‘Viewpoints’ invites guest authors from outside of Wells Fargo to share an important perspective related to their work. Today, we welcome Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind climber in history to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest, and the co-founder and board vice president of No Barriers USA.
I can’t turn on the radio or TV without being bombarded by negative news. We’re hyper-focused on the latest Twitter feed, and it consumes our awareness. We’re reeling and reacting, blaming and attacking, and drowning in fear.
Despite my own fears, I’ve tried to live differently.
As a teenager, I went totally blind due to a rare eye disease, but I found a way to climb my way out of that dark place.
By the time I was 33 years old, I was standing atop Mount Everest. Later, in 2008, I completed the Seven Summits — the tallest peaks on each of the seven continents. I then trained for six years to accomplish the most terrifying experience of my life: kayaking the entire 277-mile length of the Grand Canyon, through some of the fiercest whitewater in North America.
I’ve worked to use my expeditions as a platform to do some good. Fifteen years ago, I helped plant the seeds of a movement called No Barriers USA, with a mission to help people with challenges tap into the light of the human spirit, break through barriers, and find purpose.
What’s within you is stronger than what's in your way
Since its inception in 2003, No Barriers USA has grown into a powerful community of pioneers, thought leaders, and everyday people striving to find solutions to the brick walls that stop us from realizing our full potential. Along the way, I’ve met people who renew my courage.
Last summer, Cole Rogers joined us on a hike up Copper Mountain in Colorado. Cole was born with arthrogryposis, a condition that fused his joints and weakened his muscles. We swapped his electric wheelchair for a special Action Trackchair propelled by treads like those on a tank, and Cole rolled his way high above the tree line. Several hundred yards below the summit, however, the terrain got rocky and jumbled. Cole came to a stop and looked up at the peak. I expected him to call it good right there.
“No Barriers USA has grown into a powerful community of ... people striving to find solutions to the brick walls that stop us from realizing our full potential.”
— Erik Weihenmayer
Instead, he dropped down out of the chair and — on his hands and knees — he slowly began clawing his way up and over the rock and snow to the top of Copper Mountain. Cole has fought to make his life meaningful. “There will always be uncertainty, fear, and doubt,” he explained. “What we can control is our courage to reach. The fighter in you has to continue pushing and say, ‘No, we can achieve more. Always!’”
Karen Kennedy is another hero of mine. Karen’s son, Jeff, served in the Army, but when he returned home from Iraq, he wasn’t the same easygoing, young man. Overcome by post-traumatic stress disorder, Jeff took his own life.
Karen fell into a deep depression but knew that hiding from the world, mired in pain, was the easy choice. It was much harder to use the depth of her experience to lift up her family and community. She could blame others for her situation that felt suffocating, or she could turn inward and ask herself, “What do I have inside me that I can grow, nurture, and bring forth into the world?”
That question led her to our No Barriers community, where she signed up as a volunteer to work with the Children of the Fallen — a program for youth who have lost a parent in the military. Her first trip as a guide was a float trip down the San Juan River with 10 teenagers. When she arrived, the kids looked at her with doubt and asked, “Who are you to understand what we’re going through?” Karen shared her story and replied, “Look, your feelings of loss are OK, but the question is: What are you going to do with them?” By leaning into her loss with an open heart, Karen found a path to healing.
‘A battle cry for grit, innovation, and a dogged pursuit of purpose’
The experiences of Karen’s son Jeff are far too common for our military veterans, which is why No Barriers USA puts such a keen focus on supporting those who have been disabled in military service. We’ve worked with Wells Fargo since 2014 to sponsor No Barriers Warriors, the transformational program that helps these veterans find footing and purpose after returning home from the physical and emotional trauma of war. Wells Fargo remains a committed advocate of this important and life-changing work, going even beyond our expeditions to provide additional support and financial education for our nation’s heroes.
Our two organizations also work together at our annual No Barriers Summit, which will be held in New York City on Oct. 5 and 6. The Summit connects people looking to reach their full potential through one of the nation’s most thought-provocative, experiential learning events.
Over the last 15 years, I’ve met thousands of people who live the spirit of No Barriers, a battle cry for grit, innovation, and a dogged pursuit of purpose. Our challenges are as real as dragging and bleeding our way toward a distant summit. They are as real as overcoming the death of a child. And yet, despite the formidable obstacles in our way, the greatness within us can transcend all barriers. It is the trail map Americans have always used to guide us toward growth and renewal.