This may be a little unusual for one of my blogs, but look carefully at the flower arrangement designed by Patricia Taira of Mary’s Flowers and Gifts in Florence SC, to beautify an event I participated in this week for McLeod Health, a non-profit faith-based healthcare organization which services northern South Carolina. The two boots, the climbing rope and ice tool, buried amidst gorgeous flowers, wins my designation for the Flower Arrangement of the Year. It dramatically reinforced the “reaching” theme of my presentation.
This wasn’t the only special part of the evening. Founded in 1906, McLeod has a rich history of providing services to meet the healthcare needs of the region, including one of the Nation’s largest and finest hospital-based health and fitness centers, which my team and I had the opportunity to enjoy earlier in the afternoon. The 650 physicians and 6,000 employees of McLeod are VERY proud of their heritage. I was impressed by the “family” spirit of the affair. And the amazing flower designs on every table, especially this one featured, were just the tip of the iceberg.
I’ve had the privilege of knowing lots of “climbers” over the years. One of them is Kyle Coon who I met when he was just seven years old. Kyle and his father, Steve, first met my dad, Ed, and me at an event I was speaking at in Jacksonville, Florida. After my presentation, Kyle seemed almost in shock. His reaction on that day still fills my father and me with emotion. When we sat down together, Kyle immediately hit me with rapid-fire questions like, “You climbed to the top of Everest??”, “You can jump out of airplanes alone??” Ed and Steve sat ten feet away silently smiling and exchanging heartfelt hope as they watched Kyle interrogate me with excitement.
Like me, Kyle is also blind; months before our first meeting, both his eyes had to be removed because of cancer. By the end of our conversation that day, Kyle was a little closer to knowing his life didn’t have to be about limitations.
Several years later, Oprah hosted a show with the theme of “Who was Your Greatest Inspiration in Life?” I went on the show thinking I was just going to tell my story about a bus driver who had a profound effect on my life. To my surprise, this wasn’t the whole plan. Waiting for his cue behind the stage was Kyle, who had come to thank me for my mentorship. Kyle stepped on stage and read a letter in Braille telling his story and expressing his appreciation. Tears came to my eyes.
When I refer to Kyle as a “climber”, I don’t mean he climbs mountains, although he has climbed a fair number of peaks. After I met him the first time, he went on to join and compete four years on his high school varsity wrestling team; he hiked the Ankascocha Trail into Machu Picchu in 2006; in 2007, he and his mountaineering team summited Mt. Kilimanjaro, the Roof of Africa. Kyle is now moving into speaking and has presented at the University of Central Florida where he also graduated with a degree in Communications and met his bride-to-be. Over the years, I have gotten a lot of satisfaction from mentoring Kyle and witnessing him grow and transform. Just a few weeks ago, I got to catch up with him when I was speaking nearby.
Even though Kyle is a tremendous “climber,” he’s now ready to start his career and hasn’t been able to find a full-time job. Like so many people coming out of college today, Kyle is constantly sending out resumes without landing any prospects. The most-recent data from the National Federation of the Blind states that over 75% of blind people are not employed. So even for blind people as well prepared as Kyle, finding a job is especially difficult. I find it ironic that someone who has achieved so much at such a young age is confronting the biggest barrier yet, finding meaningful employment.
If you know of an employer that may be interested in interviewing Kyle, feel free to comment on this blog or on Facebook, and I’ll pass it along to him. Kyle’s work ethic and vision to succeed will drive any company forward. Let’s help Kyle to keep climbing.
Last week, the Touch the Top Team and I spent a morning climbing with some local youth from the Redirection Center in Littleton, Colorado, which helps kids work through some of the challenges they face, both from circumstance and choices.
The Redirection Center partners with a great local organization called the Binning Family Foundation, to facilitate an experiential outdoor program throughout the year with activities like hiking, horseback riding and rock climbing. For the last several weeks the kids have been learning about climbing, so it was fun watching/listening to them test their safety skills: putting on harnesses, tying figure eight knots, and calling climbing commands.
However, I think the coolest part was getting to belay as the kids tested their strength and courage on some over hanging routes that really pushed their limits. Can you believe they trusted their lives to a blind belayer? A few brave students even reciprocated by donning blindfolds to give “no sight” climbing a try.
I also spoke to the group about alchemy, a philosophy I try to live my own life by. Alchemy is the ability to turn led into gold, not just by surviving life challenges, but harnessing them to propel ourselves to new, bold, and profound places. I pray they took it to heart as they continue to learn, grow, and transform.
Last Friday, our film High Ground, highlighting the struggles of injured soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan as they re-enter a civilian world, was shown at USCENTCOM (U.S. Central Command) in Tampa. Major General Michael Garrett presided over our visit. We learned such a screening was unprecedented in USCENTCOM history, a huge honor for us all.
High Ground portrays our first Soldiers to Summits (S2S) program, culminating in the climb of a steep and icy Lobuche, 20,075 feet and eight miles from Everest. I was in Tampa with S2S participants Steve Baskis and Aaron Hale, both blinded on the battlefield. They added a lot of reality to this very powerful story. This showing was arranged by Major Brian Smith, an S2S supporter from the outset, now a member of our Advisory Board, who is based at USCENTCOM.
USCENTCOM is our military command for the Mideast (minus Israel), from Egypt to Pakistan. Security there was extremely tight, with frequent electronic screenings of individuals in between closed doors, and with rooms electronically swept for bugs after people exited a critical office.
High Ground was produced by Don Hahn of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King fame, and directed by Michael Brown, who produced the award-winning documentary of my Everest climb, Farther Than the Eye Can See. The power of High Ground was evident in the emotional response of MG Garrett – who has commanded many combat forces – as he made closing remarks to the mostly military audience.
High Ground engenders heightened respect for our service men and women who volunteer to serve our country, and especially for those soldiers who incur life-changing war injuries. We owe them all our great thanks.
Interested in blind skiing?
A couple of weeks ago, my guide Jeff and I taught a clinic for guides of the blind at Sugarloaf, Maine. I always love being a guinea pig, so check out some of the guides testing their new skills guiding me!
Meet my new friend Noah Carver!
It was fun getting to teach a clinic for some guides from Maine Adaptive Sports and we got to ski with a few of the blind participants.
Over the past year and a half, I have been striving to complete another summit in my life, a $1 million pledge to No Barriers USA.
One of the great blessings of my life has been roping up with others who share the same vision, and I thank them all for helping me to fulfill my pledge. I share this to remind all of us to never stop climbing and to never forget, what’s inside of us is stronger than what’s in our way.
Also I don’t think I have ever shared the beautiful video that my Everest teammate, Didrick Johnck, and No Barriers USA made for me at our last No Barriers Summit to show appreciation. It was fun to watch old clips, like when I was on Oprah.
Check it out: (6 minutes)
Lesson 1: Follow the Leader
The second part of my Flash Sonar training with Daniel Kish focused on something I haven’t done in over thirty years, riding a single bike. My team, Daniel, and I took to the park and decided to give it a shot.
Daniel has come up with an innovative technique in which he ties a zip tie to the bike of the person riding in front of him, and it turns into a version of follow the leader … but Flash Sonar style. The zip tie attaches to the frame so that it strikes the spokes with each rotation of the wheel, creating a strumming noise that is constant and clear for my bat senses. To get my feet wet, my teammate Tanner attached his zip tie to my bike, and we were off and riding through the grassy park. Tanner would try to challenge me by doing zigzags, kind of like a game of cat and mouse. When we’d come to a stop, I quickly learned that braking on a single bike is vastly different than on a tandem; I made the mistake of using my front brake only and flipped over my handlebars. After recovering, I told my team this was the most fun I have had in a long time, and I didn’t want to stop. We had to, however, because it was getting dark for the folks with eyesight.
Lesson 2: Around the Block
Since riding in the park was such a success, we decided we should take it to the street. The street added a lot more speed, especially going downhill, and properly braking became more crucial than at the park. With practice, I got better at it with commands from my team. Tanner would say things like, “less brake, Erik,” as we rolled down the hill. I also used Daniel’s clicking technique to hear parked cars on each side as we rode by. Daniel has helped give me the chance to do something that I didn’t think I was capable of doing again.
I couldn’t help thinking back to when I was 12 years old pretending to be Evil Knievel as I launched off the wooden ramp in my driveway. Back then, we’d ride around the neighborhood with cards sputtering in our spokes. I’m a little older but it still sounds cool, and I’m loving the feeling of speed and independence once again. Thank you, Daniel.
Watch the video below to see me riding. I warn you, though, I look like a drunken sailor:
It is never too late to get back on the saddle, in my case, bike saddle… even after you fall off it a few times. And now is the time! As 2014 takes off, I encourage you to take the pledge to live a No Barriers Life and do something that excites, scares, and challenges you to be the best version of yourself. Follow the link here to make the personal pledge: http://nobarriersusa.org/eriksclimbersclub/ .
“What’s Within You Is Stronger Than What’s In Your Way!”
I love creating systems which break new ground. Lucky for me, an amazing sensory system for navigating as a blind person already exists. It’s essentially what bats do, a kind of echo location, mastered by the guru, Daniel Kish. Flash Sonar is the name Daniel coined, in which you make sharp clicks with your tongue and listen to how the sound echoes off objects to figure out their size, shape, and distance. Most blind people have learned to do this to some degree, but it’s passive and not developed with a conscious process. Daniel, blind himself from a year-old takes this technique to a stunning new level.
Daniel recently flew out to my HQ in Colorado for a few days to help me improve my bat skills. We kicked off with a simple exercise of Daniel holding plates up to my left or right and me trying to identify which side. Then we walked around the neighborhood investigating the different sounds like parked cars, mailboxes, houses, trees and bushes. Daniel is also an expert teacher, and sped up the learning process with a series of questions about each object to help me form images in my mind. He’d ask, “Describe how that sounds… How does it sound different from the tree you just heard?” I’d answer with, “It somehow sounds softer than the tree, and not as tall. Maybe it’s a shrub?” Afterwards I’d reach out to feel it and confirm with my hands.
We then tested my skills in the park by trying to identify trash cans, water fountains, picnic benches, and rocks, all things blind people would like to be aware of during their average day. “Sounds like a wall of some kind over there,” I’d say, and Daniel would reply, “Let’s go investigate and find out.” I wish I’d known Flash Sonar a few months ago when I was walking through the airport and slammed my forehead into an overhanging metal beam. I hit the deck with blood pouring down my face and into my eyes. I still have a big scar and worst of all, I lost my latte. So it was especially gratifying when, by the end of the day, I was finding metal poles in a pavilion and even locating thin metal sign posts. It all took immense concentration, but the good news is that it’s fully possible, and only gets better with practice.
Check out the video blog of our training together.
Also, check out this video clip of Daniel’s protégé, also blind, riding his bike through a maze and setting a new world record.
In a couple days, we’ll be posting Part 2 of our training when I learned to do something I hadn’t done since I went blind 30 years ago. Stay tuned, and I hope you use this to set your own ambitious, and slightly scary, stretch goals for the new year.
Three weeks ago, I was in Phoenix giving a presentation and planned a kayak adventure on the side. Diamond Down is a 53-mile section of the Colorado River about 4 hours from Phoenix. It travels through the last stretch of the Grand Canyon and makes for a perfect day trip. It’s also perfect training for the longer 277-mile run of the GC that I have my sites set on for next fall.
We actually had to cancel our first trip scheduled for mid-September. The day before departure, my kayaking guide, Harlan Taney, called to tell us about the torrential monsoon rains that had washed out the dirt road to the put-in. So now on our second attempt, weather was looking almost as bad. A storm was predicted to move in and dump five feet of snow in Flagstaff and make for cold miserable conditions on the river.
One side of me said to cancel again; kayaking in the cold rain isn’t my idea of fun, but Harlan, who has led 200+ trips down the Grand Canyon, looked at the weather map and he thought there was a chance we might just beat the worst of the storm. Lately I’ve been coaching myself with what I call my, “open mind/open heart policy.” Some of the best gifts of my life have come when I keep my mind and heart open to the possibilities and trust my team. So I bit my lip and responded, “Let’s do it.”
The 6:30 a.m. start was a little painful. The temperature was about 45 degrees and raining, so I left the hotel room bundled in fleece and put on my dry suit in the truck. Fred Thevanin, owner of Arizona Raft Adventures came prepared with a full survival suit. Fred, along with his colleague, Dennis Smoldt , would be driving us out of the canyon on the motorboat for the 40 miles of flat water after the end of the 11-mile section of rapids. Harlan brought his kayaking buddy, Roy Lippman, who would be a second safety kayaker, and Skyler Williams would be the third.
Diamond Creek rapid is not more than a hundred yards down from the launch. So my shoulders and hips were still tight from the drive into the canyon as it approached. In what seemed like only a few paddle strokes down the river, a big crashing wave caught me by surprise and almost flipped me. I braced right hard and fought the surge of the river, narrowly avoiding going over.
I was trying out a new faster boat that was making my turns a little squirrely, and Harlan was having to give me more directions and corrections than usual over our Neptune BlueWave headsets. This was making me quite nervous as I descended into the bigger rapids of the day. At one point I told Harlan that because I wasn’t used to the new boat, I didn’t feel it was necessary for me to do the two more serious rapids, one of them named Killer Fang Falls, for two large rocks that protrude from the water like fangs; the hard Vishnu Schist geology has been carved by the water for eons, producing an exposed rock that is fluted with sharp points and edges. It can easily flip a boat and puncture a blind kayaker. Made worse, this is supposedly where Glen and Bessie Hyde, known as the “honeymoon couple,” disappeared without a trace.
Harlan wasn’t giving me an easy out, however! When I twice mentioned I might skip the big ones, he repeated calmly, “I think you’ve got these.” The cold and rain suddenly seemed like the least of my worries. Killer Fang Falls starts with a challenging left to right move narrowly passing the fangs and then across a powerful series of lateral waves crashing into the canyon wall. The water pushes you hard into the wall and then surges back again, creating a turbulent no-man’s area that works hard to flip you before finally flushing you out. Harlan kept me on the perfect line and at the bottom, I was past the fangs, past the crazy laterals, and still upright.
Soon I could hear the deep thunder roar of the next rapid ahead as it echoed off the canyon walls. My kayak team always remarks that, at the sound of rapids, my expression perks up and my eyes grow wide. That must have been the case as I floated down the smooth glassy tongue into the onslaught. Crashing waves bombarded me from the right as Harlan weaved me between several rocks. Just when I thought I was through the toughest part, a wave knocked me sideways and instantly I was upside-down. One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand . . . The key I knew was to stay calm.
On my last river trip in Peru, a wave shoved me sideways and I got knocked over in a similar way. When I tried to roll up, I was in the middle of a big hole and couldn’t get my paddle to the surface. . After trying a couple times unsuccessfully, five one-thousand . . . six one-thousand . . . I pulled my skirt and swam. Later, my team told me if I’d waited another five seconds, I would have been swept out of the turbulence. So this time, I waited until it felt calm above, braced my paddle, and made my roll. To me it felt like an eternity under the water, but Harlan said I rolled up with confidence and kept paddling forward, almost without skipping a beat.
After several more big rapids and one more roll, we were through the chaos and into the flat water. My open mind/open heart policy had paid off. For the next three hours we motored the flats as Fred regaled us with stories of Col. Powell, with only one arm, his team battling rapids in clunky wooden boats on the first complete Grand Canyon expedition and almost starving to death along the way. Harlan chimed in with harrowing tales of kayaking steep narrow creeks and 40-foot waterfall drops, and Skyler mimicked an impression of my signature puckered face as I smack into crashing waves. Everyone laughed, and it went back and forth for hours as we shivered away in the cold rain and wind.
Thanks to Harlan and the AzRA team for another great adventure.
Touch the Top announces we are selling our REACH Pendants again this year. Last year we took a big reach ourselves by embarking on this new venture, and it was so wildly popular, we’ve decided to bring it back for the holidays. All proceeds will go towards a scholarship for a deserving teenager to participate in a No Barriers – Leading the Way experience. These trips take teams of kids: blind and sighted, deaf and hearing: on multi-day journeys down the Grand Canyon. The mission is to help youth learn to tap into the human spirit, push through adversity, and embrace a No Barriers Mindset. “What’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way.”
Here’s a link to learn more about Leading the Way 2014: http://nobarriersusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Final-Sound-Academy-2014-1.pdf
My friend Cheryl Cutting designed this beautiful sterling silver pendant to inspire everyone to reach towards their own possibilities. The word REACH is spelled out in the Latin alphabet on one side and Braille on the other.
The hand symbol encourages you to reach into the unknown, to strive for greatness, and to find purpose. The mountains represent both audacious goals and the possibility of reaching personal summits. The stars in the sky symbolize dreams coming true, success, light in the darkness, and navigating your way through the wilderness.
The REACH pendant is tough yet beautiful. It is for men and women, athletes and non-athletes, abled and disabled. It is the perfect gift for anyone facing adversity in their life—or anyone who has overcome it.
Here is the link to submit your order:
Important: We have nine pendants up for grabs to arrive by Christmas but you must place your order by the end of the week on Friday, December 20. If you want to use them for kicking off the New Year, we have more pendants available and will continue to sell them after Christmas.
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