Erik Weihenmayer is a world-class outdoorsman and the bestselling author of three books. Though he lost his eyesight to juvenile retinoschisis, Weihenmayer summited Everest on his quest to complete the Seven Summits. He has since conquered several of the world’s most difficult climbs. He continues to stretch the boundaries of disability, and inspires others to do the same through his books and his nonprofit organization, No Barriers. We met after one particularly moving speech at my high school alma mater, Darlington School, and discussed climbing, inspiration, and his literary endeavors. His most recent book, No Barriers: A Blind Man’s journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon, was published this February.
SR: What drew you to write about your own life experiences?
Weihenmayer: Well, People can say, “look at that inspirational person over there, he’s different from me.” And it separates one person from another, and becomes a defense mechanism, because someone can say “I don’t have to do amazing things or have growth in my life, because I’m not one of those inspirational people.” So I refused to write an inspirational book. I wanted to write an honest book. I wanted to be the opposite of the “inspirational person.” I wanted a kid in school, sitting in English class reading my book—much like you and I began this conversation—to say ”yeah, he’s blind, but look at all the things we share. Look at all the threads that are woven through both of our lives. I’ve never met this guy. I’m not disabled, and look how similar life is between us.” Writing that first book taught me that good writing should connect people.
SR: Auden once wrote that art draws us into a greater understanding of our own humanity, where we’re forced to look at ourselves and ask, not only “How do I connect to this story?” but also “How do I connect to the world differently having read this story?”
Weihenmayer: And those are the great ones, right? You examine your own self through another person who writes, through a lens, about their own perception of life.
SR: You’re a mountaineer as well as a writer. How did your first book affect what you did next?
Weihenmayer: Well, after that first book, I thought “I’m done. I’ll never write another book. I have nothing left to say.” Writing is miserable. You pull your hair out, you get fat, you sit and drink too much coffee. I wanted to be done with it. I wish I could say it all came from me, but no, people who I trust and respect from other areas planted the seed, and I thought “Oh God, do I really have to do it?”
SR: Is that how you began your most recent book, No Barriers?
Weihenmayer: Oh, yes. This third book, No Barriers, is, in my mind at least, my best work. I wrote my first book in my twenties, and it’s full of youthful enthusiasm and optimism. In my thirties, I wrote The Adversity Advantage, trying to put some context to my experience. But this third book reflects what so many people experience in their forties—life is messy, and there’s no way to wrap everything up in a bow. Don’t try. It’s a false aim. It’s such a confusing experience that we live, but despite that messiness and chaos, we need to ask what can we affect in our lives. Who are the people who blow our minds, who help us to navigate that hidden map that lies before us?
I was about halfway through the Seven Summits when someone suggested that I write a book—they called it an “inspirational book.” And I said, “Okay, that sounds good. I’m twenty-five years old. I’ll write an inspirational book.” But that word—inspirational—is a difficult one. I realized that inspirational as a concept is a double-edged sword.