The day after Erik Weihenmayer climbed down from that snowy, windblown mountaintop on Everest, he was confronted by a new kind of storm—the whirlwind of fame. After years of climbing under the radar, suddenly Erik’s face was on billboards, he was featured on the cover of Time magazine, he was interviewed on Oprah. His seemingly impossible feat would be documented in the film Farther than the Eye Can See as well as a TV movie, Touch the Top. Erik’s story was powerful and inspiring, and people wanted to hear it.
To the outside world, Erik had achieved it all. And yet, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing. As Pasquale’s words echoed in his head—“Don’t make Everest the greatest thing you ever do”—Erik realized the deeper meaning that his friend was trying to relay: “I didn’t want my life to be a conquest. Goals feel like false summits; you reach what you thought was the top, only to discover a higher summit. So, you continue to climb higher and higher, always finding another summit a little higher, and you never find what you’re looking for. The magic of life has to exist beyond a perpetual series of summits.”
As Erik was contemplating what was missing from his life, he thought back to a time when he still had just a tiny bit of his sight remaining in his right eye—a time when, if he pressed his face against the screen, he could still watch television. In those waning days just before he went blind completely, he saw a news program that was focused on a young man named Terry Fox. Terry was a Canadian who had lost one of his legs to cancer, and he was in the hospital when he decided he was going to run across Canada in order to raise awareness for the disease. This would entail running thousands of miles, essentially a marathon per day, and he would be doing it on a rudimentary prosthetic. As the young Erik struggled to see Terry’s unbelievable feat unfold on screen, he caught a glimpse of Terry’s face, and in it, Erik saw a light. It was this internal light that seemed to be fuelling him. And that’s what Erik decided he wanted—a purpose that would fuel him through the tough times.
Erik set to work on crafting his own Vision. For him, it was a process of first reckoning with his internal landscape, understanding what mattered most to him, and then putting his values into action. What the process revealed to Erik was that he valued leadership and community, and he was fuelled by adventure that is shared with others. Here’s the Vision Statement he crafted:
To find a way to lead despite my own fears, to push myself beyond my understanding of what I’m capable of, and to always be a good partner and friend.
He also realized that his feats could build awareness for the blind community and the disabled community at large; and, in doing so, he could grow the confidence within that community. But it goes beyond that, too. As he considered his own journey, he realized that all of us feel like we’re climbing blind at times. For him, no matter a person’s ability or disability, we all face adversities; we are all in need of a map to help guide us through our challenges.
Once Erik’s goals became an outgrowth of his Vision, his adventures took on greater meaning in his life. Since that day in May 2001, when Erik stood in the wind at the top of Mount Everest, he has not stopped attempting remarkable feats. Several years after Everest, Erik completed the Seven Summits, putting him in yet another exclusive club. He has also taken on skydiving, caving, marathon running, and even kayaking. (In fact, Erik recently kayaked the entire 277 miles of the Grand Canyon.)
But even though Erik has become one of the most celebrated athletes in the world, he has not lost sight of his Vision, which grew out of his need for a universal human experience. Today, Erik spends his time speaking to organizations and corporations, using his own life experiences to help others draw their own maps.
“My heart burned with the memory of my heroes, people like Helen Keller, who took the world’s perceptions about the disabled and shattered them into a million pieces, people whose stories made me hunger for the courage to live in their image.”