Kayak Blind Through the Grand Canyon is the story of the doomed daredevil Erik Weihenmayer's six-year preparation to kayak blindly through a part of the Colorado River marked by some of the most dangerous rapids in the nation.
At 13, Erik Weihenmayer suffered a loss of eyesight, but it did not diminish his desire for exciting new experiences. Weihenmayer, now 53 years old and the founder of the charitable organization No Barriers, has spent all of his life traveling. A blind mountain climber, he is the first blind person to climb Mount Everest and has scaled all of the world's major peaks. He has experience climbing on rock faces in California and ice faces in Antarctica. Several years ago, he decided to try something new and kayak his way across the Grand Canyon in the summer of 2008. You can probably imagine what a roller coaster trip that was. Weihenmayer related his experiences from the journey on the most recent episode of Travel Tales.
I was standing on an ice face in Nepal, and it was a stunning ice face that was vertical for 3,000 feet. We were up bivvying throughout that trip; since we could not reach the summit in a single day, we pulled off onto this ledge and slept in these small sleeping bags. It was a chilly day, and my body was trembling so much from the cold because of the wind coming down the mountain that I was on the verge of experiencing a psychotic break. We did not have a lot of food available either. I believe that each of us had one packet of soup and a little burner to cook it on. I can still hear myself asking Rob, "Man, are you suffering as well?" And he answered, "Yeah." [Laughs] We talked about kayaking and rivers and how, when you're out on the water, you're usually in the sun, you can bring food in the raft behind you, and if you're over 21, you can get alcohol.
I was thinking, Wow, it does sound delicious. After returning to the house, I asked Rob, "Will you show me how to roll my kayak?" After your boat capsized, you will find yourself in this position, and to the right, you will need to bring your paddle up to the water's surface. Within two and a half hours after he stood in the water next to my kayak on the lake in Colorado, I started experiencing a wobbly roll. Afterward, I approached Rob and said, "Hey, would you be willing to lead me down a few simple rivers?" That was the very first step if you will.
It had been that long. I reasoned that if I spent a year paddling down the Grand Canyon and prepared in a very extreme manner, I would have a good chance of surviving the experience. But I didn't want to just live through it. The incident of me reaching the summit of a mountain by the skin of my teeth has happened to me on occasion, and I thought maybe it was already the result of luck, or perhaps it was a gift from God. In reality, it was only because I held on to the skin of my teeth. I was like, That doesn't feel nice. To just get by is not the reason I'm engaging in these activities. I want to get to the bottom of whether or not I would not only be able to live in that river environment but also thrive there. At that time, I hadn't spent much time on rivers. Therefore I didn't have a lot of river experience. I gained the majority of my experience in the mountains, which, for some strange reason, I had come to regard as my haven.
There was a moment when I remember thinking something like, "I don't even understand the language of rivers." There are pourovers, which are waves that flow over pebbles on the water's surface, eddy fences, areas of the river that go upstream instead of downstream, and holes, which are like big washing machines that try to grab your boat and drag you under. It was a whole other culture and a completely different language. I had a strong desire to determine whether or not I could do well in that environment despite my blindness, using just what I could see, hear, and feel beneath my boat, as well as what my guides were telling me and the instructions were providing me. That truly piqued my curiosity; to what extent I was able to pursue this despite my blindness?
When I first began, my goodness: River kayaks are designed to turn, but when I would go on a lake and have just a little bit of a breeze when I was paddling, I would all of a sudden be spun about and paddling in the other way. My good buddy Rob always told me, "Hey, guy, you just did a complete about-face, and you're heading the wrong way now." I'm thinking to myself, "Wow, I had no clue. I'm completely lost for direction right now." For me to survive, I had to learn to orient myself using what I was hearing and the direction that the wind was coming from as well as the sound of echolocation (one could listen to the canyon walls to either side of me), and the position of the sun concerning me. The sun traveled across the sky throughout the day, and as it went through the canyon, it altered the angle at which it was shining.
I've been working out whenever I could for the last six years. Possibly not every day because there were times when I still had to work and other responsibilities, but at least three days a week. I was out on the water in a kayak, whether paddling on a lake in Clear Creek, located in Golden, Colorado, where I live, finding other rivers all around Colorado, or even taking training trips all over the world. We traveled to Peru on many occasions and kayaked down various rivers there. We traveled to Mexico and went canoeing on the Usumacinta River there. The first time I walked into the Usumacinta, an enormous canyon that divides Guatemala from Mexico, there was an extensive series of rainstorms. The canyon is located on the border between Guatemala and Mexico. The river overflowed its banks. I don't want to sound too scientific, but I think the river was flowing at around 120,000 cubic feet per second rather than at the rate of 40,000. The power of the river increased by a factor of three. I found myself in a new world where I was entirely out of my depth as we were riding these huge waves down the canyon, and I suddenly found myself completely out of my depth. Throughout the procedure, I had a lot of fear. To the point when I almost didn't want to go back in my boat again, the situation had become so bad.
No Barriers is the name of the organization that I lead, and we help a wide variety of individuals dealing with all sorts of barriers. One day, I had coffee with a man named Ryan Kelly, a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I told him, "Hey, guy, I feel like I have touches of post-traumatic stress disorder." Several years ago, I was terrified of getting on my boat. Now, I am afraid even to get to the ship. Then he responded, "Dude, PTSD or trauma, it's not a veteran thing; it's a human thing. Our lives are fraught with traumatic experiences. Every time we are pushed beyond our capabilities, we question who we are and the decisions we have made in the past. When we're in front of our team, we begin to worry about how we're going to handle the situation, and this worry may be paralyzing. And that's precisely what happened: I was frozen in place by this immobility. He said that it just takes a few courageous actions daily. You are required to return to your boat and take a seat. Even if you are now waiting in the garage, you just need to turn around and walk the other way.
I decided to return to the Usumacinta River the following year, and by then, I had already learned enough to be able to kayak the entire river, and I felt a lot more relaxed while paddling. After that journey, I must have told myself, "All right, I'm ready to go to the Grand Canyon." I believe that I am now prepared to tackle these rivers.
My friend Rob, who I'd climbed with before, and my other friend Harlan Taney, who was half human and half dolphin, made for an incredible team. After that, I was accompanied by my buddy Skyler and a few other close companions. The most exciting thing was that I'd read about another blind person named Lonnie Bedwell, a tremendously skilled kayaker. I reached out to Lonnie and said, "Hey, maybe you want to come along with me, and we'll kayak the Grand Canyon together?" Lonnie expressed interest, so I went ahead and made the reservation. That has the potential to be very effective, in my opinion.
Neither veterans nor civilians are immune to trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) effects. Our lives are fraught with traumatic experiences.
[Laughs] I was a bundle of nerves. It was a hot day, and even though the temperature was probably about 90 degrees, I couldn't stop shaking. One positive aspect of the Grand Canyon is that it gradually increases in size from beginning to end. On the trip's second or third day, you will encounter the more difficult rapids after negotiating several more straightforward rapids. The river just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger up to Lava Falls, a massive rapid that is ranked 10 out of 10 on the scale of Grand Canyon intensity.
There was no chance that I could hear anything in these enormous rapids, which had water walls of 20 to 30 feet tall, as I found it hard to think I could hear anything at all. During my training, my guides would always be right behind me, and they would scream exact orders to me, such as left, which is equivalent to making a turn of 45 degrees, or hard left, which is equal to making a turn of 90 degrees. And charge, which means to charge into that swift as quickly as you can since it will annihilate you. Easy to understand directives. However, we concluded that rivers are pretty unpredictable, such as when I attempt to make a left turn, but the river pulls me in the other direction. Because there is another dimension beneath my boat, it was difficult for me to determine the answer. Even though I may be heading left in my head, the river is still tugging me to the right, and if I let it, it will lead me into an eddy or some other type of insane predicament. And Rob or one of my other men would shoot by me and be about a hundred yards down the river [by the time they reached that point, they could no longer see me].
We were aware that we need radios capable of communicating when submerged in water, which is notoriously difficult to locate. In addition, Rob or Harlan may use radios to speak with each other in the here and now. There must be some delay, even if it is just a fraction of a second, which occurs with most radio systems. If I want to receive the command in the shortest time possible, I must be able to do so. On the other hand, my guides barked instructions via the radios while in the Grand Canyon. But the river that runs through the Grand Canyon is so muddy. The amount of silt falling from the sky was so high that it penetrated the membranes of the radio [when we were on the journey]. Within a few days, they were only partially functioning at best. Because of this, a problem arose. It was not a choice between resorting to the time-honored method of screaming until we were heard or using the time-honored method of spitting words.
Do you know what I mean when I simply felt like I was surviving these things? To what extent am I present in this experience? Am I a person who is outside of an experience but seeing it through a window rather than a person who is inside of the experience? Throughout my life, I have worked very hard to achieve that goal. That was always my struggle: deciding whether to be afraid of or excited about the larger rapids that were to come. The sensation that you are occasionally out of control as a blind person while you are traveling down a rapid with just the verbal orders of the person, together with the things you are feeling beneath your boat and the noises you are attempting to decipher.
At other moments, it was overpowering, and it seemed like a weight had been placed upon my shoulders or like a crust that forms around your soul and kind of draws you away from experience. Simply being there at that moment was all I wanted. Because I have a firm conviction that these experiences should not just be something that you include on your résumé, a trophy that you keep on a shelf, or a photo that you hang on your wall, they need to instruct you on something to make you more equipped for the subsequent instance. They serve as a driving force that propels you ahead into this new chaotic circumstance in the foreseeable future, acting as a bridge between you and the subsequent event. I want this encounter to have a lot of depth and significance.
I can recall going through a rapid that was dubbed Upset. It has a massive hole in the middle that you must squeeze through. It is a little paradoxical because you angle in and pound through these tremendous waves slamming up against the canyon wall. After that, you cut right and ride this gauntlet between those enormous waves and this giant pit right to your right. I can still vividly recall paddling through it and just riding that gauntlet, listening to the deep hole to my right and the waves just slamming on the wall to my left, and having the sensation that I was so connected with this experience.
A grin was plastered on my face. I had the impression that I wasn't the only one engaging with the canyon. I had the sensation that I was the water. I served as the barrier. It was I who was the wave. There was no sense of distance between myself and what I was experiencing. I can still vividly recall how that sensation stayed with me throughout the day. It was an incredible experience to feel like everything flowed naturally and connected to what I was attempting to accomplish. You practice for six years, yet you only get a few seconds to experience that sensation. This is a crazy irony. But in all honesty, I believe that to be what athletes search for. Even in terms of our human experience, we are striving for that, which simply refers to a sensation of being linked to and not separate from this world.
I firmly believe that you shouldn't simply look back on these events and hang a picture of them up on your wall. They need to instruct you on something to make you more equipped for the subsequent instance.
It was almost like having a mystical experience. I'm not a practicing Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or any other religion in the traditional sense, but it did border on this concept where, as I sat on the shore with my feet in the water that afternoon, I was overcome by this feeling of connection. I felt like I was part of something bigger than myself. I had the conviction that there was something extraordinary and enormous waiting for me at this mammoth journey's conclusion, and I felt that I was already a part of it. These things may have a corny feel, but they become a spiritual experience for the person who goes through them. It's not about being able to outwit death. According to what was shared with Aislyn Greene, it's about finding a way to "kind of figure out how you navigate through these terrible moments."
This interview has been abridged and distilled for the sake of clarity. You may listen to the whole episode or see The Weight of Water, a documentary film about the event that won the Banff Film Festival in 2018.
Kayak Blind Through the Grand Canyon is the true story of Erik Weihenmayer, the infamous daredevil who took his life in the Grand Canyon.