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Blind Ambition

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

Weihenmayer training for the Grand Canyon run (Photograph: Skyler Williams)

Weihenmayer training for the Grand Canyon run (Photograph: Skyler Williams)

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. 

3 Responses to “Blind Ambition”

  1. Bryan Brown Says:
    December 10th, 2013 at 11:07 pm

    This has already been done. Here’s the press release:

    Blind Hoosier Kayaker Runs Grand Canyon

    Lonnie Bedwell Completes Epic Whitewater First with Team River Runner

    On August 21, 2013, U.S. Navy veteran Lonnie Bedwell became the first blind kayaker to solo the Grand Canyon, which is well established as one of the most challenging whitewater venues in the world. Bedwell traveled in the company of Team River Runner, a kayaking organization designed to help American veterans cope with serious injuries. The Grand Canyon has a well-earned reputation as one of the most challenging whitewater venues in the world, and requires boating skills that generally require years to develop. Once Mr. Bedwell, who lost his eyesight 16 years ago in a hunting accident, focused his attention upon kayaking, however, he developed the necessary boat-handling skills in roughly one year by practicing in the pond on his Sullivan-County, Indiana, property. He also undertook training on various well-known whitewater stretches in the Appalachian foothills.

    The Grand Canyon trip, which took 16 days to complete, involved three additional whitewater kayakers who were sighted, and who coached Lonnie through some 200 highly demanding (Class IV and Class V) rapids with voice commands that he was somehow able to hear over the roaring of the rapids. One paddler generally preceded Lonnie through a set of rapids (occasionally backwards to facilitate communications), and two paddlers followed him closely to be readily available in case he capsized in the waves, which can range from 3 feet to roughly 30 feet in height depending upon the rapid.

    Mr. Bedwell, who is highly involved in a number of other outdoor activities as well as kayaking, thanks Team River Runner for its efforts on his behalf and actively supports the organization in its endeavors to help his fellow veterans recover from their injuries.

    Contact Information
    Lonnie Bedwell
    7794 E County Road 250 S
    Dugger, IN 47848-8117
    Telephone: 812-648-2373
    e-mail: lonnie.r.bedwell@att.net

    Links for Review
    http://www.teamriverrunner.org/

    http://www.indystar.com/viewart/20130906/NEWS/309060034/Blind-Indiana-man-completes-226-mile-kayak-trip-through-Grand-Canyon

    http://www.sullivan-times.com/

    http://www.grindtv.com/outdoor/excursions/post/veteran-becomes-first-blind-kayaker-to-paddle-grand-canyon/

  2. Theresa Says:
    December 13th, 2013 at 10:36 am

    I read this article on a flight this week and was totally inspired. Thank you for sharing Weihenmayer’s story.

  3. sandra Carol Says:
    February 13th, 2014 at 1:06 am

    Thanks for sharing this blog

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