying that you’re supposed to be some kind of silly motivational cliché where you get up and you just think, “Yes, I love pain!” No, not at all.
However, people that respond to adversity in a healthier way by figuring out how to pick themselves up and move forward are healthier, happier, and live longer.
So No Barriers is really about finding that energy that underlies your adversity, whatever that may be, and figuring out a way to ride it forward.
But it definitely doesn’t make you immune to pain and suffering and darkness.
Can you give us a real-world example of someone who’s taken the No Barriers approach to overcoming adversity?
Obviously, there are a lot of folks with physical disabilities who overcome those to achieve great things, and those stories are pretty abundant throughout the book. But most people you or I know don’t have physical disabilities.
Their challenges, their barriers, are invisible.
Often times, emotional trauma can be far more damaging than any physical trauma. The trauma in the brain associated with that disappointment or that bad thing happening is the real barrier.
One story I talk about in the book is about a soldier, Paul, that came to one of my programs. His mom was killed when he was a young kid and that whole experience really overwhelmed his family. He was sent to military school, graduated, and joined the military.
Whatever your political ideas about conflicts may be, he was proud to be a part of something bigger than him.
Then an IED explodes and burns over 50% of his body. He’s sent home from the war and immediately, the shame of not being able to serve his country along with the shame of losing his mother and not being able to deal with that as a child comes in full force.
The trauma sends him into an absolute spiral of ar accidents, suicide attempts, and alcoholism.
He spent a number of nights in jail, but he still had this sense of light with him, he had hope. He wanted to turn that darkness into something else.
Finally, he came to No Barriers and we went on an amazing expedition together. Through that he was able to work through those issues and made three pledges to himself.
One of them was to get his family out of the really violent situation that they were in, which he was able to do.
The second was to get off painkillers; again, he checked himself into rehab and he struggled through that process, but he was ultimately successful.
Finally, the third was to climb one of the Rocky Mountain peaks addiction-free.
He succeeded at each of his three pledges, but it’s not like his path was the traditional story of growth and development set to a montage of inspiring music. His story is one of many who have taken the No Barriers approach. These are people who struggle, bleed, and fail their way forward in the face of countless setbacks.
Ultimately Paul’s story is a great example because he is living a much healthier and happier life now and he’s doing the right thing for his family, but it’s been quite a struggle for him.
What’s your favorite story from No Barriers?
My favorite story centers around a guy named Andy Parkin. I actually debated whether to even put him in the book, but I’m glad I did.
He was a climbing guide who loved to climb. He was a really happy guy and then this fluke accident happened that changed his life forever. He was up on a ledge one day and it just gave way and crushed him.
He never thought he would climb again.
Of course, he spent a lot of time in a wheelchair at the hospital in a really dark place, but he used to paint as a kid. So he thought, out of desperation more than anything, that maybe he would get back into painting since he couldn’t climb anymore.
The attendants would wheel him over to the window and he would paint the mountains that he could see outside. Over time, he was able to leave the hospital and take a cable car up the mountains to paint.
Today, he’s a well-respected artist and he’s actually now just begun to climb again.
He doesn’t climb at the same level as before but he still climbs mountains. He likes to say that he painted his way back to health. I think that’s a perfect example of No Barriers.
He took an ending, the end of his climbing career, and turned it into a new beginning. Through that trauma, he discovered something new.
So there’s this sense that even when you’re in a dark place or when you’ve hit rock bottom, there is still hope.
I call this the “open heart policy.” But I really do think it’s important to try to keep your heart open to the world and to the possibilities of the future.
We have a lot of people who come into our programs who have gone out and they’ve gotten hurt along the way, or stuck, or fallen short. In trying to get back to where they were, they often take the path of least resistance where they blame others for their situation, lash out, or react without thinking fully.
“They really haven’t turned inward and said, ‘What do I have inside that I want to grow, that I want to nurture, that I want to use to blaze into the world?'”
For me, I can speak from direct experience that when I went blind I wasn’t ready for my journey to end. But I tried to desperately keep my heart open. When I got a letter in braille from a group taking blind kids rock climbing, I thought, “This sounds like the craziest thing in the world but I want to say yes to this.”
I went rock climbing and 16 years later, I was standing on the summit of Everest, all because I kept my heart open.
Can you tell us about the first time you tried an extreme sport?
Well, I always loved adventure but I thought blindness would be the end of adventure for me.
I was really upset by that, but I wanted to keep my heart open to new ideas. Eventually, I came across rock climbing and I absolutely loved it.
One day I was sitting on this ledge high up after one of my first climbs.
Blind people can use echolocation to “see” what’s around them. You hear the sound of vibrations moving out through space and bouncing off of objects and coming back to you.
I remember sitting on the ledge that I could hear the sound of space out over this valley and I could hear the trees rustling with leaves and I just thought, “My god, this is stunningly beautiful and this is adventure.”
I wanted to keep doing that.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about climbing Mount Everest?
“Mount Everest reflects the world. It’s the ugliest parts of humanity and the greatest parts of humanity. It’s the selfish parts of humanity and the most courageous parts of humanity, all packed into one mountain.”
You have to train and you have to prepare for something as big as Everest. I trained half of my life for these high mountains.
If somebody called me up and said, “I want to climb Mount Everest,” and this has happened, I’d ask them, “Well what other mountains have you climbed?” and they say, “None.” Well, that’s insane.
So I can’t really give general advice to anyone on climbing Mount Everest without knowing their personal story.
My journey has been one of extreme adventures, but the main message of No Barriers is not anything extreme.
I love stories where people say, “Hey, look I want to walk down a set of stairs again. I hurt my leg really bad and I can’t walk down a set of stairs without clutching onto the railing.”
No Barriers is something all of us can benefit from no matter what our circumstances. No matter where you’re stuck or what your darkness is, there is a way out.
Even when have people joining us on our physical journeys where we climb a mountain or raft down a river, they often come back to us and tell us that the physical aspects of the adventure were the easiest part.
If you were going to write a follow-up book, what would it be?
What I tried to do with No Barriers was write about real people, but if I were to write a follow-up I would go one step further and remove myself from the story completely.
What people need right now in America are amazing true stories from average, every-day people, not world-class athletes or myself.
We have a lot of folks that come into our organization with PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and in a way, the country is experiencing a little PTSD right now.
We, as a country, are doing what people who have experienced severe trauma do, we’re lashing out, we’re blaming the world, and we’re not focused on moving forward.
Last summer I climbed a peak with about 100 people, all with different abilities and different barriers.
One person on this trip was living with a physical disability. He was a kid named Cole Rogers, and he was born with a very rare bone and muscle disease which left him very limited in his movement.
We equipped him with this incredible technology called an Action TrackChair. It’s basically a giant tank tread with a seat and a joystick and an electric motor. He was cranking his way up the mountain and was only about 150 yards from the summit when the technology died.
So I said, “Hey, we’ll just carry you up to the top,” and he said, “Absolutely not.” He then gets out of his chair and starts crawling his way towards the summit. About 45 minutes later, after leaving some blood and skin on the Tundra, he’s lying on the summit and we’re speechless.
I think that if more Americans had that same mentality, that “screw that. I am not going to be carried. I’m going to tap into what I have here and I’m going to crawl my way to the top” mentality, that would solve so many of our problems.
What is Erik Weihenmayer’s advice for aspiring authors?
We all have a great message to share. I think we focus too much on social media and all that kind of stuff, but if you have a great community, if you’re trying to grow, and if you’re trying to share a positive message then I think that’s what counts.
I don’t think everyone needs to be a bestseller or a motivational speaker to get the job done. In No Barriers, one of the primary messages is simply: Don’t live in a prison.
So many of us live in a prison. We wind up getting stuck in those prisons and we never figure out how to get out.
Don’t live inside of those prisons. It’s scary as hell to try to climb your way out, but it’s also even worse to just sit in there and listen to life go by.