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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

No Barriers

A Blind Man's Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon

Erik Weihenmayer and Buddy Levy

A Thomas Dunne Book for St. Martin's Griffin





I wasn’t always completely blind. Even though I couldn’t see well from birth, I could still play basketball, ride my bike, and jump off rocks in the woods behind my house. Then, when I was three years old, I was diagnosed with a rare disease called juvenile retinoschisis. The odds were about the same as winning the lottery. The disease causes hemorrhaging in the eyes and makes the retinas split away over time; and just like my retinas, my life split away from everything I’d thought was normal one week before my freshman year of high school.

On my first day, I was led into the building by my teacher’s aide—not the ideal way to begin freshman year in a sighted school. She guided me from class to class and even to the bathroom. At lunchtime, she led me into the cafeteria, where I sat at a table alone, thinking about everything I had lost. I was afraid of going blind and seeing only darkness, but I was even more afraid of what I’d miss out on. I could hear the other kids around me, their laughter and wisecracks, their horsing around. A food fight broke out, and from what I could hear—all the yelling and screaming—everyone in the room except me was in the thick of it. The darkness was the easy part. The hard part was realizing I would never be in the food fight. I’d been swept aside, shoved into a dark place, and left alone there. Blindness descended upon me with such force that I thought it would swallow me.

I’ve heard people say we shouldn’t be motivated by fear. Even Yoda said it in my favorite movie series, Star Wars: “Fear is the path to the dark side.”

But that day in the cafeteria was my first bitter taste of fear. It caught in my throat like bile. It writhed in my gut, intertwining itself through every action, every decision. No matter how I fought it, fear was ever present. It was a tug-of-war, the fear of pushing forward through darkness against barriers you can’t see, tugging against the fear of sitting quietly and safely in a dark place.

Earlier that summer, right before the last traces of my eyesight were gone, I was watching TV. I could barely see out of my right eye, with just a little peripheral vision remaining. To see what was happening, I had to put my face almost against the screen, so close I could feel static electricity crackling on the tip of my nose. I was watching my favorite show, That’s Incredible! That night, they were featuring the story of a young Canadian named Terry Fox. He was nineteen years old when he was diagnosed with cancer. A tumor appeared in his right leg, and he was rushed in for surgery, where his leg had to be amputated six inches above his right knee. In the hospital recovering, Terry watched children even younger than he was succumbing to disease, and their deaths were a searing pain, sharper than the saw that had taken his leg. Of course he felt for their pain, but his next act was the most surprising thing I’d ever seen. After enduring eighteen months of chemotherapy and witnessing all that death and tragedy, he should have been reduced. As he contemplated his own mortality, he was supposed to retreat, curl into a ball, and protect the precious little he had left. Who would have blamed him? Yet instead, Terry did the exact opposite. He made the astonishing decision to run, and not just for a day, or a week, but from one shore to another, through every province, across the entire country of Canada. It was a marathon a day for thousands of miles.

I pressed my face against the television watching Terry hobble mile after mile in his Marathon of Hope. This was before the days of high-tech flex feet and “smart,” computerized prosthetics. His clunky, old-fashioned steel and fiberglass prosthetic leg created a herky-jerky gait, an awkward double-step, and a hop on his good left leg as his prosthetic right foot went back and then swung forward, almost like he was skipping. The look on his face was a contradiction, exhaustion mixed with determination. In his eyes, I sensed something I could only describe as a light that seemed to give intensity and power to his gaunt expression. At first, as Terry ran from town to town, only a few people paid attention, but soon, as news of his daily marathon spread, supporters began to line the roads to cheer him on. By the middle of his journey, throngs were showing up in the thousands.

Later in the piece, the host came back on and said that on day 143—after running an average of twenty-six miles a day for over four months and 3,339 miles through six provinces, Terry was forced to stop his run. Cancer had invaded his lungs, causing him to cough and gasp for air as he ran. Terry cried as he told the crowd of reporters that he wouldn’t be able to finish, but through his tears, he said, “I’ll fight. I promise I won’t give up.”

Terry Fox died seven months after he stopped running. It wasn’t fair. He’d only gotten twenty-two years on earth. But in that short window, he had made a decision to run, and that decision had elevated an entire nation. Instead of shrinking away, Terry had gotten bigger. He had lived more than he had died. Donations to his Marathon of Hope fund poured in and reached $24 million, equal to a dollar for every Canadian citizen.

I knew that my blindness was coming. It was a hard fact, and nothing I did would prevent it. As Terry’s story concluded, I knelt with tears pouring down my face. I yearned for that kind of courage, and I dared to hope Terry’s light existed in me.

I eventually climbed out of my dark place, with the help of my father, Ed, and the rest of my family. I joined the wrestling team, going from a 0–15 record my first year to becoming team captain my senior year and representing my home state of Connecticut in the National Junior Freestyle Wrestling Championships in Iowa. At sixteen, I also discovered rock climbing at a summer camp. I learned to scan and feel for holds on the rock face, using my hands and feet as my eyes. Through trial and error, by thrashing, groping, and bloodying my knuckles and fingers on the rock—I learned that the beauty of climbing was discovering the clues in the rock face, the nubs, edges, knobs, and pockets I could hang on to and remain on the vertical wall. When I successfully made it up a difficult climb, I was overwhelmed by the wonderful sensation of being in the mountains: the wind at my back, the brilliant textures in the rock, the intermittent patterns of coolness and heat under my touch. My senses awakened. Every sound, smell, and touch was so vivid, so brilliant, it was almost painful. One hundred feet above the tree line with the sun in my face and the wind and elements all around me, I felt an intoxicating freedom and the possibility that the adventure in my life was just beginning.

During high school, tragedy struck a second time. Two years after I lost my vision, I lost my mom in a car accident. I was only a sophomore in high school, and my mom, who’d spent years protecting me, driving me to and from eye doctor appointments, and giving me the inner strength I needed to confront blindness, was gone. How can I explain that pain? If I had gone blind a thousand times, it would not compare to what I felt in losing my mother.

After her death, my father wanted to take my two brothers and me on a trip that would bring us all closer together. In school, I had listened to an audio book about the Spanish conquistadors and the lost city of the Incas, and I suggested Peru. Dad agreed, and we set off for the Inca Trail. The trip, which included a hike to nearly fourteen thousand feet, started a tradition of annual family treks to remote parts of the world and fueled my love of the mountaineering life. As I sat with my older brother Mark at the Sun Gate, he described the ancient city of Machu Picchu, with immense rock structures terracing down the valley. I could hear the lost city, far below us, hidden in a deep cleft between high mountains, and I felt like an explorer, with the possibility of new lands to discover.

I went on to graduate from high school and then from Boston College, where I got a degree in English and communications. I ended up teaching middle school English and coaching wrestling at Phoenix Country Day School in Arizona. That’s where I met and fell in love with Ellie Reeve. When she learned about my passion for mountains and adventure, she supported me wholeheartedly, and I continued climbing and mountaineering. My confidence in climbing led to other adventures—skydiving and paragliding, skiing, and ice climbing.

But it was the challenge of big mountain summits that most intrigued me. Between 1995 and 2000, urged on by my Phoenix climbing partner Sam, I trained hard, developed strong teams, and started climbing serious peaks. First Denali—“the great one” in the Inuit language—at 20,310 feet, the highest point on the North American continent. For weeks we slogged over minefields of hidden crevasses and upward through a region ruled by the diabolical Coriolis effect, a phenomenon—connected to the mountain’s proximity to the Arctic Circle—which results in fierce storms with heavy snowfall, high winds, and biting cold. During those years I also climbed Aconcagua, at 22,841 feet, the highest point in South America, and the Vinson Massif in Antarctica—16,050 feet and one of the world’s remotest peaks. Vinson was also one of the coldest I’d ever experienced, with summer temps plunging to minus forty-degrees Fahrenheit. On top, I took a leak, and the stream froze in midair, clinking to the ground as yellow ice.

A couple of years later Ellie and I were married at thirteen thousand feet on the Shira Plateau of Mount Kilimanjaro. Ellie didn’t have a wedding dress, so we wrapped her up in Tanzanian fabric we’d been using as a tablecloth! Our friends built a rock altar and collected beautiful mountain flowers, which Ellie held in a bouquet. At the end of the ceremony, we walked through a gauntlet of Tanzanian porters as they threw rice over us; the only slight glitch to this time-honored ceremony was that they had boiled the rice, and it stuck all over our fleece. Glacial-capped Kilimanjaro stands alone on a flat plain, formed by a massive volcanic explosion that deposited magma in the shape of a gigantic cone called a stratovolcano. It’s the only place in the world where you can pass so quickly through five of the earth’s distinct vegetation zones: farmlands on the lower slopes, forest, heath and moorland, alpine desert, and arctic. When you arrive at the summit, you’re met with the profuse smell of sulfur emitting from the crater. A few days after our idyllic wedding, we left for the top. I told Ellie it was our honeymoon, but she disagreed, describing our twenty-one-hour summit day as “an endless nightmare.”

These expeditions prepared me enough, I believed, for an even greater challenge: Mount Everest.

*   *   *

At 4:00 A.M. on May 25, 2001, I stood at 28,000 feet, still more than a thousand feet below the summit of Mount Everest. I sensed the first beams of sunlight breaking over the Himalayas, and unbelievably, despite the time and the altitude, I could feel warmth on my face, on my chest and shoulders. I was so high up; no other mountain blocked the sunrise. The good weather was a small miracle considering we had been climbing all night through intermittent spells of blasting wind and horizontal snow that caked our down suits with a layer of ice. As we labored toward the Balcony, a small flat shelf at 27,700 feet, lightning had begun exploding nearby, like a terrifying version of a Fourth of July fireworks show. We’d stopped and huddled together in the deteriorating weather, wondering what to do, debating whether to keep going up or to descend. Doubt and fear had swirled in my head like the wind that whipped around us. More than 170 people had died on Mount Everest. Earlier, I’d walked right by a frozen, mummified corpse lying next to the trail, and I tried not to think too deeply about his last moments, his suffering, and his regrets.

Stalled out for almost an hour, I was so cold I bounced up and down, windmilled my arms, and swung my legs back and forth, trying to raise my body temperature and return blood flow to my numb hands and feet. I’d been preparing for this climb half my life; I’d been training intensely for two years, and I’d been toiling up and down the mountain over the last month and a half to acclimatize. And now, hostile weather was going to turn us back. Although desperately wanting to make it to the top, I also wasn’t willing to go bullheadedly forward and throw my life away. I pictured my wife, Ellie, and my little one-year-old daughter, Emma, at home, bundled together under warm blankets, reading a storybook. My mind started to settle on the grim reality of heading down when a voice from our team at base camp crackled over the radio.

“The storm’s clearing down here. It’s on top of you now, but I think it may pass over.”

Sure enough, one of my teammates had looked up to study the night sky and reported that stars were beginning to shine through the clouds. That was just the confirmation we needed to push forward. Later, he described the sunrise breaking, cirrus clouds streaking above in the jet stream, and the skies turning a spectacular, electric blue.

By 8:00 A.M., we had struggled to the South Summit, 28,700 feet above sea level. As I knelt in the snow, my brain felt as numb as my hands. A heavy weight took hold of me, a weariness that seemed to oppress every muscle in my body. I adjusted my mask securely over my mouth and nose, then checked the knob on my oxygen tank exactly as rehearsed: twelve clicks to provide me with two liters of oxygen per minute. I’d contemplated this place a thousand times, and now the moment had arrived. If I was going to turn around and descend, this was the time to do it. From a tactile map I’d once felt, I knew that the true summit of Mount Everest still loomed nearly a half mile away, protruding like an island in the sky. Beyond was a rappel down the backside of the South Summit, a treacherous four hundred–foot crossing of the knife-edge ridge, and finally the wildly exposed forty-foot spur of the Hillary Step. If I proceeded, it meant unwavering, absolute commitment. I gathered my will, stood up, and stepped forward, falling in behind the boot crunches of my team. We lowered down the twenty-foot vertical snow face onto the severely sharp ridge, the width of a picnic table and heavily snow-corniced. To the left was an eight thousand–foot drop into Nepal, and to the right, a ten thousand–foot plunge into Tibet.

I slowly, carefully probed my ice axe in front of me and found the frozen boot steps that ran along the leftmost side of the ridge: Scan and step—scan and step. Despite the thin oxygen and my exhaustion, I tried to stay focused, or as the Buddhist Sherpas said, to keep my mind “still like water.” This was a No-Mistake Zone.

At last, I came to the base of the vertical Hillary Step. Feeling the rock under my gloves, I was suddenly in my element. I stuck the crampon points of my right foot tenuously into a thin rock crack, the left points into a snow cornice, slid my ascender as high as it would go on the rope, stood up quickly, and reached for the next bulge of rock to hang on to. At the top, I pulled myself onto a flat ledge and splayed out in a belly flop, resting, breathing. I slowly rose to my feet and began trudging up the last slope.

Each step felt like I was pushing through half-hardened cement. Six deep steady breaths, then another solid step. Just keep moving, I thought. Six more slow breaths, another step. Time blurred around me, and inside the layers of hats and hoods, all I could hear was my heart pounding in my chest and the heavy, guttural breathing in my mask.

Then I sensed a teammate pausing in front of me and felt thin, wiry arms beneath a puffy down suit wrapping around my neck. “Erik,” the voice rasped, hollow, wispy, and strained from calling commands to me through the night, through the storm. His voice tried to say more, but his quaking words dissipated in the wind. Then he leaned in close, pressing his face against my ear. “Big E”—his voice gave way to tears, then struggled out in an immense effort—“you’re about to stand on top of the world.”

A few steps later, the earth flattened out and there was nowhere else to go. I hugged my teammates. They’d believed in me fiercely, even when I tried to count myself out. “Thank you,” I said, the tears flowing and freezing on my face. Then I was handed a radio.

“This is Erik,” I called into the transmitter. “We’re on top. I can’t believe it; we’re on the top. Tell Ellie I love her, and we’ll be home soon.”

Kami Sherpa’s voice came back clear and serious: “Congratulations, but Summit is not real summit. Only halfway summit. Weather changing. Go down now. Go down now.”

I knew that most accidents happened on the descent, when bodies were spent, legs were shaking, and climbers were trying to beat the afternoon storms that inevitably rolled in. The clouds were lowering again, and the temperature was dropping. Jeff Evans, standing next to me, called out, “You’ll never be here again. Look around.”

The irony of his words wasn’t lost on me as I knelt down and touched the snow with my gloved hand, heard the Sherpa prayer flags flapping in the wind, and listened to the empty, infinite sound of the sky enveloping me. Against this powerful, cold, and rugged mountain scape, I felt fragile and vulnerable. Summits, I thought, were rare and sacred places, but they were only meant to be visited for a moment. It was time to go down.

We descended through increasing snowfall, lowering down the Hillary Step and again traversing the knife-edge ridge. Finally, after eighteen hours of climbing, we reached our tents at 3:30 P.M. For the next few grueling days we picked our way through the anvil-shaped rib of black rock called the Geneva Spur, crossed the treacherous Yellow Band, and inched down the steep, sun-glazed Lhotse Face, now streaming with rockfall.

As I creeped downward, it began to dawn on me what we’d accomplished. For months my teammates and I had traveled together as one, our lives inextricably linked. I’d pushed past my known physical limits, learning much about what my body could endure and what my mind could achieve. Climbing experts had doubted us and questioned my abilities. But on May 25, 2001, nineteen from our team had made it to the summit, the most from one team to reach the top of the world in a single day. And I had made some history of my own. There was much to celebrate. But not quite yet. We reached the deadly Khumbu Icefall—the two-mile-long glacial jumble of shattered seracs and explosions of afternoon avalanches. My legs rubbery and my body weak from the thirty pounds I’d lost, we navigated once more the thirty rickety aluminum ladders spanning wide crevasses, some nearly two hundred feet deep. It was my tenth and final time through the icebound labyrinth.

After crossing the last crevasse, we kept walking downward. Streams ran in little gullies over the ice, and then the ice morphed into expansive slopes of snow. With the last of the icefall behind me, I knew I was going to live.

Just then, as I heard the hoots of our team below, our expedition leader, Pasquale—“PV”—strode up next to me. He grabbed me by the shoulder and stopped me, and I felt him stare into my face for a long time.

“Your life’s about to change,” he pronounced, patting me on the back. Then he laughed, but underneath, his tone was serious. “Don’t make Everest the greatest thing you ever do,” he said.

*   *   *

“Don’t make Everest the greatest thing you ever do.”

Those words sank into my brain and rattled around. At first, I was taken aback. I had just done something that many critics thought was impossible. They’d said I’d be a liability, that I’d subject myself to horrendous risk, that I’d slow my team down, that I’d draw the whole mountain into a rescue. They’d said a blind person didn’t belong on the mountain. The secret was that, at times, I had been one of them, doubting, wondering, and second-guessing myself. I was almost as bad as the naysayers themselves. The difference, however, was that I managed to shove out some of that clutter, to train hard and to move forward step by step, regardless of what my brain was telling me. And so I’d found myself at the summit with my team, standing on an island in the sky the size of a two-car garage. And although my body was there, my mind hadn’t caught up. A voice kept asking me, Is this really true? Are you really here? Standing here? Later, a reporter had said I’d shattered the world’s expectations about what was possible, but what he didn’t know was that I’d shattered my own expectations even more than the world’s.

So not even down to base camp yet, how off-putting for PV to get in my face and try to ruin the achievement. Or at a minimum, it represented terrible timing. I pushed his words out of my mind. It was easy, since the next six months were a constant blur of celebrations reliving the triumph. I was on the cover of Time, and our entire team met the president in the Oval Office. We went to Disney World where I climbed the outside face of the Matterhorn, roped to Mickey Mouse with Goofy belaying us. My photo was fifty feet tall in Times Square, and I received an ESPY Award, meeting celebrities like Tom Brady and Derek Jeter. I even got to shake hands with Muhammad Ali and have a beer with Carl Lewis. Back home in Golden, Colorado, I was chosen as the Grand Poohbah of our Buffalo Bill Days parade; my wife and daughter got to ride with me in the front of a horse-drawn carriage waving to the crowd and throwing candy to the kids. On one of my media tours, I was in a fancy restaurant hotel eating breakfast. I’d lost over forty pounds on the climb, so when I felt a chocolate croissant on the buffet table, I snapped it up. I finally stopped after seven of them. I was so busy; there wasn’t much time to reflect on the future. I was also speaking to a lot of groups. It was weird, because before Mount Everest, people constantly asked, “What’s next?” I’d make a joke, like, “My next climb will be to climb into bed for a nap.”

But after Mount Everest, not many asked me the “what’s next?” question, as if to say implicitly, of course there’s nothing else to do, there’s nothing bigger on earth. But in those brief moments of quiet, I’d relive PV’s words. “You know what the biggest problem with this mountain is?” PV asked soon after we’d made it down to base camp. “You hang your pictures up on the walls. You set up your trophies, and it becomes a museum, even worse, a mausoleum.”

As PV talked, I could feel the cuts all over my hands that had been oozing for two months; above eighteen thousand feet, the Death Zone doesn’t provide enough oxygen in the atmosphere to heal injuries. My hands were so puffy that I could barely get them into my gloves. Muscles suffer from the same affliction; my legs felt like rubber bands that had been stretched too many times. My face was fried from the sun that, on the surface of the glacier, topped over one hundred degrees; my cheeks and ears were raw from the wind and cold that fell to thirty degrees below zero. My lips and tongue were blistered and swollen from the ferocious sun reflecting off the snow and burning my open mouth. Speaking was difficult.

“Just let me revel for a while,” I replied softly. Then in my mind, I added, Let me go home and shuffle down smooth sidewalks, lie flat on my back in the grass and feel the soft Colorado breeze on my nose, drink hazelnut lattes and eat chocolate croissants, and let me, as a very old man, tell my grandchildren the amazing thing I had done when I was thirty-three years old.

During that late spring, I especially loved soaking in the hot tub on my back porch, enjoying the still, peaceful nights. It was a luxury I’d always dreamed of while shivering on mountains. So we’d splurged, justifying it as “expedition recovery.” The hot tub was also where Ellie and I talked and went over the events of the day. One night, I asked Ellie to join me in the tub, but she was too tired and was going to bed. “But what if I slip on the ice out there,” I said, “and crack my head on the side of the tub and I slide underwater and drown?”

“Seriously?” She laughed. “Didn’t you just get home from a very big mountain?”

My persuasion finally paid off, and we sat with the steam rising and soft snowflakes landing in our hair. I told her about all the e-mails I’d received that week from people around the world sending congratulations. “One guy wrote and says I should be the first blind man in space,” I said. “Another guy invited me to go run with the bulls in Pamplona.”

“You could be a blind Evel Knievel,” Ellie said. “You could be shot out of a cannon or be catapulted against a wall in a Velcro suit.”

I laughed. Her point was clear. It couldn’t be as shallow as that, my life a series of harder and harder stunts that quickly lost their meaning. And a lot of people who had followed that path were dead. Besides, I didn’t get to the summit of Mount Everest as a daredevil. I was methodical; I trained like crazy. I planned. I developed systems to keep me safe and surrounded myself with a superlative team. Everything fit into a careful risk equation, and I was not fearless. A lot of things, in fact, scared me. Feeling the night breeze on my face, I thought about my little Emma, sleeping upstairs in her crib. Through the baby monitor lying on the side of the tub, I could hear her soft breathing, interrupted by an occasional sigh. Then I reached out and found Ellie’s hand. “I have a lot to live for,” I said. And I knew that whatever came next, it would have to mean something.

*   *   *

Over the next year, I worked my way around the world, attempting to finish the Seven Summits, the highest point on each continent. I climbed Mount Elbrus, the tallest mountain in Europe, and skied down ten thousand feet to base camp. I went to Australia and climbed little Kosciuszko. I even headed over to New Zealand and climbed infamous Mount Cook, a twenty-four-hour push from hut to summit to hut again. Back home recovering, I was in front of my computer and heard the familiar ring of an e-mail coming in. The subject was “Congratulations from Tibet.” I’d received plenty of e-mails of congrats, but none from Tibet, a remote region just over the Himalayas from Nepal where I’d embarked from for most of my climbs. It was from a teacher of the blind, a woman from Germany living in Tibet, and read as follows:

Dear Erik,

After you reached the top of the world our Tibetan neighbor rushed into our center and told the kids about your success. Some of them didn’t believe it at first but then there was a mutual understanding: if you could climb to the top of the world, we also can overcome our borders and show to the world that the blind can equally participate in society and are able to accomplish great things.

Since my boyfriend Paul and I had read your book with great pleasure, I decided to tell the children about your life. Just one week ago I told the children in our center all about your childhood, how you became blind, how you threw your canes from bridges in anger, how you finally met other blind people and then how you became confident in wrestling. All of them were very impressed by all these experiences you had and they compared your experiences with their own ones. Again they realized that it does not matter much if you are a blind child in Germany, USA or Tibet, the experience one has who becomes blind, the embarrassment at first, the confidence which builds up slowly but steadily, the reaction of the sighted surrounding is probably for every blind person the same.

After I had told your story to the children, the boys were walking together with some of our sighted colleagues through the inner part of Lhasa. Lhasa is not the blind-friendliest city in the world. There are lots of holes in the street, which sometimes are a few meters deep. Construction sites are never protected with fences. It can happen that you step in huge puddles of dirty water or even excrements. Most of our children know their way through this chaos. I teach them mobility and they are quite confident in using their canes. They always think that if I could find my way around they also have to try. The only problem is that they are sometimes very embarrassed to show their canes since nomads and pilgrims who never saw a cane before often make fun about them. They call them “blind fools,” imitate them and laugh about them. One of the boys however once turned around and said: “you cannot talk to me like that, I am blind but I am not a fool! And did you ever go to school, do you know how to read and write? Can you find the toilet in the middle of the night without a flashlight?”

Not all of these children have this pride and confidence to react in such a strong way. I often tell them, that they should understand that these people are just stupid. And if they can, they should say something back. Most of them now like the idea to defend themselves in a verbal way. First they try to reply in a rather friendly way and if this does not help, they are starting to shout back, make fun of them and soon they have the crowd on their side.

And still, if a sighted friend is around, they try to hide away their canes to walk invisible and convenient on the arm of the sighted.

And at this day when I ended your story by saying: “This man, who is blind like you climbed the top of the world, not by holding the arm of a sighted friend, but with the help of some strings and two canes,” they all proudly decided to walk on their own, without the convenience of walking with the sighted. Stories like yours change their lives. Most of them now understand that there is nothing to be embarrassed about. They can be very proud little people, and they say quite often: “We are blind, so what? We can speak English and Chinese, we can find our way in the labyrinth of Lhasa’s walkways, we are able to read and write in three different Braille scripts and we read and write without using light.”

In a way, we are something like colleagues, maybe in encouraging the blind to stand up and to find and overcome their own borders. As I read from your book we have the same philosophy, similar history and a similar way of approaching ideas.

Right now I am sitting in our computer room. Next to me is Gyenshen, a brilliant young student who became blind at the age of 9. He together with two other girls gets computer lessons.

Gyenshen comes from a very remote and poor farmer area. After he became blind his family kept him away in a dark room for three years. The family was embarrassed having a blind child. In Tibet people believe that blindness is a punishment for something which the person has done bad or wrong in his/her previous life. People also believe that blind people are possessed by demons.

When he came to our project he was very shy. Now he is one of the best students and is quite confident with handling the computer. He is probably the only one of his village who knows that the world is round, and that one can communicate through just a wire. He is able to tell the other children of the village that “iron yaks” are Toyota Land Cruisers that drink gasoline instead of water.

The blind that grow up in Tibet have certainly a totally different life than we in Germany or you in the US. But they feel a close solidarity with blind people from other countries. This connection and solidarity gives them a lot of strength and power to manage their lives.

We all would be very excited if you could visit our project. Today is the international day of the white cane and you help us to fill this day with pride. Greetings from a sunny and cold Lhasa, greetings from all the children, the staff and from Paul.

With lots of good wishes,

Sabriye Tenberken

By the time my speech synthesizer had finished reading her letter, tears were pouring down my face, and I knew I would find a way to get to Tibet.


Copyright © 2017 by Erik Weihenmayer and Buddy Levy

Foreword copyright © 2017 by Bob Woodruff