Erik Weihenmayer on High Ground Soldiers to Summits documentary premiere
When mountain climber and adventurer Erik Weihenmayer -- who happens to be blind -- set out to climb Mt. Everest more than a decade ago, a lot of people thought he was crazy, or worse: a danger to himself and others. They couldn't believe any responsible guide would take him on the mountain.
Those same people might be even more surprised to learn that that he's now a guide for others with disabilities: Weihenmayer summited Everest and knocked off the rest of the Seven Summits to boot, and is now a board member of the Fort Collins-based non-profit No Barriers USA. He's also on the advisory team for Soldiers to Summits, a No Barriers program helping to guide injured war veterans up mountains that are both literal and metaphoric in their quest to overcome disability and adversity. High Ground, local director Michael Brown's documentary film following the group's first adventure -- a 2010 climb up the 20,075-foot Lobuche peak in the Himalayas -- won the People's Choice Award at the 2012 Boulder International Film Festival and has been a hit on the festival circuit, and gets its first public screening tonight at the American Mountaineering Center in Golden as part of a campaign for Academy Awards eligibility.
We caught up with Weihenmayer for more on the film and on what's next for Soldiers to Summits.
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Westword: The eleven injured soldiers featured in High Ground came back from war with disabilities ranging from missing limbs and blindness to traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder. Why was it important to you to get them together and take them up to the summit of Lobuche?
Erik Weihenmayer: Climbing a mountain is a pretty tidy metaphor for the struggles that people have when they come home from war. The adversity that you face on a battlefield is very different from the sort of nuanced adversity that you face in the civilian world, you know? It's different. It's not bombs landing around you, but it's real adversity and you need a tool kit to face it. When these folks come back, they have all kinds of barriers. They're not really prepared for civilian life, in a lot of ways. And if their lives have been turned upside down through losing legs or arms or their vision or hearing or post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries -- or all of the above -- then that summit can seem impossible to reach.
The idea behind the program isn't that we're trying to teach anybody to be a professional climber -- if somebody wants to do that, they can do it the old-fashioned way and be a dirtbag and eat Spam and live out of their van. We wanted it to be a part of therapy and recovery for these soldiers, and we wanted to give them some tools to face the metaphoric mountains, based on things you could learn from actually climbing in the mountains and to think about things like, "Now that you have new challenges in your life, how do you build a great team and rope up with the right people to get to where you're trying to go?" In the military you're put on a team and that team has your back, but in the civilian world you have to build that community around you and it can be harder than it sounds.