From Climbing Everest To Kayaking The Grand Canyon, Blind Adventurer Finds 'No Barriers'
Erik Weihenmayer in 2001 became the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest. But he didn’t rest on his laurels.
He’s climbed all seven of the world’s tallest mountains, kayaked the Grand Canyon and started the organization No Barriers to help others overcome physical and mental challenges.
Weihenmayer (@ErikWeihenmayer) writes about his life in the new book “No Barriers: A Blind Man’s Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon,” and joins Here & Now’s Eric Westervelt (@Ericnpr) to talk about it.
On losing his sight
“I went blind just before my freshman year in high school, and that was a crazy feeling of literally not being able to take a step. And then being led into school for the first time as a newly blinded person being led around from class to class and being led to the bathroom. I remember sitting in the cafeteria — I’d sit there, I didn’t want to sit next to anyone, I’d sit at a table by myself and I’d listen to all the excitement and laughter and joy. You know, like food fights happening around me. Definitely going blind was a fear, but not being in the food fights, not being in the thick of things, thinking I was going to be swept to the sidelines in this dark place and left there in this sort of, kind of like a prison. That was 100 times scarier than blackness.”
On his discovery of rock climbing at age 16
“Opposed to sitting in the cafeteria, and all the fear that I worried about, rock climbing was incredible. It was a sensory experience of feeling the different fissures and holds and cracks and pockets in the rock. And not being able to see them, but using my hands as my eyes, and feeling my way up the rock face like this sort of hidden map in the rock. And then getting to the top and listening to this valley below me. Blind people listen to sound, you know the vibrations of sound that echo off of things and move through space, and it’s a really beautiful sense. Listening to that valley and the sounds of space and the trees blowing, I just thought, ‘This is adventure.’ And that was cool because that created the trajectory of my life, and what, 16 years later I was standing at 29,000 feet. It was a long road, but it started moving me in the right direction.”
On his expedition leader’s advice to not “let Everest be the greatest thing you do”
“It was the greatest advice anyone could have done to me… Terrible timing. Like let me go home and relax and celebrate. You know, most people are dreaming about all the comforts of home. I was dreaming about walking down a nice, smooth sidewalk that wouldn’t kill me. And what he was saying was that these successes in our lives, these sort of pivotal moments in our lives — you go home and you hang your pictures and you get your awards. And then that room becomes a funeral, like it becomes the thing that you look back on instead of, ‘How do I move forward? How do I take those successes and use them as springboards to launch you into these new, surprising, exciting directions?’”
On how he learned to kayak without being able to see the water
“As a blind person, I couldn’t look at old ‘Wide World of Sports’ videos of people kayaking. So you have to learn kinesthetically. One of the ways you learn is, get yourself in the middle of that thing and ride that energy. And kayaking was an incredible sensory experience. Sometimes it felt like sensory overload because you’re getting knocked over left and right and you’re rolling up. And I don’t know which way I’m facing and I’ve gotta whip my boat around and just take those waves. These forces that are so much bigger than you. And then you’re riding a line too. Every rapid sort of has a map, and they call it the line. So just like that rock face, you’re trying to navigate that line. You never quite achieve that line unless you’re really lucky. Especially when you’re blind. You’re doing more reacting than acting.”
On kayaking the Lava Falls and the Grand Canyon
“There are harder rapids, but this is the biggest rapid in the Grand Canyon and in a canyon known for giant rapids. I got in my boat and just got hammered. Even my guide, Harlan, who had done the Grand Canyon a hundred times or more. He knew every rapid and every water level. He braced his paddle against one of these massive waves and it busted his carbon fiber paddle and knocked him over. He was upside-down, blood pouring out his nose, shattered paddle, trying to roll up, trying to communicate with me. Just getting hammered under thousands of pounds of water. Trying to roll up, listening for Harlan’s directions.”
“There’s definitely, in kayaking — different from mountains, mountains you can stop, and you can sort of regain control. You can take these potential uncontrollable situations, kind of bring them under control in your mind. Kayaking is the same thing, but there’s never full control. It’s a great lesson for kind of a controller like me because it was as much about letting go and just trying to ride these forces that are so massive — they’re bigger than anything you could imagine.”
On his team and what happens when something goes wrong and he’s on his own
“I should also say that I have an amazing team. So I don’t see myself as a blind daredevil. I’ve never seen myself as like a blind Evel Knievel, just taking massive amounts of risk. You definitely are on your own sometimes. And there’s a lot of flailing and slamming into rocks and pulling your skirt and swimming for your life. That’s part of the learning process. I wish growth in our lives were like a nice, neat arc and a nice crescendo at the top. And then everyone goes home, like watching a movie. It’s not, it’s messy. One of the things that I was really fascinated by in this experience was, how do you go from sitting at that cafeteria when I was a kid to experiencing life fully? The map that you create is so uncertain. It’s so dark. And nobody, I thought, had ever adequately illuminated what that map looked like for people. And so for me, 100 percent, being in a rapid is messy. And things go wrong. Radios stop when you least expect it. Going into one rapid — it’s funny now, when I think about it — because we were testing different radios and a second before I went into the rapid, it stopped working. And I’m screaming, ‘No radios! No radios!’ And my friend Rob is behind me paddling furiously trying to get to me, screaming, ‘Plan B!’ which is just get right behind me and yell at the top of his lungs. Life is so insane sometimes. But that’s the kind of stuff you have to work through if you want to wind up sort of being in the thick of things and living this life that matters.”
On how he felt after he finished kayaking the Grand Canyon
“You are tired for sure. I’d been kayaking for 20 days. My family met me. They drove down this long dirt road — flew into Phoenix and drove all the way there. My son, my daughter, my wife — they were there right on the shore. And so when I pulled in, they were there. I hugged my wife. And even the head Sherpa on my Everest expedition, Kami, was there. And Harlan, who’s guiding me down the river, he broke down in tears. That was a lot of responsibility, because he wanted to show me his home. This beautiful canyon that had become his home. But yet, at the same time, Harlan was getting knocked over and trying to roll up and look and, ‘Where’s Erik?’ And trying to navigate me through. There was a lot of pressure on his shoulders and on my team. And so for him to get me through safely was just an incredible feeling for everyone, not just for me.”
Book Excerpt: ‘No Barriers’
By Erik Weihenmayer and Buddy Levy
The Colorado River running through the Grand Canyon is known for big iconic rapids, and the biggest of them all is Lava Falls, a storm of energy that churns, tumbles, and explodes in its headlong rush toward the Sea of Cortez. Standing on the banks, I couldn’t see Lava, so instead I listened to its colossal roar as my guide, Harlan, talked me through the rapid. In my six years of learning to kayak, of slamming into rocks, of bleeding, of pulling the skirt on my kayak and swimming for my life, I had come to realize, if you deciphered the river carefully, you could discover a hidden map through the chaos. Boaters called this map “the line,” the safest and easiest way through.
Harlan took my finger and traced it along Lava’s line, stopping to point out the obstacles to be avoided. As you enter, you set your angle, approaching from the right, but not too far right because fierce upsurges of water are piling against the right shore and boiling back underneath your boat, whipping you like a monster’s tail toward the left. You paddle furiously only a few inches to the left of the eddy line separating the bullet trajectory of the river and the pulsing boils. You fight the spin because just to your left is the notorious Ledge Hole, a chunk of rock under the surface spanning almost half the width of the river. Water pours over the lip and collapses under its own weight, recirculating in a maelstrom of white water like an enormous washing machine. It’s the most feared place in all the 277 miles of the Grand Canyon, because it will suck you down and hold you there for a long time. Squeak by the Ledge Hole and you drop off the horizon into the entry waves, two walls of water, the right being the biggest and coming at you in the shape of a huge rooster tail. Next, you line up for the V-Wave, two massive lateral waves that slam together. You need to strike the V slightly left of center and punch through with everything you have; otherwise, you’ll be launched skyward and cartwheeled into a backflip. If you manage to bust through, you turn left, angling out into the river to avoid the Cheese Grater Rock, a wicked peninsula of jagged black basalt that will tear apart anything that comes into contact with it. You then square off against the Big Kahuna waves, a thundering series of whitecaps over ten feet tall that break over you, crushing you under hundreds of pounds of liquid force. Finally, you ride the tail waves, boils, and whirlpools like a roller coaster toward the exit of Lava.
Staying on the line is no guarantee of success, but if you manage to stick to it, your chances of emerging on the other side upright and unscathed are dramatically increased. Fall off the line, and your chances exponentially decrease, and once you’re off, it’s a cascading series of circumstances going from bad to worse. And you can’t trust the current either, because sometimes the wide, smooth tongue will lead you right into a hazard you need to avoid: a sharp rock ledge or whirling hole that can trap you. As you try to navigate that turbulence, sometimes trusting it, sometimes desperately fighting it, you realize you’re merely experiencing the effects of inexorable forces swirling and colliding. What creates the surface energy are the features far below, a million pounds of water surging against boulders of every size strewn across the bottom: steep drops, undercuts, and narrow grooves between unseen rock.
I had become spellbound by rivers, by the roiling energy at the surface, that, at first, seemed impossible to navigate; but I was equally fascinated by the landscape beneath, those hidden shapes and forms that dictated the map I needed to follow. As a blind man, I knew I could never fully comprehend that power without experiencing it firsthand, to feel and hear the essence of the river, to face that cacophonic mix of forces, and to see if I might hit the line and find a way to ride it through.
After two weeks of kayaking, we were finally here: mile 179, directly above my nemesis. Lava Falls was rated class 10 out of 10 on the Grand Canyon’s difficulty scale. Here, Prospect Canyon converged with the Colorado from the south, its debris flows dumping boulders the size of cars into the main river and constricting the channel by as much as 50 percent. That, combined with massive lava flows pouring in and hardening over 750,000 years ago, had created a dramatic, dangerous rapid.
We’d been scouting Lava for too long. The sun’s heat scorched the volcanic stones and permeated through the bottoms of my paddling booties. Dry wind, superheated between high canyon walls, blew upstream, burning my face to leather and sucking the moisture from my mouth. My arms were leaden, heavy with fatigue from the day’s fourteen-mile paddle. I had been thinking about this rapid ever since we put in upstream at Lees Ferry, this monster that routinely swallowed eighteen-foot, fully loaded rubber oar boats, spitting the passengers out to swim for their lives. But honestly, I’d been thinking about Lava for eight years now, ever since I had pondered the idea of solo kayaking the Grand Canyon.
“You ready to do this?” Harlan asked. “I think so,” was all I managed to say.
We hiked back upstream to our boats at the put-in. I squeezed into my kayak and sat down, adjusting my seat, getting the distance to the bulkhead, where my feet touched, just right. Continuing my pre-paddling ritual, I stretched my neoprene spray skirt tightly over the top of my cockpit and felt for the grab loop, my means of escape. I shook sand from my helmet, pulled it over my forehead, and adjusted the mouthpiece and earpiece. We tested the radios once more, and they seemed to be working. I pushed off from the shore into calm water above the rapid.
From NO BARRIERS by Erik Weihenmayer and Buddy Levy. Copyright © 2017 by the authors and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.