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How Teamwork Trumps Adversity

Mountain climbing is a good metaphor for what goes on every day at a good school, company, or in a community, according to Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to climb the Seven Summits, the tallest peak on every continent, including Mount Everest.

“If you’re a good team, you’re wriggling up the mountain like a snake,” Weihenmayer said. “All the pieces are in perfect sync. Everyone is doing something very different and distinct that keeps the team moving, functioning, and safe. If one person tumbles down the mountain, it’s in everybody’s best interest to stop him from falling. It’s terrifying. You don’t let anybody onto your rope team—you’re very careful about who choose—but once you do, it’s ultimate trust.”

Weihenmayer spoke to students as part of the Distinguished Speaker Series at Hyde Park Center on January 10.

Harnessing the power of adversity for your own accomplishments is a great thing, but it’s more important to use it to elevate others, he said. For Weihenmayer, that opportunity came from a blind German woman told him about blind Tibetan children whose culture taught them they had done something evil in past lives, he said.

“She found blind kids who were 3 or 4 years old and hadn’t been taught to walk,” Weihenmayer said. “She wrote me a letter saying, ‘People call them blind fools and throw rocks at them. Would you ever consider coming for a visit?’ These were kids who were sold in and out of slavery, kids who were tied to beds in back rooms.”

Weihenmayer took his whole team on a month-long climbing expedition with six blind Tibetan children, who were trained and climbed 21,500 feet, he said. The team was so inspired that members formed the not-for-profit No Barriers organization to teach the disabled cutting-edge techniques to overcome adversity and personal barriers, Weihenmayer said.

More important than any goal in his life is vision, he said. “Our vision is the manifestation of our values. Everything begins with that.”

Second-year student Sandeep Ganesh, external relations chair for the Graduate Business Council, said he chose Weihenmayer for the Distinguished Speaker Series after reading his book, Touch the Top of the World. “I was inspired by it. All students at the GSB face adversity and have challenges. This was about overcoming adversity, so I thought it was relevant.”

—Phil Rockrohr