Speaker challenges Cassville students

Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Motivational speaker Democrat Photo/Reed Eric Alexander, who led the first blind ascent to the summit of Mount Everest, addressed Cassville Middle School students and faculty members on Sept. 20. Pictured above, from left, are: Alexander; and Terry Jamieson, Cassville Middle School principal. Jamieson helped organize the special assembly.

Motivational speaker Eric Alexander, who led the first blind ascent to the summit of Mount Everest, addressed Cassville Middle School students and faculty members during a special assembly on Sept. 20.

"This man has been to places we can only dream of," Terry Jamieson, middle school principal, said in his introduction of Alexander. "He will give us an opportunity to see what he has seen and hear what it is like to go there."

Alexander began his presentation with a short video that highlighted his accomplishments, which include assisting others, including individuals with disabilities, to the top of the highest summits on six of the world's seven continents.

"I'm honored to be here in Missouri with you all," said Alexander. "I was born in Indianapolis, Ind., and my family vacationed in the Ozarks. This is where I got my first experiences with the outdoors."

The motivational presentation challenged students to reach for their dreams by acknowledging challenges, but working to overcome those challenges.

"Don't let other people and their perceptions of you and the possibilities in your life keep you from your dreams," said Alexander.

Alexander assisted nine blind high school students during a climbing trip in Peru. The group tracked land where the Incas once lived.

"I learned that it was not only about the view or the ancient city. It was about the journey and the relationships you build along the way," said Alexander. "It wasn't only about the ancient stones that they ran their hands over. It was about overcoming obstacles to get there."

After leading the expedition, Alexander was surprised when several of the students asked him to lead them up Mount Kilimanjaro, which is the tallest mountain in Africa.

"I said, 'I'll take you there. I'll take you to 19,340 feet,'" said Alexander. "I was able to see these blind students stand on the roof of Africa, but they dared to take the courage step."

Alexander ascended to the top of Mount Everest with his friend, Erik Weinhenmayer, who is an experienced blind climber. Not only did the pair complete the first blind ascent, but they completed the first blind skiing descent.

"How does that work?" said Alexander. "Well, you sneak up behind them and you push and then you yell 'good luck.' No. I'm a little kinder than that. We trained for years."

Alexander calls out directions from a position behind Weinhenmayer as the pair descend a slope.

"It is imperative that we are in sync," said Alexander. "The great thing about Erik is his ability to forgive, which has helped us achieve our goals, including paragliding."

Weinhenmayer paraglides with radios, which allow Alexander to give directions as they make a descent. Weinhenmayer is also fitted with a cow bell that dangles 30 feet below his feet to let him know if he is getting close to a solid surface.

"The larger the obstacles we face in our lives, the greater the lesson we have to learn," said Alexander.

When Weinhenmayer and Alexander were preparing to climb Mount Everest many people, including their closest family members, said they would never make it to the summit.

"What do you do when that happens?" said Alexander. "What do you do when someone tells you that you don't belong? Well, I consider it. I think about it, and then I realize that is the perception that they think is true instead of the reality.

"It's not like we got off the coach and said let's do this," said Alexander. "Erik was a trained climber and athlete."

Alexander shared the five principals that he focuses on when trying to reach any goal, including the first blind ascent of Mount Everest. The principals include: courage to serve; faith and trust; team spirit; leadership and integrity; and perseverance.

Before beginning the Everest climb, Alexander, Weinhenmayer and their team ascended Ama Dablam mountain in the Himalayas. The climb was scheduled as practice, to raise money and to collect sponsorships.

During the climb, a storm pinned Alexander and Weinhenmayer together in a tent on the edge of the mountain for six days. After the storm passed, the team began its ascent, but learned that they would not be able to safely reach the summit.

"We had to make a difficult decision," said Alexander. "We often hear that success is defined by reaching the summit or achieving first place, but in that moment, I learned to define success differently. I learned to define success as making the right decision at the right time."

As the group began it descent, Alexander slipped from a 600-foot ledge and fell 150 feet. Fortunately, he landed on a very narrow ledge, which prevented him from falling the remaining 450 feet.

"I felt that I landed right in the hand of God," said Alexander. "He said, Not today. I've got purpose for you."

Even though Alexander escaped major injury, he contracted high altitude pulmonary edema, which can only be treated by quickly descending for a lower altitude. Only one helicopter pilot volunteered to risk the weather and fly in to get Alexander.

"He risked his life for mine," said Alexander. "He put himself second and me first."

After the fall, Alexander considered calling off the Mount Everest climb, but a friend, named Joseph, encouraged him to continue with his plan.

"He believed in me more than I believed in myself," said Alexander.

Only two months before Alexander and Weinhenmayer would attempt the Everest climb, Joseph chose to go skiing in the back country in Colorado. He fell into a snow bank that he could not dig out of and suffocated.

"He didn't die because he had fallen," said Alexander. "He died because he was alone. He thought he had it under control. I encourage you to find the kind of friend that Joseph was to me and invite them along on your dream. I was mad that he didn't invite me."

Alexander said that Joseph included the following words in his high school year book: "I want to make a difference in the world around me." Alexander said he took Joseph's photo with him on the Everest climb because of those words.

"I certainly could make a difference in one blind person's life, but hopefully I would make the difference in the lives of other blind people around the world," said Alexander. "I told Erik, 'I don't know if I'm strong enough to get to the top, but I know I'm strong enough to get you there.'"

Alexander trained for the trip up Mount Everest by blindfolding himself and allowing someone else to lead him down trails.

"I challenge you to put yourself in somebody else's shoes and look at it from their perspective," said Alexander.

As the team ascended Everest they saw fragments of bones in the ice, which forced them to rely on their courage.

"I choose to define courage as that which propels us in the presence of fear," said Alexander.

The team also learned to trust, rely on, commit to and build confidence in each other. Through team spirit they worked to reach a common goal and remained focused on each other.

Each morning, when Weinhenmayer got up for the next day's ascent, he inspired Alexander to get up and keep pushing forward through the journey. When the team reached the summit, they set the following world records:

* Weinhenmayer was the blindest man to ascent Mount Everest.

* Alexander led the biggest team up Everest.

* Their team included the oldest man to reach the summit and the first father and son to reach the summit together.

A photo of Weinhenmayer was published on the cover of "Time" magazine. The team received an all-expense-paid trip to Disney Land and was invited to the White House. Alexander and Weinhenmayer also had the opportunity to meet Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man who ever reached the summit of Everest.

"I got to celebrate with one of my good friends and two of my heroes," said Alexander.

"Dare to step out," said Alexander. "Challenge your team to the summit. Consider what mountains you face. Believe in yourself and your dreams, and see what summits you can climb."

Alexander is the author of "The Summit: Faith Beyond Everest's Death Zone." Several copies of the book will be available in the Cassville Middle School library for students and teachers to read throughout the year.

Alexander is the founder of Higher Summits, and Adventures Beyond Limits. He works to educate and encourage youth with disabilities and teaches disabled skiers in Vail, Colo.

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