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Don't Take a Hike

As a teacher of inner-city kids, Osborn Middle School P.E. instructor Kevin Cherilla hoped his Mount Everest expedition would bring a message about challenge back to his students.Especially since the trip aims to place the first blind mountain climber, Erik Weihenmayer, atop the highest peak in the world. When Weihenmayer,...
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As a teacher of inner-city kids, Osborn Middle School P.E. instructor Kevin Cherilla hoped his Mount Everest expedition would bring a message about challenge back to his students.

Especially since the trip aims to place the first blind mountain climber, Erik Weihenmayer, atop the highest peak in the world. When Weihenmayer, a longtime friend and climbing partner of Cherilla, asked him to join the expedition as base camp manager, Cherilla didn't think twice.

"These kids have struggles with their lives every single day, and they have to overcome those struggles in order to survive," Cherilla says. "The problem is that the majority don't have the guidance. [When climbing], we have things we have to overcome, too, and we find a system for doing it. If they can see how we do it in the realm of climbing, then that's how they get it with their daily life."

Cherilla, who has taught within the Osborn School District for eight years, has been sharing his training regimen and goals with his students. He has developed a Web site curriculum that will allow students to follow along on the trek and learn about Nepalese culture and the health benefits of climbing.

But the Osborn school board won't grant him a sabbatical to go on the 76-day expedition, and he will have to take a leave from his job as P.E. teacher and after-school program coordinator.

"They said this has nothing to do with inner-city kids," Cherilla says. "The board felt it was supporting my hobby, rather than supporting Erik and the National Federation of the Blind."

Pamala Biscoe, president of the Osborn School Board, denies that the board expressed this sentiment. She says the district supports Cherilla -- it just doesn't support him enough to dedicate public funds to paying his salary while he's gone.

Sabbaticals are granted for the purpose of continuing professional education. Under the district's policy, this means improvement of professional preparation and/or the educational program of the district, value of the leave to the district, current assignments of the individual and funds available. Biscoe says based on this statute, the board voted him down.

"It's definitely a personal growth thing," Biscoe says. "But it was questionable whether it was of professional growth as far as his education as a P.E. instructor."

Mary Ellen Simonson, attorney for the district, says it's difficult to see how the Everest trip meets the school's statute for granting sabbaticals.

"What is the link between a P.E. teacher being at a base camp for Mount Everest on a hiking trip that is his personal hobby, and continuing professional education?" she asks.

And if the board granted Cherilla a sabbatical to further educate himself and his students about teamwork, goal setting and physical challenge, that might open the floodgates to teachers who want to pursue just about any activity on public money.

"I think [the board] felt if this were a science teacher or a social studies teacher and there was going to be some direct benefit to the curriculum he was teaching, that would be different," Simonson says. "He's a P.E. teacher."

Cherilla points out that P.E. includes more than just playing kickball.

"People don't realize what physical education is," he says. "It's mind, body, health, math, science, physiology -- all these things."

Despite his disappointment in the school board, Cherilla is not discouraged. He says he isn't the only team member who is sacrificing for the expedition. One physician's assistant is losing his job; others are working overtime to cover lost salaries. Cherilla says the trip is more than a chance for personal and professional growth; it's an opportunity to support his friend who is no stranger to discouraging words.

Developing the Web curriculum will allow him to keep his health benefits through the school, and he hopes to return to his job after the expedition.

When Erik Weihenmayer was in college, he tried to get a job washing dishes. The first manager told him the kitchen was too big and Erik would get lost. The second prospective employer said the kitchen was too small and Erik would break things. The third said the pots get too hot; Erik would be a liability.

That's one kind of attitude that helps explains why, according to figures from the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), 70 percent of working-age blind people are unemployed.

Luckily, Weihenmayer finally found a job. He's a professional mountain climber.

"Mountain climbing, like no other sport, shatters perceptions of what's possible," Weihenmayer says. "I mean, you see a blind guy standing on Mount Everest and what can you say?"

It's a long way from dishwasher.

With NFB sponsorship, the 32-year-old Weihenmayer and a 12-person team will leave March 23 to attempt an ascent of the 29,035-foot peak.

A successful summit of Everest will bring Weihenmayer, who, according to the NFB, is the first blind mountaineer, closer to his eventual goal of reaching the highest peaks on all seven continents. Already he has conquered McKinley, in North America; Africa's Kilimanjaro; Aconcagua in South America; and Antarctica's Vinson Massif.

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.

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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