Erik Weihenmayer, 45, hasn't been able to see since he was 13 years old. But the renowned athlete has shown the world that to live a "no barriers" life you have to go by feel. The athlete has crafted an expedition to prove this once again; on Sunday he and Lonnie Bedwell—who Weihenmayer credits as an inspiration, as Bedwell became the first blind athlete to paddle the Grand Canyon last year—start the No Barriers Grand Canyon Expedition, a 277-mile kayak journey along the Colorado River from Lees Ferry to Pearce Ferry. Weihenmayer also secured a sponsorship from Nature Valley to help fund the expedition.
“The Grand Canyon is this huge, iconic river—the most historic in U.S., if not the world. There are 20-foot waves sometimes and powerful rapids. We might get flipped 50 times on this three-week trip. I can survive that, but would like to come out the other side flourishing," says Weihenmayer, who, while training for the expedition, met Navy veteran Bedwell, whose Grand Canyon paddle consisted of 226 miles.
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"We’re not saying to go out and do extreme sports, but you can still live that no-barriers life," says Weihenmayer, who has climbed the Seven Summits (the highest mountains on each of the seven continents) and is the only blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest, for which he made the cover of Time magazine. "People have all kinds of challenges—that's everyone in the world. Even for everyday people who want to stretch and reach, this gives them a little jump start."
Weihenmayer has been kayaking for six years, since friend and Grand Canyon expedition organizer Rob Raker, who Weihenmayer affectionately refers to as “Papa Duck,” taught him how to roll his kayak, the first lesson in self-arresting on the water. Ironically, the initial lesson took place during a family raft trip in the Grand Canyon.
Many say kayaking requires responding quickly to more stimuli than any other sport, and after years of training, Weihenmayer agrees. Remove one of those senses—eyesight—and it's an almost unimaginable activity, which is why there are only a few blind athletes to ever attempt it. "For a blind person to survive if not flourish in that environment is so challenging," says Weihenmayer, who, as a mountaineer by training, is already out of his element in the chaos of the water. "It sounds crazy, but I have been climbing for such a long time that that's my comfort zone. I can plod up an ice face. Mountains are slow and methodical. Kayaking is like you are sliding in an avalanche down the mountain. It's fast and furious—almost like a fourth dimension. I'm trying to figure out what's under my boat, what I'm hearing and feeling."
Weihenmayer says much of that feeling is now instinctual, having learned the patterns of the water over years of river training. "There are eddies that go in opposition; lines that flip you; holes that are like washing machines; huge waves that come at all directions; and whirlpools that suck you down," he says. Three guides will help Erik navigate: a lead kayaker picking the best "line" to paddle through; a guide behind Erik calling commands—small left, charge, hold your line, hard right—via Bluetooth radio; and the "hail Mary" boater in the back who scans the whole scene for potential hazards.
Bedwell has his own approach. “He's insane, in a good way. He taught himself to roll in a pond on his farm in Indiana. His style is different from mine. He doesn’t use a radio, so his guides are screaming ‘on-me, on-me,’ and then another guide is giving ‘micro directions.’ He loses his guide, gets flipped, and rolls right back up,” says Weihenmayer. “He has amazing fortitude, and it’s great having a kindred spirit out there. The message is you do these things for the personal journey. We do it in different ways, but there's the piece that Lonnie and I can share about no barriers.”
To overcome real obstacles, in the midst of a wild ride, Weihenmayer says he’ll do as he learned climbing in the Himalayas—still the mind. "The roar of rapids and the anxiety knowing you are going into absolute chaos—it's hard on the nervous system," Weihenmayer says. "But you respond instinctually and you try to stay loose and learn to interpret fear, because sometimes it can be sabotage."
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In the quieter moments of the Grand Canyon—the thunder and boom thousands of feet down in the narrow, remote canyon and the feel of fossils in the rocks—Weihenmayer believes the metaphorical journey will solidify. “Last time I was in the Grand Canyon, we were listening to the frogs. It was like a symphony. Nature, like rapids, has an energy that humans connect to."
Follow the No Barriers Grand Canyon Expedition journey and pick your own challenge to pledge to live with "no barriers" at kayakingblind.org.
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