Still blinking sleep from my eyes as I try to locate the eddy line, it takes me a moment to remember that Weihenmayer can't actually see it. He had used his hearing to pick up the distinctly pitched rush of an eddy line and used it to update a mental map of the surroundings. "You get into this mode where you totally forget he's blind," says his wife, Ellie. "You're in the airport and you're looking back and you're like, 'Oh, my God, somebody go get Erik.' "
Weihenmayer met Ellie Reeves in 1993, when they were both teachers at the prestigious Phoenix Country Day School, a job he took for easy access to better climbing. As Weihenmayer thrived teaching English and math to fifth graders, his secret romance with Reeves was exposed by his guide dog, Wizard, who began back-burning guiding duties to track Ellie in the halls. She and Weihenmayer were married and now live in Golden, Colorado, with two children: Emma, their 13-year-old daughter, and Arjun, the 10-year-old son they adopted from a Kathmandu orphanage in 2008.
At Phoenix Country Day, Weihenmayer also met a substitute teacher named Sam Bridgham, who became his rock-climbing partner. Some time early into their partnership, Bridgham suggested they scale the highest peak in North America. "I thought Sam was a lunatic," Weihenmayer recalls of hearing his buddy's proposal they take on Alaska's Mount McKinley, known to alpinists by its Athabascan name, Denali, for "the Big One."
Pro mountaineer Evans, who'd met Bridgham on an EMT wilderness course, also assumed Bridgham was joking about a blind climber who was ready for Denali. But when Sam drove Weihenmayer out to Evans' home near Joshua Tree, California, he agreed to bring him rock climbing. "I didn't know how good he was," Evans says. "But he just kept crushing each route I took him on." By sunset, the two had finished the toughest climb in the area. "And I'm like, 'Well, the sun's down – why don't we head down to camp and drink a beer?' And he looked me straight in the eyes and said, 'You think I give a shit that the sun's gone down?' ?" Evans sparked a headlamp, and the two kept climbing until three in the morning. "I knew all he needed was a team that would commit to him and to doing something big," he says.
They enlisted the seasoned mountain guide Chris Morris to lead them on Denali, began an intensive training regimen, and went on team-building ascents of Washington's Mount Rainer and Colorado's Longs Peak, mastering belaying, crevasse rescues, and other skills. They set off for Denali in June of 1995, enduring a 19-day climb up the 20,320-foot peak – an elevation gain greater than Everest's – during which members of two other teams died and a third's became paraplegic.
Six years later, Weihenmayer stood atop Everest and expanded the world's sense of possibility.
Then he kept going. In 2002, he became one of the 350 humans who have scaled the Seven Summits. A year later, he became the sole blind member of the 50-odd other lunatics who completed the brutal 457-mile adventure race called Primal Quest. In 2008, he climbed the Carstensz Pyramid, and in 2010 he completed the hundred-mile Leadville 100 mountain bike race.
In 2008, Weihenmayer was a passenger on a Grand Canyon whitewater rafting trip with Global Explorers, acting as mentor to a small group of blind and sighted kids. The river guide was a man named Harlan Taney, who at one point asked Weihenmayer if he wanted to try paddling an inflatable kayak he'd brought along. Weihenmayer jumped in and the two set off using the first in what would prove to be an ever-more-complex series of guidance systems: Taney's orange plastic rescue whistle.
Weihenmayer recalls it as love at first touch. "I loved being in my own boat," he says. "I loved being independent. And I loved the rapids just hitting you out of nowhere, as you blasted through those waves and reacted. I was a total novice. I didn't understand what made up rapids, how they worked; it was all so new."
Later, Weihenmayer asked Rob Raker, whom he'd met in 2000 at base camp on Antarctica's Mount Vinson, to teach him how to kayak. A seasoned paddler, Raker showed Weihenmayer some basics in a pool, then took him on a trip through a narrow canyon on Idaho's Green River called the Gates of Lodore, again leading Weihenmayer with a whistle and shouts. Around this time, former Olympic kayak coach Wiegand reached out. "I didn't even know he was kayaking," says Wiegand. "I just saw an article about him, saw him speak, and was like, 'This guy is incredible.' "
Wiegand joined Weihenmayer and Raker on a trip down a different section of the Green River, in Utah's Desolation Canyon, one of the most remote areas in the continental United States. In this forbidding environment, they first tried upgrading their guidance system with two-way radios.
Three years later, Weihenmayer sits beached by the Usumacinta in his sun-baked kayak, black wetsuit on, red helmet off, face lowered as if in prayer. Standing 15 feet away, Raker calls out, "Weihenmayer, can you hear me?"
Weihenmayer puts a hand to the earpiece of his black radio headset. "I can't hear a thing," he says. "Can you hear me?"
Raker looks at a black module on his waist. "Mine's blinking blue," he says. The team's tech specialist steps in. "You have to hold it down for, like, five seconds to shut it off," he says.
As Raker says "test-test-test" into his mic, Weihenmayer fiddles with the headset's Velcro strap. Finally Weihenmayer declares, "This thing sucks. Too floppy; throw it out – fuckin' Brits," miming a prima donna's disgusted toss, then softly answers Raker through his mic: "That's pretty clear."
Weihenmayer's jokes cover jagged nerves. Today's run will reunite him with one of the rapids that caused him a neurological collapse last year: La Cola Diablo, "the Devil's Tail," which contains a feature with the appropriately existential designation of a "hole." Unlike whirlpools – which merely flip you, spin you, and release you – holes don't let you go. They pull your boat down stern-first into their spinning maw, where it might end up for weeks with the trees, debris, and other kayaks spinning in its so-called grinder.
Weihenmayer says that when La Cola Diablo grabbed his boat, "I got frazzled and twitchy." And even when he got out of the boat, his body wouldn't calm. "It looked like a seizure," says Wiegand. "You get spasticity issues, and the whole nervous system starts overfiring. That's when it gets dangerous. If he were asked to walk a straight line at that point, he'd fall."
Weihenmayer has since gotten a better feel for the confounding behavior of whitewater, whose complex systems of fluid dynamics often make it seem like a living, breathing entity. For a blind person, this incredibly data-rich sonic world of a whirlpool can almost literally drown them in sound. In steep rock canyons, echoes turn a run down the rapids into a headlong sprint through a hall of mirrors and make sensory navigation a form of psyops torture. Though he's one sense short of a full five, Weihenmayer describes the effect as "sensory overload."
This afternoon, Weihenmayer has to push such memories aside as he paddles past the gorgeous Cascada Busiljá waterfalls, around a graceful bend, and toward the Usumacinta's first big water at La Cola Diablo. Here, two main currents meet and gush over a two-foot rock ledge, creating the giant swirling hole marked by two white flumes, which look like mortar bursts from a hundred yards away.