Erik Weihenmayer on High Ground Soldiers to Summits documentary premiere
When mountain climber and adventurer Erik Weihenmayer -- who happens to be blind -- set out to climb Mt. Everest more than a decade ago, a lot of people thought he was crazy, or worse: a danger to himself and others. They couldn't believe any responsible guide would take him on the mountain.
Those same people might be even more surprised to learn that that he's now a guide for others with disabilities: Weihenmayer summited Everest and knocked off the rest of the Seven Summits to boot, and is now a board member of the Fort Collins-based non-profit No Barriers USA. He's also on the advisory team for Soldiers to Summits, a No Barriers program helping to guide injured war veterans up mountains that are both literal and metaphoric in their quest to overcome disability and adversity. High Ground, local director Michael Brown's documentary film following the group's first adventure -- a 2010 climb up the 20,075-foot Lobuche peak in the Himalayas -- won the People's Choice Award at the 2012 Boulder International Film Festival and has been a hit on the festival circuit, and gets its first public screening tonight at the American Mountaineering Center in Golden as part of a campaign for Academy Awards eligibility.
We caught up with Weihenmayer for more on the film and on what's next for Soldiers to Summits.
Westword: The eleven injured soldiers featured in High Ground came back from war with disabilities ranging from missing limbs and blindness to traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder. Why was it important to you to get them together and take them up to the summit of Lobuche?
Erik Weihenmayer: Climbing a mountain is a pretty tidy metaphor for the struggles that people have when they come home from war. The adversity that you face on a battlefield is very different from the sort of nuanced adversity that you face in the civilian world, you know? It's different. It's not bombs landing around you, but it's real adversity and you need a tool kit to face it. When these folks come back, they have all kinds of barriers. They're not really prepared for civilian life, in a lot of ways. And if their lives have been turned upside down through losing legs or arms or their vision or hearing or post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries -- or all of the above -- then that summit can seem impossible to reach.
The idea behind the program isn't that we're trying to teach anybody to be a professional climber -- if somebody wants to do that, they can do it the old-fashioned way and be a dirtbag and eat Spam and live out of their van. We wanted it to be a part of therapy and recovery for these soldiers, and we wanted to give them some tools to face the metaphoric mountains, based on things you could learn from actually climbing in the mountains and to think about things like, "Now that you have new challenges in your life, how do you build a great team and rope up with the right people to get to where you're trying to go?" In the military you're put on a team and that team has your back, but in the civilian world you have to build that community around you and it can be harder than it sounds.
This film has screened here and there on the festival circuit, to tremendous success. What are you most excited about now that it will be getting out in front of audiences at events like the screening in Golden and in places like New York and Los Angeles?
People have just been loving it, so far. It's won a bunch of people's choice awards everywhere it's shown, and the audience just reacts to it. For me it's fun to sit in the audience and just listen to people going, "Oh, my god!"
I've watched the film -- or, I should say, I've listened to the film -- five times, and I still can't get through it without my Kleenex. It's a tough film to watch and you feel emotionally drained at the end, but you also feel hopeful because these are folks who are struggling, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel and they can see it, and you can see that they have energy and motivation to find the tools to move forward with and reclaim their lives.
You caught yourself there and corrected "watched" to "listened." When you take in a film like this, or let's say this film in particular, what are you specifically responding to since you can't see the action unfolding on screen? Are there specific things Michael Brown does as a filmmaker that make a film more enjoyable for you?
Michael's known for the spectacular, mouth-dropping visuals in his films, and I hear the oohs and aahhs from the audience, but I don't get any of that. What I do get is the careful, careful storytelling. You don't miss that when you're blind, especially when there are auditory cues and meaningful dialogue and a beautiful polish on the film soundtrack. For me, I'm focused on the very careful storytelling as the story builds, and a good filmmaker knows that's more important than the visuals anyways, always. In the case of a documentary where you were there in the first place -- this is the fourth film Michael has made documenting a project I've been involved with -- the sounds and stories in the films become a way for me to recreate what I felt in that moment.
In the trailer for the film there's that biting question, "What are these people doing up here?" I know you got a lot of that around your Everest climb, and I'm wondering how much of it your Soldiers to Summits team has faced. How real is that resistance to what you're doing?
I think there's always going to be resistance: There are people who share your vision and those who don't, and there are people with pretty firm ideas about what disability is and isn't. Is it dangerous for these people to be out there climbing mountains? We're pretty careful about the peaks we go to and we're not climbing peaks where there's a high chance somebody's going to hurt or killed, but there's always risk, and we've found the soldiers we're working with actually like that aspect of of it. You have to step up and watch each other's backs and take care of each other and be a good team member to minimize the risk. They like that.
Why do you think that is?
It's like this place that's sort of halfway between the civilian world and the battlefield, and it helps to make that transition. I don't want to generalize, because everyone's experience is different, but I think they like that elevated sense of awareness that it brings out in them. There is a risk, but you minimize it, and where there are barriers, you find ways to innovate and problem solve around it.
You've got amputees and blind guys and a whole range of different disabilities in the mix on these teams. What's been the biggest challenge so far?
Steve Baskis was one of our soldiers the first time around, and now is one of our mentors for this second group, so I'll cite him as an example. He lost his eyes to an IED and had a traumatic brain injury, lost hearing in his left ear, and has a left hand that's pretty much useless. He told me "the blindness is the easy part." It's the psychological trauma that is harder to deal with, and the post-traumatic stress disorder these soldiers suffer from is the most pervasive challenge. These guys can deal with missing a leg. It's the other stuff that's more complex.
What's next for Soldiers to Summits?
Next month we're leaving with an entirely new team to summit Cotopaxi, a 19,347-foot peak near Quito, Ecuador. We invited six of our original team members to be mentors for our second program, because we wanted to spread a ripple effect, and it's been wild watching them transform into guides and mentors, to hear them saying, "I was you a year ago. Stick with it, engage in the process, and this experience will transform your life." And then to see them really getting into the dirty work of planning and preparation and training to help this next team of soldiers, that's been the biggest success, because breaking through barriers is about a lot more than just being inspired. You've got to have some tools and you've got to have some preparation.
High Ground screens tonight at the American Mountaineering Center, 710 10th Street in Golden, at 7:30 p.m., following an introduction by best-selling author Jon Krakauer. After the movie, several of the soldiers will answer questions from the audience. Tickets, $20, are available online.
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