Grand Aspirations: Running It Blind

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According to his blog (www.touchthetop.org), Weihenmayer returned in April from his test run in high spirits. “I wouldn’t say I’m quite there yet,” he says. “Getting in my boat each morning, I was filled with anxiety as I listened to the huge roar of the rapids below and would have trouble keeping down breakfast. I’d try to push back the nerves with some rhythmic breathing and stretching…”

Weihenmayer — the first and only blind man to reach the summit of Mount Everest and climb the world’s Seven Summits, as well as an accomplished backcountry skier and parachutist – is no stranger to kayaking. With the help of guides and friends Rob Raker, who yells instructions from behind, and Chris Weigand of Denver’s Sportainability International, who stays in front to show Raker the best lines, he’s been at it nearly five years, most recently this past fall training on the on the Class III Shoshone section of the Colorado River outside Glenwood Springs. Last August, he tackled a Class III-IV section of Peru’s Apurimac..

“Erik is the only blind paddler I know of who has pursued it to this level,” says Weigand. “It takes a great foundation of skills.”

The level Weihenmayer’s taken it to is commendable, even for someone who can see. He’s run the Green River’s Gates of Lodore and Desolation/Gray canyons, the San Juan and Mexico’s high-volume Usumacinta, where a whirlpool capsized him and caused him to miss his roll and swim. “That was pretty disorienting,” he understates. “It freaked me out a little and I definitely took a step back. I got in a bit over my head.”

Raker, who helped guide him up several of his Seven Summit peaks, was there quick with the rescue, but it was harrowing for him as well. “The problem,” says Raker, “is that he needs certain information that the rest of use get with our eyes. And that’s not easy to convey in a medium like whitewater. I have to watch his every move.”

Weihenmayer, now 44, lost his vision to retinoschisis at age 13. Now an accomplished motivational speaker and author of Touch the Top of the World, he lives his life practicing what he preaches in his No Barriers, a nonprofit he co-founded with paraplegic rock climber Mark Wellman and double-leg amputee Hugh Herr. After completing all the Seven Summits by age 33, and climbing the “Eighth Summit,” 16,023-foot Carstensz Pyramid in Oceania in 2008, he continues to push both himself and the limits of what can be accomplished without sight. “He has great patience and is as tough as they come,” says Raker. “He can take an amazing amount of punishment.”

Last summer, Weihenmayer, along with Raker and Weigand, paddled Peru’s Class III-IV upper Apurimac and Urubamba rivers as further training for the Grand. His team has worked out a series of commands to help the cause. “Small” left or right means a 20-degree turn, “Left” or “Right” means 45 degrees, and a “Hard” directional means turn 90 degrees. “Charge!” means go hard, “Pause!” means stop paddling, and “Stop!” means stop hard. It’s loud in a rapid, he says, so words have to be distinct. “Everything happens so quickly and a lot of things don’t happen the way you expect them to,” he says. “Once one thing goes wrong, it leads to a cascading series of events. The commands only help so much — you’re always reacting.”

For the Grand, they relied on radios provided by Neptune Intercoms. “They finally solved our radio problems,” he writes. “Without a reliable communication system in the deafening roar of the rapids, this adventure would be flat out impossible. After two years of experimenting we now have the tools needed for kayaking big water safely.”

As for taking on the entire Big Ditch, if it’s anything like his training run there, he knows he has his work cut out for him. “Heading into each huge rapid,” he blogs, “I knew in the next two minutes of intensity there were three possible scenarios, each getting progressively worse: coming out at the bottom right side up, flipping and having to roll back up, or attempting a roll unsuccessfully and having to bail out and swim.”

In all, he says he paddled about 70 percent of the big rapids, including monoliths Granite and Hermit. After Granite, I told my team, “You know it’s a good one when you dry heave after it.”
“I’ve never done a sport that demands so much in such a short amount of time. I’d kayak for two or three hours before I was mentally exhausted, and I know endurance is going to be a key factor on the next go-around….”

Helping him was Raker, Wiegand, Fred Thevenin from Arizona Raft Adventures, who ran a 36-foot support raft, Timmy O’Neill, the director of Paradox Sports, a non-profit that helps the disabled get outdoors, and safety kayaker and Grand guide Harlan Taney. “Harlan was amazing to have along because he knows the Grand like no one else and as he guided me from behind, he was able to pick perfect lines through the rapids,” he writes.

“I get why there aren’t any blind kayakers in the world,” he says. “Blind people don’t get much speed in their lives, and rivers move pretty fast. It’s harder than climbing Everest. When you’re climbing you can stop whenever you want to re-assess things and even turn back if you want to. You can’t do that on a river. It’s a notch up in terms of the fear factor compared to anything else I’ve ever done. But I think I’m getting it. I can see why people love the sport.”

To learn more about Erik and his accomplishments, visit www.touchthetop.org

For his account of his Grand Canyon training run, visit CLICK HERE

For an account of paddling Life paddling with him on the Colorado’s Shoshone section, visit CLICK HERE

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