The A-Team

Jan 12, 2001
Outside Magazine
Tenacious E

Last May, the elite climbing community told Erik Weihenmayer he didn't belong on Everest. In this exclusive preview of the new afterword to Weihenmayer's book, Touch the Top of the World, the blind mountaineer fires back.

Weihenmayer nears 22,000 feet in the Western Cwm on his way to Everest's summit, May 2001.

Chris Sharma, Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, September 2001

Erik Weihenmayer


The Case: If attitude is everything, then Erik Weihenmayer has it all. When a rare hereditary disease took his eyesight at age 13, he vowed to think of blindness as an adventure, not a disability. By age 20, Weihenmayer was skiing Vail's back bowls, making 60-mile tandem bike rides, and running marathons. A few years later his climbing addiction took off in the crags near Phoenix, Arizona. By January 2001, he had scaled Kilimanjaro (19,340 feet), Aconcagua (22,834), McKinley (20,320), and Antarctica's Vinson Massif (16,066). In between, he taught himself to lead 5.10 rock climbs and made his way up the Nose route on Yosemite's El Cap. Then came his headline-making success on Everest. As badly as he wanted to stand on the summit, Weihenmayer, 33, wasn't going to be short-roped to the top. "I wanted to be as much a part of the team as possible," he says, "and to do the things I'm capable of doing." In fact, there's not much the mountaineer can't do for himself. He cooks, carries his own gear, and ties in to ropes. Other than climbing directly behind his partners, who wear bear bells and shout directions, he is completely self-sufficient. After six weeks on Everest, Weihenmayer, ten teammates, and eight Sherpas reached the frigid summit on May 25. Better still, on May 27, they all returned safely to base camp.
Second Opinion: "I've climbed with famous Everest climbers like Ed Viesturs and Pete Athans," says Charley Mace, Weihenmayer's Everest teammate, "and I don't think those guys could do what they do with their eyes closed."

Next Big Thing: Russia's Mount Elbrus (18,510), now on deck for Weihenmayer's Seven Summits quest. "We plan to descend Elbrus on skis," he says, beaming, "so I'll train by doing lots of steep skiing this winter." —Mark Kroese

Chris Sharma


ON EVERY CRAG in the country, there's a kid who'll tell you that scaling rock is a spiritual pursuit as much as a kinetic one. The thing about Chris Sharma is that you actually want to believe him. He'll lay the karmic mumbo-jumbo on you like any young Siddhartha-in-training—"Climbing is a way of seeking purity and oneness with nature"—but he can back it up with skills that are, well, as graceful as a trickling stream through a mountain meadow.

Sharma, 20, has ruled the scene ever since 1996, when at age 15 he scored second in his first national sport-climbing championship. He has claimed dozens of national and international titles and completed hundreds of bouldering first ascents, including The Mandala in 1999, a virtually hold-free, house-size rock in Bishop, California, that was previously considered unclimbable. But his greatest feat to date came last August on a 70-move, 120-foot overhanging pitch of blue limestone in France called Biographie Extension. Rated 5.15a—until then an unreached benchmark—the route's crux move had stymied Sharma 30 times. "It was a mental block," he says. "I looked at it as a spiritual problem. To see the whole thing, I had to be in the moment." Whatever he did, it worked. On the 31st try, 18 minutes after leaving the ground, Sharma screamed through the crux sequence and topped out, sealing an accomplishment that has put him in a class by himself. He promptly renamed the climb Realization.

Sharma admits that his chosen occupation has always come naturally. At age five he was shinning trees in his backyard. At 11, after a climbing gym opened near his house, he enrolled himself in classes using paper-route money. Just four years later he graduated early from high school and has been supporting himself ever since through climbing. His secret, say his buddies, resides in his legendarily strong hands. But others, like Yosemite free-climbing legend Ron Kauk, say Sharma's edge comes from something more ethereal: "He's not focused on trying to prove something. He knows what the young Yvon Chouinard knew back in the sixties. Climbing is a way of life, a way of being a part of nature."

Predictably, Sharma's combination of abundant physical talent and an attitude that comes off as indifferent is galling not just to his competitors, but to other climbers, who wax envious about his apparent "laziness"—he never trains, he just climbs, they lament. "He's so good that he annoys people," says Canadian climber and adventurer Will Gadd. "But the criticism is a sure sign that he's arrived."

These days, Sharma has his eyes set on a trip to southern India to climb the limestone outside the village of Hampi. "I've been climbing like crazy for six months," he says. "But it's not realistic to always be going full-speed, to be improving and going harder and harder."

He pauses, and then, once again sounding more like a mountain monk than an American superstar, he adds: "Climbing is not going to bring me ultimate happiness." —Brad Wetzler

Christine Boskoff


WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BECOME one of the world's premier high-altitude mountaineers? If Christine Boskoff is any example (and she certainly is), the answer is speed, stamina, brains, experience, and the ability to persevere with a smile. "Christine takes pain very well," says Peter Habeler, the legendary Austrian climber who guided with Boskoff on Everest in 1999. "She can suffer without moaning, which few Westerners can or want to do anymore." Her ability to endure in the Death Zone has led the 34-year-old Wisconsin native to the top of the world's highest mountains. In the past six years she's ticked off six of the 14 peaks above 8,000 meters (Everest, Cho Oyu, Gasherbrum II, Lhotse, Shishapangma, and Broad Peak), in addition to becoming the only female expedition leader among the elite guide services operating on Everest. "She's got great inner confidence and experience," says American climber Charlie Fowler, who scaled Tibet's 26,291-foot Shishapangma with Boskoff last fall. "I haven't seen anybody stronger."

Five years ago Boskoff was stuck in an Atlanta cubicle, engineering flight simulators for Lockheed Martin. Off-hours she built her endurance engine by working the crags near town, whipping off ten-mile runs, and scrambling up frozen waterfalls during the Southeast's brief ice-climbing window. A spring 1993 mountaineering trip to the Bolivian Andes whetted her appetite for more substantial peaks, including the Himalayan massifs. "I'd quit my job every time a big expedition came up—Broad Peak in '95, then Cho Oyu in '96," she says. Eventually, she abandoned her office post altogether for a less tethered career; she moved to Seattle to help take over the Mountain Madness guide service in 1997, a year after the company's founder, Scott Fischer, died on Everest.

This spring, Boskoff will be back on Everest as a guide for Mountain Madness, which may yield her second summit on that peak. She'll then attempt K2's dangerous SSE Spur with Fowler. A view from the 28,250-foot pinnacle would put her halfway to becoming the first woman to climb all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks. Thing is, she's so modest about her ability, male climbers who approach her at climbing crags have no idea who they're flirting with. One day last year at Skaha Bluffs, in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, she was besieged by a crew of twentysomething lads trying out their best lines on the attractive alpinist.

"What do you do for a living?" one asked her as she limbered up a 5.10 line. "Oh," said Boskoff, who had recently topped out on Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, "I run a travel business." —Bruce Barcott

Al Read


The Case: In addition to cofounding (and remaining a partner in) Geographic Expeditions, a San Francisco-based adventure-travel company, this hirsute climber, river rafter, skier, and international outdoor diplomat runs Exum Mountain Guides, one of the most respected guide services in the world. Exum has provided summer jobs in the Tetons for the likes of Everest icon Pete Athans, extreme skier Doug Coombs, mixed-route master Steve House, Alaska veteran Jack Tackle, and the late Alex Lowe, among others. "The guides inspire and astonish me," says Read. "Without them Exum is nothing more than a pile of ropes." Read's no slouch himself. He posted the first ascent of Mount McKinley's East Buttress in 1963, and has led first ascents on Cholatse and Gauri Sankar in Nepal. Since taking over the biz from founder Glen Exum in the 1970s, Read has used his wilderness and business savvy to expand from a dozen guides to this year's crew of 63 without diluting the talent. Thanks to an invite-only policy, it's easier to land a Rhodes Scholarship than to hire on at Exum. "We look for people who've made a contribution to the art—new routes, first ascents, exploratory trips overseas," Read says. And those are just the rookies.

Second Opinion: "Al's one of the unsung legends of American mountaineering," says Pete Athans. "Clients lucky enough to climb with him always walk away with a new passion for the Tetons."

Dark Secret: As a United States Foreign Service officer, Read burned code machines and shredded documents in besieged embassies. "We had blackouts in Calcutta and political murders every night," he recalls. "It was a very interesting time." Indeed.

Next Big Thing: After guiding on South Georgia Island this year, Read, 65, will run less-demanding trips to Cuba and Patagonia before catching a little R&R in Chamonix this winter. —Bruce Barcott

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