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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Climbing Alaska's Mt. McKinley, Argentina's Aconcagua, and Yellowstone's forbiddingly sheer rock faces is a sufficient challenge to elite mountain climbers with all their faculties intact. Erik Weihenmayer has managed to accomplish these feats without the ability to see. Among the recent blizzard of mountain-climbing books Touch the Top of the World offers a truly unique perspective. Weihenmayer tells a touching and disarmingly funny story of his early life and inspired ascents.
Born with a severe case of glaucoma, Weihenmayer endured a childhood of increasingly blurry vision. However, Weihenmayer's mother let him get away with nothing. She insisted he attend a traditional school for sighted people and scolded a teacher who sympathetically approved one of Erik's unintelligible quiz papers: "Damn smiley face. Draw a pitchfork and horns next time."
By adolescence, Weihenmayer had completely lost his sight and reluctantly adopted the expedients of the blind: Braille, a seeing-eye dog, and walking sticks. Never, though, did Weihenmayer draw back from pursuing goals that seemingly required sight. Weihenmayer took up wrestling in high school and later became a teacher and wrestling coach. A family hiking excursion on the Inca trail in Peru whetted his appetite for increasingly challenging outdoor adventures. His mother's premature death in a car accident only reinforced his moxie.
Weihenmayer's mountaintop descriptions are vivid and picturesque. While mountaineering books often fixate on the grueling process (wrote Jon Krakauer in Into Thin Air "I understood on some dim, detached level that the sweep of earth beneath my feet was a spectacular sight.... But I just couldn't summon the energy to care"), Weihenmayer is, ironically, attuned to what lures many to the mountains to begin with -- the magnificent views! He vicariously enjoys the visions of his climbing friends; "[T]he glorious sun rose up over the summit of Mount Rainier, orange and gold and fiery."
Like most mountaineers, Weihenmayer's climbing buddies are vital to him. With his hand resting heavily on his friend Jeff's shoulder, Erik is reminded that "If you fall, we all fall." At one point it is Jeff who must rely on Erik to find a trail when the two are stranded in complete darkness.
A lifetime of mocking convention has colored Weihenmayer's sense of humor: He laughs at his deficiencies without belittling them. One of his childhood misfortunes was his musical ineptitude. Quips Erik, "Being musically inclined was supposed to go hand and hand with blindness. It was supposed to be part of the package deal." At Camp Canada, 16,500 feet up on Anconcagua (which proved a peskier challenge than McKinley), Weihenmayer mistook a pee bottle for a water bottle and took a big swig. Ever the romantic in his youth, Weihenmayer devised schemes to assess women's physical appeal. These stories and others are delivered with appropriate aplomb.
Weihenmayer's experiences, above all, remind readers of what the blind and the sighted have in common. Like Marla Runyan, the legally blind distance runner who finished eighth at the 2000 Olympics in the 1,500 meters, Weihenmayer is excelling at a sport where sight is taken for granted. Writes Weihenmayer, "People sensationalize the lives of blind people, when, often, all they did was exhibit a semblance of normalcy." (Brenn Jones)