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Narrative: Erik Weihenmayer - "I want to summit."

Erik Weihenmayer is the first blind mountain climber ever to reach the top of Mount Everest. In his book Touch The Top Of The World: A Blind Man's Journey To Climb Farther Than The Eye Can See Erik explores the many challenges he faced in his quest to find purpose and meaning in his life. The immense challenges faced in mountain climbing is a metaphor for his own journey in life. Indeed, "climbing farther than the eye can see" reveals a vibrant and inspiring learning process...

All my life, fear had nearly paralyzed me... The greatest fear is in the reaching, at that moment when I have committed my body and soul to finding the next hold, when I am hoping, predicting, praying I will find what I am seeking.
- Touch The Top Of The World: A Blind Man's Journey To Climb Farther Than The Eye Can See

Resilience And A Gradual Onset of Blindness

At age thirteen Erik Weihenmayer became blind. His blindness was caused by retinoscheses, a progressive eye disorder that gradually causes the splitting of the retinas. Upon his entry to Kindergarten at age four, Erik was legally blind.

It is remarkable that throughout what must have been a deeply tormenting experience, Erik's resilience and endurance grew. His parents were clearly a source of strength for him. He refers to his mother's fierce will:

I had done nothing yet to prove myself, so how she saw strength, opportunity, and promise, while other people saw problems, obstacles, and limits, I'll never know for sure, but her belief in me stemmed from the evidence of her own life.
- Touch The Top Of The World: A Blind Man's Journey To Climb Farther Than The Eye Can See

Erik's father rivaled his mother's persistence. This persistence was symbolized in his father's favorite poem called "Don't Quit" which he often read to Erik:

Success is failure turned inside out -
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems afar;
So stick to the fight when you're hardest hit -
It's when things seems worst that you mustn't quit.
- excerpt from "Don't Quit" in Touch The Top Of The World: A Blind Man's Journey To Climb Farther Than The Eye Can See

In contrast to the support Erik received from his parents, his local school system was unable to accomodate his needs. It was not long before Erik came to a conclusion that would being laying the foundation for his path in life:

Enough is enough, I resolved. I would not be forced to play by other people's rules. I wouldn't be stifled at a time in my life when I wanted to be shot out of a rocket. I had to escape from this box.

Erik's decision to not allow school to stifle him was an act of courage that coincided with his acceptance of blindness. For years he had been living the torment of being in-between sight and non-sight, and although he still had some sight left he decided to leave the psychological torment of partial eyesight for the "bitter relief" of total blindness.

There is a quality in Erik's learning here that brings us into close proximity to Rainer Rilke's "hold to the difficult" (see Rainer Rilke: What Must I Do With My Life?). In Erik's context, holding to the difficult meant not only the full acceptance of total blindness, but also a trust and faith in the uncertainty and mystery of where his life would now go. This is a critical point in Erik's learning process as he now stands in full view of the question, "What must I do with my life?"

In a tape recording made for a friend, Erik summarizes his thoughts about becoming blind:

Yeah, he [God] takes things away," I said into the speaker, "but he gives other things back and, in a strange way, those new things can be just as good or even better. I think you just have to look for the new things a little harder.
- Touch The Top Of The World: A Blind Man's Journey To Climb Farther Than The Eye Can See

Resilience: People Striving For Something

Ironically it was an article Erik was required to read in Braille class that caught his imagination. The article was about minor-league baseball players struggling to make it into the big leagues:

It was about people striving for something, and the fascinating part about it was that they knew what they were striving for. They were moving in a direction. I realized there was more to Braille than raised dots; there were stories about people dreaming, and those stories made a gigantic leap froom my stumbling fingertips all the way to my brain.
- Touch The Top Of The World: A Blind Man's Journey To Climb Farther Than The Eye Can See

This revelation was soon to be followed by disasterous news - his mother had been killed in a car accident. Like his blindness, the death of his mother was overwhelming and final:

Just as I began to know that blindness could not kill my hope or happiness, another blow, twice as devastating as the first, had slapped me down again. Maybe we were never supposed to be truly happy, I thought after her death. Maybe we were never meant to take control of our lives, to gain mastery over it.
- Touch The Top Of The World: A Blind Man's Journey To Climb Farther Than The Eye Can See

Yet Erik would continue to seek mastery of his life, and it is perhaps the spirit of his mother's resilience that helped him through her death.

The word resilience refers to an ability to successfully cope with serious adversity or risk in life. In other words, resilience is also a response to fear - a response that finds a way to embrace the fear in spite of the stress and anxiety it causes in order to move through it, not avoid it. In facing a gradual onset of blindness, Erik's resilience was shaped and developed through the experience of fear, anger and resentment it invoked in him. But what causes one person to successfully move through difficult curcumstances while others seem unable to? How does a person learn to be resilient?

The underlying narrative that was instilled in Erik through his parents encouraged a capacity for perserverence, endurance, and acceptance that life is a mystery. His mother's unwavering belief in Erik as well as his father's fundamental belief in the idea of not quitting were critical influences in building resilience. Erik, in many ways, literally viewed his experiences in life through the lens of resilience. Far from formal instruction, Erik's learning was fully immersed in the confluence of his everyday life. He openly embraced, not without a deeply personal struggle, the pain and suffering as well as the beauty and inspiration that life offered.

Perceptual Acuity: It Was As Though My Senses Had Awakened

Carl, a blind computer instructor, taught Erik the importance of systems, that is, developing perceptual strengths to help a blind person interact with the world around them. An important principle that Carl taught was that a system is something to be discovered through personal experience.

In his early experiences with rock climbing, Erik had discovered his passion:

I was realizing that the beauty of climbing was to join the incongruent parts, to link the cracks, grooves, bowls, nubbins, knobs, edges, ledges, and pockets and convert all of it into a road map, etched in my mind...

It was as though my senses had awakened.
- Touch The Top Of The World: A Blind Man's Journey To Climb Farther Than The Eye Can See

This mapping of a rock face by touch reveals an expansion of Erik's perceptual acuity. He was, as Carl had recommended, discovering his own "system" - his own way of interacting with the world in the absence of his sight. Yet, in his mind, Erik could see and he now could climb. In giving into the bitter relief of accepting his blindness, and the limitations that came with that, he discovered new potential for his life. He was looking for those "new things" harder and had discovered his passion.

Every sound, smell, and touch was so vivid, so brilliant, it was almost painful. Blindness, I thought, was a damn nuisance... But one hundred feet above the tree line with the sun in my face and a sound of openness all around me, none of that seemed to matter as much, because, I had discovered, I could climb.
- Touch The Top Of The World: A Blind Man's Journey To Climb Farther Than The Eye Can See

Nature played a similar role in the development of sense perception in Rainer Rilke's ideas about learning. For Rilke, Nature was an environment to learn to see the things that most people fail to notice. For Erik, Nature was a place for his sense of touch to explore and bring forth. In both cases, there is a clear emphasis on the development of perceptual acuity in learning.

Contrast this to the bland and sterile environment of the school in which there is little opportunity for our senses to expand - in fact, our sense perception may degenerate within them. If the development of perceptual acuity is important in learning, it seems as though it has no role to play in education. In our public institutions we seem to be so focused on ideas about knowledge and skill yet fail to understand the importance of sense perception. By this I mean that knowledge and skill tend to be delivered along very narrow and limited channels of experience (i.e. - largely text and talking). By ignoring the possibility of perceptual development and crafting learning environments that encourage it, we in effect limit our understanding of the knowledge and skill, and limits the meaning we can create from it. Perhaps it is this aspect of his education that Erik recoiled against when he stated, "I have to get out of this box."

Learning = Life On The Side Of The Mountain

I like the spiritual feeling of being on a mountain. The space. The sounds. The vast openness of it. The most annoying question I get is, ‘Why climb when I can't see the view from the top?’ You don't climb for the view. No one suffers the way you do on a mountain for a beautiful view. The real beauty of life happens on the side of the mountain, not the top.

This statement by Erik Weihenmayer, for me, captures the very essence of his learning process and describes the source from which he generates purpose and meaning in his life. The "real beauty of life" happens in our struggles and suffering - on the side of the mountain - not in reaching a single peak. It embraces the idea of life as a mystery and holding to the difficult in order to reveal true beauty. To my thinking, Erik "sees" at least as well and perhaps far better than most people with sight. His "seeing" penetrates far deeper than mere looking.

The idea of finding the real beauty of life through struggle and suffering on "the side of the mountain" is a wonderful metaphor for learning. In Erik's case, it is not a metaphor - it is life and the experience of living itself. Too often we, as a society, tend to shy away from the truly difficult and tend to abuse ideas about change and innovation as being variations on a theme rather than the achievement of new possibilities for living. In this context, change and innovation are really the offsprings of propaganda and manipulation. The reason that we lack the ability to make significant changes and innovation in lives and the ways we relate to the world at large is simply a lack of courage - or in Rainer Rilke's terms an inability to hold to what is difficult.

"Somewhere along the way, you may lose somethng you thought was important to you," I said, "but everything you need to fufill you is inside you right in front of your eyes. You just have to reach. It won't often be easy, little angel, but it will always be a great adventure."
- Touch The Top Of The World: A Blind Man's Journey To Climb Farther Than The Eye Can See

In exploring the narratives of people's lives the world of learning truly opens up to us. We can begin to "see" it - to sense it from various perspectives. We will not find the deep vibrancy of learning in education goals, curricular objectives, learning styles, and certainly not in instructional design. Stories such as Erik Weihenmayer's are a primal and elemental testiment to the power of learning. You and I may not climb mountains, but Erik's message goes far deeper than the biography or literal interpretation of his life. When we experience "the real beauty happens on the side of the mountain" in our own lives, we experience the vibrancy and resilience of learning.

Each of us has struggles. Each of us has fears. Each of us has doubt. Sometimes these struggles, doubts and fears can be completely overwhelming and result in a deep sadness. But each of us has exactly the same courage and ability to accept life as mystery that Erik Weihenmayer has, and we do not need to climb Mount Everest to find it (magnificent and awesome as that would be). If stories have the power to touch the mind and soul, then they have the power to foster resilience, endurance, courage and acceptance in learning. And make no mistake, this resilience, endurance, courage and acceptance will not be comfortable nor easy - they require us to hold to what is difficult - to survive it - and to renew our lives through it.

Everybody can look back at a few choices that they make in life, choices in the face of countless possibilities. Some of these choices, like my move to Phoenix, turn out to be catalysts that shape your life in ways you may not have expected.
- Touch The Top Of The World: A Blind Man's Journey To Climb Farther Than The Eye Can See

Erik's activities as a mountain climber are well documented and can be explored via the references provided below. His acheivements are inspiring. My attempt here, however, has been to explore aspects of what I consider to be his learning process, not with the intent of generating some kind of model, but only to reveal some interesting features of it. It is a line of inquiry significantly different from exploring Erik's education. In looking at the situations and circumstances in a person's life and exploring their ways of dealing with them we begin to reveal their unique learning path - learning that is undeniably authentic and unavoidably individualized - a learning style that cannot in fact be separated from the person.


  1. 2001 Everst Expedition
  2. Climbing Blind: Tibet 2004 Expedition
  3. CNN Sports Illustrated Artilce
  4. Erik Weihenmayer: Website
  5. National Federation of the Blind: Erik Weihenmayer
  6. Touch The Top Of The World: A Blind Man's Journey To Climb Farther Than The Eye Can See

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What a post Brian!

Ive been transported to thoughts of my own spiritual connections made while on a long cycling trek. Also reminds me of the movie The Mission and the struggles along the way that captured the essence of the journey.

It is the journey and not the destination. A hard thing to remember sometimes when you're feeling hopeless.

Thanks again.

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