For Erik Weihenmayer, going blind wasn't the end of his adventures — it was only the beginning.
Photos by James Q. Martin
Try wearing a blindfold next time you kayak into a squall of whitewater or swing your ice axe into a frozen waterfall. Actually, don’t, it would be foolishly dangerous. But Erik Weihenmayer has no choice.
Blind from the age of 14, Weihenmayer has embraced the pursuit of adventure, with a list of achievements to make any alpinist proud. The only blind person to summit Mt. Everest and complete the Seven Summits, Weihenmayer has constantly defied all odds against him.
Climbers love an underdog because the mountain is always favored to win. But apparently climbing blind isn’t difficult enough. So in September of last year Weihenmayer decided to up the velocity by kayaking 277 miles through the Grand Canyon, tackling rapids up to Class V (on a scale of I to VI).
Weihenmayer, a founding member of the No Barriers campaign, hopes through this expedition to encourage people to sign up to a ‘No Barriers’ life; to pledge that “what’s within me is stronger than what’s in my way”. The No Barriers campaign aims, “through transformative experiences, tools and inspiration, to help people embark on a quest to contribute their absolute best to the world,” through exploration and adventure.
Throughout the 21 days of this expedition I read the daily reports from his support team and all of his press releases. But the facts—inspiring though they might have been—weren’t enough. Although the benefits of a video call may be redundant for a blind man, I felt a strong urge to get as close to a ‘face to face’ as possible. So I booked a Skype call, hoping to glimpse something of an unbreakable spirit.
DW: You’re known primarily as a climber, so why kayaking?
EW: There are long-winded, multi-layered answers to that, but essentially climbing had become my comfort zone. It sounds crazy, but inching my way up mountains is methodical and I’d developed my techniques: Following a ringing bell, or feeling the terrain with my ice axes.
Climbing takes me away from my family a lot, so I was initially thinking that kayaking could be a nice gentle way for us all to experience nature together!
DW: So, the obvious, what are the logistics of kayaking blind?
EW: I asked my friend Rob to teach me to roll, and to try guiding me from in front with a whistle for me to follow. At first we had no idea what we were doing, but we soon realized that it wasn’t working because there might be a big rock between us so I couldn’t hear the whistle. Or there might be a hole in the river that was going to stomp me so Rob would have to turn around and he would flip. We realized quickly Rob needed to be behind me and yell directions: small left, hard right, charge, hold your line. Then we got a kayaker in front to pick the line. There’s a good way through or there’s a way that’s going to get you hammered, so we had to try to stick to that line.
As the rapids got bigger, I couldn’t hear Rob’s directions so we had to find a radio system, but most are Push To Talk systems which you can’t use if you’re hands are busy! Or there was a time delay and one second is a long time on the rapids. So we searched for two years and finally found Neptune Communication out of the UK, making radios that you can link in real time.
DW: Trust must be a huge element?
EW: Yeah, when someone yells hard left, you can’t second guess them. They have to be really good kayakers and be aware of their own position too. My friend Timmy describes it as trying to operate two video games at the same time.
Plan Bs are really important too. We had some issues with high silt content in the water which interfered with the radios. When that happened Rob would paddle as hard as he could to get right up behind me and start yelling at the top of his voice. In a way it’s quite fun because both ears are open to the features of the river, and I love hearing the waves as they hit me and the holes rumbling. You can even hear the boils rising up in the water. With both ears in stereo you’re more aware of the ambient noise, so there’s a certain charm and excitement to having no radios.
DW: So you’re mapping the river by sound?
EW: I try to do that for sure. A sighted person can look at a rapid and maybe understand it, although I think it’s visually pretty hard too. It’s like with rock climbing. In nature I always found discovering the patterns kind of cool, it’s a chaotic pattern, but sometimes it’s there. So the rapid has a pattern too: underwater obstructions creating these washing machine holes, and between the current you can actually ride the seam, and these eddy lines that want to rip you left and right. One of the fun parts of this learning process has been trying to understand that pattern and get comfortable with that pattern so when it gets crazy you might know what’s happening.
DW: How did the Grand Canyon test you compared with your climbing achievements?
EW: I’m a very cautious and careful adventurer. In climbing you inch your way forward. It’s not the same as just heading into this massive maelstrom, this roar, it was hard on my nervous system. You have to figure out a way to take the anxiety and nausea and fear and distraction and translate it into a sense of energy and awareness and focus. Then go into that rapid and just be totally ready for a pummelling. And stay loose and relax and smile while you’re doing it.
It was a valuable lesson in my life to not necessarily control the chaos but to just ride through it and be OK with what happens in it.
DW: What motivates you? Will there ever come a time when you think “I’ve accomplished enough?”
EW: The why question is a hard one, the answer usually sounds contrived! What I’m not is an adrenaline junkie. I don’t get the buzz off that. The intensity in the process—can this be done? I think it’s possible, hitting barriers, breaking through them, innovating, making progress, this is what I appreciate. If anything I’m addicted to that learning process. I’d like to be able to take that process and better apply it to the people I work with through No Barriers.
DW: What is the message of the No Barriers campaign?
EW: When I was training for this I thought I was the only blind kayaker and then I heard about a veteran called Lonnie Bedwell who’d been doing it for years. So I asked Lonnie to join the descent. Teaming up with Lonnie made our No Barriers message more powerful because if one person does it there’s always this idea that it’s an anomaly, it’s just one person. But if two people do it, it becomes more of a message that this is possible for all of us.
It bugs me that people put up these defense mechanisms, saying ‘my husband/wife/brother/friend would be really inspired by that because they’re into adrenalin sports’ – and this just lets people off the hook. What we’re trying to say is that everyone should feel obligated to live a No Barriers life, whether they’re into adrenalin sports or not. It doesn’t mean kayak the Grand Canyon, maybe it’s lose weight, stop smoking, mentor kids. People drift through life thinking ‘I have no ability to impact the world.’
DW: How can it be applied to everyday lives?
EW: We happen to be blind. There are kids we work with at No Barriers who have no visible disability, but they’re lost or they don’t know what their purpose is. Their adversities are invisible but they’re profound. You could apply it to your job. Being blind is a very visible disability, but I’ve had other barriers in my life that have been stronger, like getting older, or losing people in your life.
We’re aiming to get a million people to sign up to living a No Barriers life. Take the No Barriers pledge here http://kayakingblind.org/
DW: Your disability seems irrelevant to what you’re capable of accomplishing. Do you feel it has held you back or spurred you on?
EW: My blindness has directed my life. When I was a kid, going blind and feeling alienated, there was this brick wall in front of me and I couldn’t break through it. My friends were playing baseball and basketball and running so easily through the woods and I was struggling to keep up. I wanted to be in the thick of things, not listening to life go by.
But I figured out there were things I could do. I started wrestling. I can use computers, I can climb mountains. I just have to do it differently. I’m not going to race Formula One. Once you define what you cannot do, just let those things go, let them die. And then realize there are a heck of a lot of things you can do. The things you can do take up so much time and brain power that you never have to worry about what you can’t do.
DW: Disability sport is often pigeon-holed but your inspiration seems to transcend that. Why do you think that is? Is there something universal about adventure?
EW: A friend of mine defined adventure as risk and uncertainty together. So I think those things are universal. And everyone can identify with barriers and adversity. With blindness anyone can close their eyes and think ‘how would you ever do that?’ There’s a sense of wonder to it. But there are people in all walks of life who experience risk and uncertainty and have barriers to overcome. Those elements of adventure are there in everything we do.