Don't Take a Hike

School board nixes a P.E. teacher's request for paid leave to help a blind climber

When he isn't climbing, Weihenmayer does speaking engagements for a corporate fee of $7,500, and promotes his recently published book Touch the Top of the World. After a slide presentation and speech at Osborn Middle School, he is annoyed that Cherilla is dawdling. He wants to get to the climbing gym.

"See, the thing about climbing Everest is you got to train," Weihenmayer explains.

Originally from Connecticut, Weihenmayer met Cherilla after moving to Phoenix in 1993. Weihenmayer taught math and English at Phoenix Country Day School with Cherilla's wife. Weihenmayer moved to Colorado in 1997 to be closer to the mountains, but keeps in touch with his friends in the Valley. He got Cherilla into climbing, and together they have summitted several peaks, including six above 14,000 feet in Colorado, and Aconcagua in Argentina.

Kevin Cherilla (left) and Erik Weihenmayer (right) with students from Osborn Middle School.
Erik Guzowski
Kevin Cherilla (left) and Erik Weihenmayer (right) with students from Osborn Middle School.

As he waits for Cherilla after the slide presentation, Osborn students approach Weihenmayer in awe. Seventh- and eighth-graders can be a tough crowd, but these kids are sold. They want to shake his hand and ask questions about mountain climbing.

"'Inspiration' is so overused -- I hate that word," he says. "As a blind mountain climber, I hear that word about a hundred times a day."

Weihenmayer says it's great that people are inspired by a blind climber. But he points out that only when paraplegics run marathons, or people without legs haul themselves up mountains do we see them in public view. He hopes that his feats will draw attention to the everyday challenges disabled people face.

"The general message is that with the right skills and opportunities, somebody who is blind can do whatever they want," Weihenmayer says. "Half the battle is other people's misperceptions."

At the Phoenix Rock Gym, Weihenmayer isn't so much shattering misperceptions as he is creating entirely new ones. The other climbers look surprised to see a German Shepherd in the gym, and even more surprised once they realize it's a seeing eye dog, and the guy working his way up the route is doing it in the dark. It's enough to humble even the most ego-driven rock jock.

He ties into the rope with a swift figure-eight knot and approaches the climb. He runs his hands along the wall above his head in a sweeping motion to find the holds, and drags his feet to locate the next step up. It's the only characteristic that gives him away as a blind climber. Once he finds the hold, his technique is precise and fast. Weihenmayer pulls down hard, and doesn't take long to finish a route.

Cherilla says the only difference for him when climbing with a blind person is that he will give verbal cues to guide Weihenmayer to the next hold. But, Cherilla says, even if Weihenmayer gets off route, he has the physical skills to finish the climb.

"The thing that's hardest for me is just being his eyes when we're trekking in and out of places," Cherilla says. "Like when we were coming out of the Grand Canyon, I'd say, 'Step up, step down, shin banger right, shin banger left.' I have to stay totally focused."

Weihenmayer has been blind since age 13, when a disease called retinoscheses attacked his retinas. At 16, a group of sighted people took him rock climbing and opened the door to his passion for mountaineering.

But Weihenmayer is a well-rounded athlete. He also runs marathons, skydives, scuba dives and skis. He has received Connecticut's Most Courageous Athlete award, ESPN's award for courage in sports and the Distinguished Arizonan award, and he is an inductee into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. His friends just call him "Super Blind."

Weihenmayer says some friends have pointed out that an Everest ascent might be pushing his limits.

"Some people have said it's a mistake to go to Everest," Weihenmayer says. "But maybe the kitchen is just too small. Or too big."

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