Celebrity Spotlight - Erik Weihenmayer
An avid mountaineer and the only blind climber to conquer Mount Everest, Erik Weihenmayer has never let his visual impairment keep him from reaching his goals. His accomplishments, poignantly detailed in his first book, Touch the Top of the World, have inspired and motivated blind and sighted people alike. Although his guide dogs haven’t tackled the tallest mountains with him, Erik credits them with opening up his world to all kinds of opportunities. Here, Erik shares his experiences with his previous guide dogs, Wizard and Seigo, and his current one, Willa.
IN A DIFFERENT LIGHT
Erik Weihenmayer was reluctant at first to even have a guide dog. However, his reluctance stemmed from not wanting to accept that he was blind, rather than not wanting a dog. “I was an active kid; I liked to bike and hike. I was legally blind, but I could see well enough to ride a bike—well enough to pretend that I wasn’t blind.”
Unfortunately, Erik’s vision started getting progressively worse from a rare disease called retinoschisis. He went completely blind at 13, just before his freshman year in high school. “I didn’t want anything to do with blindness; I was almost still denying that it had happened,” he says. “I didn’t want to use a cane; I didn’t want to learn Braille; I didn’t want to use computers with voice synthesizers.”
But then something happened that forced him to rethink his reluctance. Erik describes walking down a dock one day without his cane to guide him, when he tripped off the edge of the dock. “I did a flip in the air and landed on my back on the deck of a boat, and I thought, OK, it doesn’t really matter how much you hate blindness or deny it, or want to wish it away, or fear it; if you don’t figure out what it takes to climb your way out of this situation, you’re going to kill yourself,” he says. “Reality was butting up against my denial.”
So Erik started accepting some of the tools people were offering him. His mother, Ellen, suggested that he apply for a guide dog. “My mom thought a dog would be a cool ice breaker in social situations,” he says. “She always hoped I would get a dog, but I was too young.”
He eventually applied and was accepted when he was a junior in high school, making him the youngest person in Connecticut and in the history of the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation to get a guide dog. Erik was on the wrestling team and frequently traveled to different schools, so the foundation felt the dog would help him get around better in new places. “If you’re in the same place all the time and you’ve been there for 15 years, you don’t really need a dog,” Erik says. “You need a dog in new areas that you don’t have memorized. So even though it was a risk, they gave me Wizard. The sad part was that my mom died in a car accident that year, so she never saw my dog.”
AN EVOLVING RELATIONSHIP
Erik explains that a certain level of maturity is needed to take care of a guide dog, even more so than with a pet dog. “Besides keeping the dog healthy, you need to have the discipline to not let the dog drift into becoming a pet. A lot of teenagers, including me at that age, aren’t quite ready for the responsibility,” he says.
Guide dogs are trained before they’re placed with their companions, but each dog and companion also train together for a few weeks to get to know each other. Erik explains: “You start off walking around with a guide dog instructor, who holds the harness in his hand, and you pretend the instructor is the dog. Then you walk around with the dog while the instructor uses a long bungee cord to control the dog. Finally, you walk solo with the dog.
“In the beginning, it’s freaky because you can’t see where you’re going and you’re completely putting your trust in this dog not to crash you into things. You have to be tough when you’re training with a guide dog because the first time, the dog doesn’t respect you; he respects the trainer. It’s not just like jumping into another car, where the steering wheel feels the same; every dog is different, and every dog has to know that you’re the alpha dog.”
Erik compares getting his first dog, Wizard, to being on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney. “You’re flying on a cart, heading toward walls and a fireplace that you think you’re going to crash into. Just at the last moment, they move out of the way, and you sneak right through,” he says. “Of course, with a guide dog, you sometimes do crash at first. When I went solo withWizard, he blasted me right into a fire hydrant. I was just lying there, curled up on the road with a charley horse, and the dog looked back at me like, ‘Sucker.’
“You’ve got to try again, having faith that the process is going to work. Eventually, you learn to control the dog. It’s not like you can say, ‘I want to go to the grocery store,’ and the dog just takes you there. The blind person has to visualize the route,” Erik says. “For instance, you have to know that your destination is about a hundred yards, or three stop lights, or three streets, then you take a left. You can feel the curves in the road and count street crossings, which help keep you oriented. But the dog is really the detail guy; he avoids crashing you into obstacles along your journey.”
“People sometimes think that because a dog can see and a blind person can’t, the dog is just leading the person completely solo. But that’s not true; it’s an absolute partnership. I have to be very aware of my environment. For instance, when I pass stores, I smell the air to determine what kind of store it is—a soap store, a flower shop, or a restaurant. Then, when I get in the general vicinity of where I want to be, I’ll say, ‘Willa, find the door,’ and Willa will find the door for me.”
Erik explains that routine and consistency are important to a guide dog. “There are certain routines that the dog will get into,” he says. “For instance, if you walk to work every day, the dog will take you there in autopilot. In fact, dogs love patterns so much that if you want to stop one day and do something different, the dog will decide No way; we’re doing the same thing we always do.”
Even when doing something routine with a guide dog, it’s important for the blind person to pay attention to his route, or he might end up somewhere unexpected. “When I used to go to the coffee shop near my house in Golden, Colorado, I would pass a park Seigo liked. If I wasn’t paying attention, he would cut a quick right,” Erik laughs. “I’d be so annoyed, wondering, Where the heck am I? Then I’d realize I was standing in the park while the dog’s just happily wagging his tail.”
STRENGTHENING THE BOND
With the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, the blind person doesn’t actually own the dog. Fidelco does this to protect their dogs. “They want to know that if you abuse the dog, they can take it back with no legal rigmarole,” Erik explains. “But you’re totally responsible for the dog—for vet checkups, for food and grooming, everything.” Erik takes Willa for veterinary visits once every six months.
“You can use Fidelco as a resource and consultant. If you’re really having problems with a dog, they’ll send the instructor out to see you again for follow-ups,” says Erik. “I still meet with my instructor every few years. He’ll walk around with us for a couple hours and give me tips. But they train you to be the instructor so you can solve problems yourself.
“What I’ve learned is that so often if Wizard or Seigo orWilla was doing something goofy or wrong, 99.9%of the time it’s something I was doing wrong, not something the dog was doing wrong. I just have to change my behavior to get the dog to respond in a more appropriate way.”
A TRUE PARTNERSHIP
Without his guide dogs, Erik believes he would have had more of a struggle because he travels so much. “I would have hung in there, but it would have been a lot tougher,” he says. “I’ve probably been to almost every airport in the country, meeting cars, getting on buses, finding gates. It’s a lot of work trying to ask people how to get where I need to be. My dog and I work together to figure out things like Do we need to take a left or a right? Which side is the gate on? Obviously, the dog can’t read. But without Willa, I don’t think I could do all that.
“I’m a very independent person,” Erik admits. “My dog gives me this great sense of independence that has definitely built my confidence and helped me when I’ve been attacking all sorts of things in my life, including mountain climbs and rock faces.
“As a blind person, you’re connected to other people quite a bit, and that’s fine. It’s great to be part of a team, but you also have to have an individual life, and my dog allows me to have that.
“With Willa, I can get up and go anywhere I want to go at any time. And she doesn’t ask anything of me. I get where I want to go, and Willa goes under the table and takes a nap.”
Having a guide dog opened up my world. It gave me more confidence with my friends,with girls on dates, and while traveling independently. Together, my dog and I can figure it all out. It’s an absolute partnership.
FOUR WORDS THAT RESONATE WITH ERIK
Adversity is probably the best teacher I’ve ever had. It’s easy to become frustrated and get crushed by adversity, but it can also be the best motivator— the most powerful, most potent fuel that you have in life.You can choose to have moments of adversity crush you, or you can decide, Life is an unbelievable adventure, and sometimes the adventure is frustrating. You just have to figure out how to use those situations to make yourself whatever you want to be.
It’s important to me to have climbing partners who respect me, who feel like I’m not just the token blind guy getting dragged to the summit and spiked on top like a football, but that I’m actually an integral part of the team, where I’m carrying my weight and doing my part to get the team a little higher up the mountain each day.
Your ego can be big, but you need to channel it toward good causes. Sometimes ego is what makes you do something the right way, not because there are big universal consequences if you fail, but just because that’s what you want to do and the way you want to be. Ego can be a good thing when it’s channeled in a good direction.
Being married and having a child and a dog teaches you how to love. You connect with people, and you realize that they are vulnerable. It’s your job to love them, make them feel good, & treat them in a way that helps them become the best people they can be.
GUIDE DOG ON DUTY
When a guide dog has its harness on, you have to treat her as a working dog. It’s a safety issue. Dogs can’t really multitask; they have to stay focused. “The dog can’t be a pet and a guide dog at the same time,” Erik explains. “When Willa’s on harness, she has to make sure I’m safe. If somebody calls her as we’re walking down a sidewalk, andWilla listens to that person and crosses the road, I’m in big trouble.”
LEARNING TO TRUST
“My dog and I work together. One time, I wanted to cross a street, and Wizard wouldn’t move. All of a sudden, a van flew around the corner. Wizard didn’t budge because he could see it coming.
“When we’re walking, I say, ‘Forward’ gently; I don’t command it. That way, the dog can choose to either go forward or refuse my command. If the dog refuses my command, I know something’s up. It’s fascinating, because you’re trying to figure out your environment through the mind and eyes of a dog.”