Erik Weihenmayer is a man of adventure. He’s stood atop the summit of Mount Everest and scaled the peaks of the arduous Seven Summits. He has wrestled, skydived, kayaked, and ice climbed. And, he’s done this all without sight.
Born with retinoschisis, Weihenmayer was fully blind by the age of 13. Three years later, he attended a recreational program for the visually impaired where he stood in front of his first rock face.
“I wanted my life to be an adventure, I didn’t want to be shoved to the sidelines and forgotten and just sit in a dark room listening to life go by,” said Weihenmayer. “Rock climbing for me was sort of a symbol that I could get to the summit of whatever I wanted to do, but I had to do it differently.”
Weihenmayer refused to let blindness become a barrier in his life. With the support of his father, climbing team and the use of groundbreaking technology, Weihenmayer was empowered. He became the first blind man to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 2001, and by 2008 he had climbed every peak of the Seven Summits.
“In an ironic way, that thing like blindness or that barrier you face, if you attack it the right way, it can become a catalyst to moving yourself to a new place that you may not have gone to in any other way,” he said.
While Weihenmayer has learned to rely on his team members during his excursions, he credits a lot of his success to new techniques and technologies. While ice climbing, he realized that if he tapped his tool lightly against the face he could hear the sound and feel the vibration through the ice, and in turn could find the correct spot to swing.
When he kayaks, Weihenmayer uses high-tech radios to communicate with his guides, who help him navigate the rapids from 10 feet behind.
“I learn to work with the elements in a new way,” said Weihenmayer. “It’s a lot of things coming together, creating that innovation — that technique — to be able to do it.”
One of the most notable technologies Weihenmayer uses is the BrainPort, a device that helps convert images from a video camera into sensory images for the brain, by way of his tongue. A microprocessor translates the input from a video camera into a tactile image on a retainer-like plate. This plate takes note of the contrast on the video camera, such as light against dark or vice versa, and then converts that into a two-dimensional picture that Weihenmayer feels on his tongue. The brain then converts this picture into a visual image.
“It [has] really [expanded] my view of things that I had forgotten, how things looked in the visual world,” Weihenmayer said. “I used it for this rock face a couple of times and it was very cool to be able to see the shape of the protective devices that I was jamming into cracks, to see the ways the cracks ran across the face, to see holds in the rock when the lighting was right.”
Now Weihenmayer can reach out on a table and grab a coffee cup, play tic-tac-toe with his daughter, or even read a sign. While technology has transformed his day-to-day, he says technology’s ability to change lives extends beyond just the visually impaired. One friend who has been paralyzed for decades is experimenting with an exoskeleton. Another is inventing prosthetic legs with microprocessors to help the physically impaired improve their walking and be more active.
“All these technologies from high-tech things to low-tech things are just helping people to do more with their lives,” he said. “I’m really, really connected with this whole idea of innovation and doing more with innovation. I just like the idea of nudging society forward in incremental ways.”
As a motivational speaker, Weihenmayer has met with companies, such as Intel, on what it means to “Look Inside,” use innovation as a mode for inspiration, and communicate that message to the world.
“It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for most of my life — how to look inside to find your potential, to tap into the human spirit, to break through barriers in your life and emerge on the other side better, stronger,” he said. “You want to be able to take on new capabilities and technology is what enables you to break through and do more with your life.”
In October, Weihenmayer embarked on an expedition to Peru with injured soldiers, but his next personal hurdle is to kayak the Grand Canyon in September 2014.
“It’s definitely for me an Everest-type challenge that no blind person has done before,” he said.
“I feel comfortable in the mountains, but learning to navigate rivers with massive 20-foot rapids as a blind person is a huge learning curve. It’s definitely my own personal ‘Look Inside’ campaign.”