Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest, is on a mission to get other would-be adventurers with disabilities to see what’s possible
Author Buddy Levy
IN A WAY, Weihenmayer represents the next step of the transformation—from the simple act of walking to taking on challenges that would seem harrowing to pretty much anyone. “Whitewater kayaking is the scariest thing I’ve ever done, and I’ve done some pretty scary things,” says Weihenmayer, who in addition to summiting Mount Everest has skied black diamond runs, mountain-biked Leadville, paraglided solo and parachuted out of airplanes.
As the No Barriers Summit comes to a close, I talk with Weihenmayer and his main paddling guide, Rob Raker, about what he’ll be facing next year, when he tackles the Grand Canyon’s Class IV rapids.
“Kayaking whitewater blind is very risky,” I say, “even for you.” Weihenmayher responds, “The risks I take are calculated risks,” apparently as much to himself as to Raker or me. He goes on to outline the exhaustive trial runs he’s taken on the raucous Usumacinta River, between Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico, and the grueling training sessions with Olympic paddlers at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, in Charlotte, N.C.
And Weihenmayer won’t be alone during his Grand Canyon adventure. He will paddle his own kayak, but in front of him there will be a “line setter,” a support kayaker who will pick the best routes among the rocks and eddies. Bringing up the rear will be Raker, who will keep an eye on the line setter and convey his commands to Weihenmayer via a waterproof headset.
The most common command Weihenmayer will receive will concern how and when to make turns. “Of course, Erik really has only a vague idea of how much he turns with each attempt,” Raker says, “so I am constantly giving him correcting turns. When he is finally headed in the right direction, I say, ‘Hold that line.’ Inevitably he drifts off the desired line, and I repeat the necessary turning instructions until he is back on course. It sort of feels like I’m working a radio-controlled boat.”
It’s not a perfect system, and whitewater is unpredictable, but the two men are confident that they’ll make it through. When I ask Weihenmayer what adventures he’ll embark on after the Grand Canyon, Raker smiles and shakes his head. They’ve had this conversation before. “I want to climb the north face of the Eiger,” Weihenmayer says, referring to one of the world’s most treacherous climbs. “That’s definitely on my bucket list.”
After that, Weihenmayer plans to take it easy for a while, spend some time with his family, carry on his work with No Barriers. “I’ll probably dial back the danger level some,” he says. “I’ve pushed things pretty far already.”
“Quitter,” I say.
“Yeah,” Weihenmayer replies, laughing. “Low testosterone, I guess.”
BUDDY LEVY is an author based in Moscow, Idaho. His book, Geronimo, is due out from Simon & Schuster in April.