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About Utah: Blind man not resting after Everest

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Among the myriad events taking place at this weekend's annual Outdoor Retailer Show is a breakfast gathering today sponsored by W.L. Gore & Associates featuring an Embrace-the-Outdoors speech by Erik Weihenmayer, the first and, so far, only blind person to stand atop Mount Everest.

Of the 6 billion people currently living on the planet, Weihenmayer arguably has the best vision of anyone when it comes to seeing the tremendous upside of the great outdoors.

It was not quite four years ago — May 25, 2001, to be exact — when, at age 32, he summited the world's tallest mountain and delivered a blow to the solar plexus of pessimism from which it is yet to recover.

If the blind can climb Everest, what can't they do? And while we're asking questions, what might be possible for those of us who can see?

I managed to snag a short interview with Erik, who makes his home in Golden, Colo., before he went into deep preparation mode for today's speech — by spending all day yesterday skiing at Alta.

"You have a guide skier in front and usually another in back," he said in explaining the process that allows a sightless skier to attack the slopes. "It's very exciting, especially when you hit some uneven snow conditions. I love it."

For a man who did something most people — mountaineers especially — felt was physically impossible, Weihenmayer has anything but the air of a superhero about him; or, for that matter, a riverboat gambler.

His descriptions of his accomplishments (he has also climbed the tallest mountain in every hemisphere) are so pragmatic, so down-to-earth, that he makes the improbable seem probable — like an aeronautic engineer explaining how a 20,000-pound jet airplane gets airborne.

"What I've learned from the outdoors," he says, "is how to empower myself and reach out into uncertainty; how to take calculated risks, how to create good teams of people around me, people who believe in me, people I can put my life in their hands, and they can put their life in my hands."

Do that, and climbing Mount Everest becomes a process, not a phenomenon.

"A lot of people said a blind person had no business being on a mountain like Everest," he says. "But I had more climbing knowledge and experience than probably 99 percent of the people there."

No matter what the goal, Erik stresses the importance of being realistic about it.

"There's a sense of realism that you have to have," he says. "I started climbing at 16. I figured out all the systems. I worked at it. I found out what I had to do to be as physically fit as I could be. It takes a lot of discipline and preparation (to climb Everest). I'd spent half my life preparing for it. I want to motivate people to step out of their comfort zone, but I want them to be realistic too. I want to share the message that we can do things in our lives that are totally unexpected — but we need to know what's involved in getting there."

He adds that every goal doesn't have to be as lofty as the first blind man to touch the top of the world.

"To me," he says, "the outdoors are really about every man. They're about heavy people, short people, skinny people, blind people . . . everybody getting out there and enjoying the outdoors and figuring out ways of succeeding within that tough environment under your own set of circumstances."

I'm sure he'd have said more. But he had a ski lift to catch.

Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.