Past Event On March 26, 2022

Erik Weihenmayer

The No Barriers Life

Erik Weihenmayer

“Little acts of courage lead to big ones, so you’re ready to make big decisions when the big moment comes. ”

Erik Weihenmayer



From Mount Everest to the Grand Canyon to our stage in Richmond, Erik Weihenmayer inspires us all to do the seemingly impossible. Despite going blind as a teenager, Weihenmayer lives a life without limits thanks to his positive mindset and the supportive communities he refers to as rope teams. Weihenmayer looks to his inner vision to guide him from goal to goal, challenge through challenge, and sharing stories of conquering the very real fears that we all naturally face.

Erik Weihenmayer’s adventurous life is full of firsts. When he was the first blind person to summit Mount Everest, many suspected that his firsts wouldn’t stop with that accomplishment, but they may not have guessed that he would be the first Richmond Forum speaker to bring a dog on stage at The Altria Theater!

Our speaker and his companion greeted our largest audience of the 2022 season by acknowledging that although there is undeniable strife in the world and though he literally couldn’t see our crowd, he envisioned a Richmond community full of good people with the ability to have great success despite struggles.

Weihenmayer’s approach to life depends on his internal vision of goodness. He seeks out the fuel of determination by setting goals that make life wonderful and fully worthwhile.

“There’s a very blurry line between the things we can’t do and the things we can.”

– Erik Weihenmmayer

He calls this process alchemy—taking the heavy lead elements that life may throw on anyone and turning them into golden experiences. He has witnessed alchemy countless times through his inspiring friendships with fellow adventurers as they create new ways to accomplish amazing feats despite physical limitations.

Erik Weihenmayer on the idea of using “alchemy” in adversity

Erik Weihenmayer on No Barriers USA and the impact of the No Barriers pledge

Erik Weihenmayer knows that limitations and barriers can be very real, but they can also be navigated around in innovative ways. He believes every person is born with the natural desire to reach for big dreams, but people begin to question their capability when barriers get in the way. Those of us who continuously strive are what Weihenmayer calls “climbers,” and when people become stagnant in their goals, they become “campers.”

Weihenmayer could have easily settled into “camp” when he began to lose all his vision just as he entered high school. At the time, his most prominent fear was not of losing his vision but of missing out on cafeteria shenanigans and life itself. Just before he lost all vision he saw cancer-stricken amputee Terry Fox running the “Marathon of Hope” across Canada. This showed Weihenmayer that he could still reach for more and shatter the expectations of what was possible.

Reaching is a key principle in the philosophy that Weihenmayer lives his life by. He embraced that principle when at 40 years old he took up the new sport of kayaking. There were days when all he could do to stay motivated was to remind himself that he was learning something new every day.

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Despite the failures and discouragements he found on the rapids of Lava Falls, Weihenmayer knew from the struggles he had faced on the mountainsides that every challenge could create a new opportunity to learn.

In the question and answer portion of the program moderated by Sports Backers Executive Director Jon Lugbill, Erik Weihenmayer remarked:

  • As a parent himself, Weihenmayer recognizes parents naturally want to shelter their kids. You never want your child to be hurt, but you have to raise them to be responsible enough to take a leap over the fence and go learn about the world for themselves. He thinks of his own parents as effective at being a broom and dustpan, happy to help push him out into the world and equally happy to sweep him back in and help him be put together once again.
  • Just like many of the parents in our audience, he knows parenting is tricky because even the strategies of a renowned motivational speaker didn’t always get through to his own children. What Weihenmayer suggested as more effective was osmosis in parenting, having children see their parents pursue their passions and face challenges, and letting them absorb those lessons on their own.
  • The biology of the brain wants to keep us safe—our amygdala tells us to go enjoy the easy life of cheeseburgers and hanging out—which proves that your brain can sabotage you. The hack to this is tapping into something beyond biology by striving for new outlets of light in life.
  • Sometimes it’s best to say no. People say that there are old climbers and bold climbers, but no old and bold climbers. Weihenmayer knows that most great climbers turn back 50% of the time because life is a balancing act of being wisely realistic and taking on life-changing risks. He’s made the decision to turn back on climbs, his teammates have made that decision for him as well, and Weihenmayer knows he is safer and alive because of it.
  • While many doubted Weihenmayer’s Everest expedition by assuming he would not make it, Weihenmayer found great hope and determination in the Nepalese sherpas that guided his Everest climb. Sherpas are sure to remind all climbers at the top of the mountain that although it feels like success, it is only the halfway point. Navigating the way down a mountainside can be just as hard as going up, and this lesson transcends the mountain by reminding us that even once we reach one goal, the job is not done yet. We can always hit new goals on our way down from the largest of highs. He was so moved by his time spent in Nepal that he and his wife adopted a child from the country…an already difficult task, toughened by the country being in the midst of a civil war. It was two years of work that he deems more challenging than climbing Nepal’s greatest mountain, but so worth it to see his son now climbing towards the goal of having a great college career at the University of Vermont.
  • Weihenmayer doesn’t believe getting a disability is a death sentence. So much technology has come about to create a relatively seamless life for blind and disabled people, and this support combined with deep interpersonal relationships as well as a positive mindset can get people through these challenges. He told our audience not to sit and fixate on disability and struggle, but rather go out into the world and be part of something bigger than themselves to persevere.

Erik Weihenmayer on his goal-setting philosophies and motivations

He filled me with a sense of hope for my declining years. I now feel empowered to push for experiences and goals that I previously was sure were out of reach due to my declining body. I was honored to spend the evening in his presence and so appreciate the positive message. 

– Subscriber Comment

About Erik Weihenmayer

On May 25, 2001, Erik Weihenmayer became the first blind person to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. In 2008, he climbed Carstensz Pyramid on the island of Papua New Guinea, completing the Seven Summits, the highest point on every continent. This accomplishment closed the circuit on a 13-year journey that had begun with his 1995 ascent of Denali. He is joined by a select company of only 150 mountaineers to have accomplished the feat.

As word spread about Erik’s remarkable achievements, the world took notice. Shortly after his summit of Everest, he was honored with a TIME cover story detailing his conquest of the world’s highest peak. Since then, he has authored multiple books, including his memoir, Touch the Top of the World. Yet for those who had long known him, his propensity for taking on and knocking down the loftiest of challenges came as no surprise.

Even as retinoschisis began to rob him of his vision by the age of 14, Erik resisted the idea that blindness would sweep him to the sidelines of life. He established himself as a formidable wrestler in high school, representing his home state of Connecticut in the National Junior Freestyle Wrestling Championship in Iowa. As a teenager, he also discovered rock climbing and a natural dexterity for the tactile aspects of scanning the rock with his hands and feet for holds.

After graduating with a double major from Boston College, Erik became a middle-school teacher and wrestling coach at Phoenix Country Day School. Yet it was atop the highest point in North America, the mountain known in the native Inuit language as Denali, where his quest for adventure began to take shape. Erik’s triumphs over some of the world’s most formidable mountains were fueling a growing aspiration to take the lessons he learned in the mountains to help others shatter barriers in their lives.

To advance this idea, Erik co-founded not merely an organization, but rather a movement called No Barriers. The mission is to help people with challenges, all of us to some extent, to turn into the storm of life, face barriers head-on, embrace a pioneering and innovative spirit, and team up with great people to live rich in meaning and purpose. The motto is “What’s Within You Is Stronger Than What’s In Your Way.” To this aim, Erik continues to challenge himself to live a No Barriers Life and in September 2014 he kayaked the entire 277 miles of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

Through Erik’s groundbreaking adventures around the world, he has explored and defined what it means to live a No Barriers Life, describing it as a map we build to navigate and to pursue a life that matters. Central to this journey is a mindset to continually challenge ourselves to grow and evolve – in Erik’s words, to “climb” while others “camp.”

Erik’s inspirational speaking career has taken him around the world from Hong Kong to Switzerland, from Thailand to the 2005 APEC Summit in Chile. Erik has shared the speaking platform with notables like George W. Bush, Al Gore, Tony Blair, and Colin Powell.

About Jon Lugbill

For the past 29 years, Lugbill has been the executive director of Sports Backers, a nonprofit group that inspires active living in all corners of the Richmond region. The organization hosts many events that provide a celebration of this active lifestyle including the Ukrop’s Monument Avenue 10k, organizes some of the nation’s largest training teams, works with a kids running program with tens of thousands of participants, offers dozens of free fitness classes every week in challenged communities, and actively advocates for infrastructure to make the region more bike and pedestrian friendly.

In 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2016 the Sports Backers were voted America’s Best Sports Commission by the National Association of Sports Commissions.

As an athlete, Jon won five individual and seven team world championship titles in whitewater canoe slalom and was 4th in the 1992 Olympic Games. He has been elected to the International Whitewater Hall of Fame and the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.

Who Else has spoken at The Forum?

More than 240 distinguished speakers have participated in The Forum since its inception in 1987. Our list of alumni includes past U.S. presidents, sitting heads of state, and leaders from the sciences, arts, business, and more.

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