"Mountains are slow," he says. "You're plodding up the rock face – it's about power and endurance. With kayaking, you have this crazy, powerful environment happening underneath you, this thing that's like a fifth element, that does crazy things that are hard to understand and impossible to anticipate. Eddies go in opposite directions, waves hit you in weird directions, and holes suck you down when you aren't expecting it. It feels like going into a battlefield."
The environment has come to trigger a combat-like response in Weihenmayer's body. "The other month, I threw up just at the sound of the rapid below me," says Weihenmayer. "Now I'm at this point where I'm having dreams – where I'm kayaking and I don't have a guide, and I'm, like, flying down, down this crazy rapid, and I can hear these giant walls around me, and I'm like, 'I got no guide,' and I hear this noise . . . ." While Weihenmayer now calls kayaking "10 times scarier than the scariest thing I've ever done," he is someone who's been doing scary things practically since birth.
When Weihenmayer was an infant, his jittery eye movement sent him and his parents to nearly a dozen different eye doctors over two years before they got a diagnosis of juvenile retinoschisis, a rare hereditary condition that causes the retinas to disintegrate. "The doctor said, 'I'm sorry to inform you that your son will be blind by the age of 13,' " recalls Weihenmayer's father, Ed, who later had to tell a boy who'd just learned to walk that he'd go blind before reaching high school.
The youngest of three boys born to an ex-Marine and Princeton football star, Weihenmayer didn't go gently. While his disease robbed him of his central vision, it spared the peripheral long enough for him to choose a life strategy of denial over adaptation. "In seventh or eighth grade, I'd look way up or way down as I walked," he says, recalling navigating solely with his remaining peripheral vision. "I was a little shit to my Braille teacher because learning Braille would mean I was blind, and I didn't want anything to do with blindness." His father recalls him tossing a white cane off a bridge to get run over by oncoming traffic.
On the grade school basketball court, Weihenmayer's jump shot was decent, his aim was terrible, "but he was just crazy on zone defense," says his dad. On the streets of his hometown of Weston, Connecticut, he'd tear along on his bike and do jumps on two homemade bike-stunt ramps, furiously pedaling dead at them until the stage when he could barely see the ramps – at which point his father spray-painted them bright orange. "It probably gave him three or four months of being able to be Evil Knievel," says Ed. "He just fought to stay in the sighted world."
Losing this fight enabled Erik's first true victory. Deteriorating vision kept him from participating in most school sports, but as a totally blind freshman, he made the high school wrestling team. This was thanks in part to an enlightened coach who showed no mercy to the 5-foot-9, 114-pound blind kid, letting him get pummeled and slammed to the mat hundreds of times before he won his first match. "I'd actually rate his innate athletic ability above-average," says Ed. "But his focus, perseverance, and stamina are A-triple-plus." By his senior year, he'd become the team captain and competed in 1987's National Freestyle Wrestling Championships in Iowa. He had discovered the first thing he could do exceptionally well without sight.
He discovered the second the next summer, when a blind camp sent him to a rock-climbing course in North Conway, New Hampshire. A counselor taught him and his mates a mode of echolocation common to most blind people: listening for the precise collisions of sounds that delineate a space's topography, then creating a mental map of their surroundings. But once they roped and harnessed at the base of Cathedral Ledge, the climbing instructor told them not to get their hopes up. He wasn't sure if ears, hands, and feet could substitute for a climber's eyes.
While his peers tapped out after a few valiant efforts, Weihenmayer nearly scurried up the first ascent, earning the nickname Monkey Boy. He almost immediately intuited an alternative rock-climbing strategy. "What I like about rock climbing is that I can't see the hold," he says. "So I have to scan my hand across the face in a systematic, grid-like way," adding that the system has a dynamic pace. "I don't have time to hang out. One arm is locked off, and I'm losing energy as I scan. But then I start finding patterns – if this crack is moving up to the right, it might open up into a handhold. Nature doesn't give up its patterns very easily, but you can find them if you're really looking. And it feels amazing when you do."
At the top of his first summit, North Conway's Whitehorse Ledge, Weihenmayer had a vivid realization. "I could hear all the way down into civilization," he says. "I could hear all that huge open space. And I remember thinking, 'Fucking A, I can do this. This is adventure. It's everything I envisioned.' "
Weihenmayer's challenges as a kid didn't end with blindness. "His mom was a fierce advocate for him," his father recalls. But in 1985, his father arrived at Weihenmayer's summer camp to inform him his mother had just been killed in a car accident – a blow Weihenmayer calls "worse than going blind a thousand times." Ed Weihenmayer tried to cope by planning a three-week bonding trek at some exotic locale with his three sons.
"Erik was the one who said, 'We should do the Inca Trail in Machu Picchu,' " says Ed. A few years later, after convincing a guide to let a 19-year-old college freshman be the first blind person to make the trek, the Weihenmayers flew to Peru, and Weihenmayer stumblingly, painfully hiked the entire Inca Trail, beginning to develop the system that he'd use to scale Mount Everest.
"I'd sort of be steering Erik with my hand on his shoulder," recalls Ed. "So we'd hit a root or miss a step and go tumbling off the trail and wind up all bloody and scratched." Neither one found this much fun. "Hiking in Peru was a miserable struggle because I didn't know how to do it," says Weihenmayer. "We were just stumbling along, and we didn't have the right system or tools."
His older brother Mark took over their dad's guiding duties, with a looser hold and more explicit trail directions, and the two took on increasingly difficult treks around the world, hiking across Tajikistan's Pamir Mountains, Pakistan's Karakoram range, and the Indonesian province West Papua.
In 2004, Weihenmayer flew to Lhasa to lead an expedition up Mount Everest's north side with six teenagers from the first and only blind school in the region, which a blind German social worker had founded against local opposition. "The Buddhist culture there says that you did something bad in a previous life, so you deserve this blindness," Weihenmayer says. "That attitude is a part of a lot of Third World cultures."
(Photograph by Jamie Kripke)
Years ago, Weihenmayer's understanding of such cultures inspired him to found the No Barriers organization, a nonprofit that helps facilitate adventures for blind children around the world. But off the podium and Oprah's couch – Weihenmayer has been a guest on national programs ranging from Larry King to The Tonight Show – he's a far cry from the relentlessly upbeat, slightly dopey, indomitable spirit of after-school specials. "He's very witty and clever, and he knows how to push people's buttons," says Jeff Evans. "And he can use that distant stare to kind of add to that 'F you.' "
A huge tropic moon hangs over the Usumacinta. The campsite is quiet, the fire is dying, and Weihenmayer decides to begin making his way over the steep, deeply cratered shoreline to his tent. Half rising to leave, he waves one level arm out in a searching sweep that I interrupt to ask what he's looking for.
I'm pretty sure I see the Weihenmayer "F you" play briefly across his features, as he continues his perimeter sweep. He utters a soft, ironic "Ohhh, what do you think?" – then taps and snatches up the same Leki hiking pole he's used to navigate every inch of our trip thus far. Which had been standing planted in sand right in front of my big dumb face.