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On May 24, with only seven days left in the climbing season, most of the N.F.B. expedition members knew this was their last shot at the peak. That's why when Erik and Chris Morris reached the Balcony, the beginning of the Southeast Ridge, at 27,500 ft., after a hard slog up the South Face, they were terribly disappointed when the sky lit up with lightning, driving snow and fierce winds. "We thought we were done," Erik says. "We would have been spanked if we made a push in those conditions." A few teammates gambled and went for it, and Jeff Evans and Brad Bull heroically pulled out fixed guidelines that had been frozen in the ice. By the time Base Camp radioed that the storm was passing, Erik and the entire team were coated in 2 in. of snow. Inspired by the possibility of a break in the weather, the team pushed on up the exposed Southeast Ridge, an additional 1,200 vertical feet to the South Summit. At that point the climbers looked like astronauts walking on some kind of Arctic moon. They moved slowly because of fatigue from their huge, puffy down suits, backpacks with oxygen canisters and regulators and goggles.
With a 10,000-ft. vertical fall into Tibet on one side and a 7,000-ft. fall into Nepal on the other, the South Summit, at 28,750 ft., is where many climbers finally turn back. The 656-ft.-long knife-edge ridge leading to the Hillary Step consists of ice, snow and fragmented shale, and the only way to cross it is to take baby steps and anchor your way with an ice ax. "You can feel the rock chip off," says Erik. "And you can hear it falling down into the void."
The weather was finally clearing as they reached the Hillary Step, the 39-ft. rock face that is the last major obstacle before the true summit. Erik clambered up the cliff, belly flopping over the top. "I celebrated with the dry heaves," he jokes. And then it was 45 minutes of walking up a sharply angled snow slope to the summit.
"Look around, dude," Evans told the blind man when they were standing on top of the world. "Just take a second and look around."
It could be called the most successful Everest expedition ever, and not just because of Erik's participation. A record 19 climbers from the N.F.B. team summited, including the oldest man ever to climb Everest--64-year-old Sherman Bull--and the second father-and-son team ever to do so--Bull and his son Brad.
What Erik achieved is hard for a sighted person to comprehend. What do we compare it with? How do we relate to it? Do we put on a blindfold and go hiking? That's silly, Erik maintains, because when a sighted person loses his vision, he is terrified and disoriented. And Erik is clearly neither of those things. Perhaps the point is really that there is no way to put what Erik has done in perspective because no one has ever done anything like it. It is a unique achievement, one that in the truest sense pushes the limits of what man is capable of. Maurer of the N.F.B. compares Erik to Helen Keller. "Erik can be a contemporary symbol for blindness," he explains. "Helen Keller lived 100 years ago. She should not be our most potent symbol for blindness today."