Weihenmayer's Great Adventures (Blind Kayaker)
Credit: Photograph by Travis Dove / New York Times / Redux
Weihenmayer moves smoothly toward those white flumes and drives straight into a six-foot wave. His bow smartly salutes, and he sails into the Devil's Tail. This time, he hits the swirling hole and gives only one reflexive jerk, regaining control by giving in to the whirlpool's swirling circular motion like a driver turning into the skid of a hydroplaning car. He takes its current into his body, passes it along, rotates with and out of the hole – then speeds straight into the darkening water below.

Four or five kayakers encircle Weihenmayer's boat, all bearing smiles. Weihenmayer doesn't know exactly what he did differently. "It's not your conscious brain reacting," he says. "Last year, I know I was not reacting well, not leaning the right way. This time, I hit the wave and it . . . just worked. The whole thing is sort of in my fiber."

Hours later, at night, the crew gathers after dinner. The fire glows, the tequila flows, and talk turns to matters of the latrine. Each one is a connoisseur of the finer malarias, dry heaves, diarrheas, and parasites of the natural world. Taney describes a parasitic fluke he picked up in Africa and the damage done.

"When I got to the CDC, they wouldn't diagnose me because they said I hadn't 'properly preserved the specimen,' " he says.

Soon they're laughing over a boastful friend who guides expeditions on Kilimanjaro, and I blurt out, "He sounds like Commander McBragg," referencing an obscure, walrus-mustached, Kiplingesque character from the Underdog cartoon show. At the mention of the name, Weihenmayer goes into a fusty Victorian British accent.

"There I was. Surrounded by 10,000 Chinese. So I dove off the Great Wall of China, into the Sang Po. And I swam across, fighting the crocodiles, and found a giant piece of bamboo, which allowed me to pogo stick over the Great Wall into Tibet . . . where I was saved."

Weihenmayer, it turns out, watches television and movies, in a more expansive usage of the verb you quickly get used to. He liked Life of Pi, found Skyfall decent and Moonrise Kingdom overrated. Aided by his wife's running account of visual action, he takes in dialogue, performances, music, sound design, and narrative.

Weihenmayer caught his last few crucial glimpses of the visual world as he entered adolescence. The last TV show he ever saw, with one eye pressed against the screen, was a Real People episode on Canadian athlete Terry Fox, who lost a leg to cancer and, in the hospital, decided to run across his nation. "I'd never heard of an athlete with a disability doing something that just blew your mind so hard," says Weihenmayer. "Most people in that situation retreat; they go, 'Oh, my God, I just gotta survive.' Terry did the opposite – he attacked. I know I had him in mind when my dad asked if I wanted to do a program that taught blind kids to rock climb."