Ellie would not enjoy the sight of Canyon San José, right near the end of our Usumacinta trip. Its jagged black limestone cliffs rise into the mist like the first appearance of Skull Island in King Kong, and mark the entrance to one of the trip's most fearsome rapids. Called La Linea – it's the line dividing Mexico from Guatemala – the rapid is filled with crisscrossing currents, scores of colliding eddies, and whirlpools that seem to pop from every spot.
At the foaming top of La Linea, Wiegand and Weihenmayer burst into view, coming down fast, with Raker right on their tail. Over the rapids' din, you can hear Raker yelling: "Forward! Forward!" Weihenmayer adjusts his course and drives on. His trip is far from smooth – a series of micro corrections that jitteringly execute Wiegand's commands and follow the line.
He does not cut a heroic figure in the kayak: hunched forward, eyes inert, head cocked, expression unlike his teammates' ESPN-ready, tendon-clenching squints. His face suggests the sublime concentration of someone tuning out deafening noise to take directions from some other, liminal source.
Farther downstream, past the boiling descent and unfathomable physics of La Linea, a wide green circle spreads out deep in the canyon's bend. Wiegand, Weihenmayer, and Raker slide into the pool like it's the hay-strewn landing of a carnival ride. Half their party is still upstream, helping an expert Mexican kayaker in the group who got rolled and was forced to swim by the same rapids Weihenmayer just navigated without sight.
Big E has many months of training before he navigates the Grand Canyon, and his skills and equilibrium will never improve enough for him to have the careless thrill sighted kayakers might enjoy. But Evans, who personally guided Weihenmayer to the top of the world in 2001, says strength, skill, and courage aren't the sole requirements for people like him and his teammates. "What we say is, 'You have to suffer well,' " says Evans. Weihenmayer has had more practice in this than most people ever will.
But that's clearly not what he's finding now on the Usumacinta, where whoops and laughter echo from deep at the base of black limestone cliffs.
Harlan Taney blasts into the eddy pool and swoops up to join Team Big E as it exults. "He nailed it!" yells Raker, his throaty voice echoing up the high rock walls. "That was beautiful!" calls Wiegand, joining the din.
Later, Weihenmayer will say, "I'm not trying to confront death. It's an awesome environment. There's a gift there. All the craziness and chaos and fear is what you have to fight through to get that gift." Now the cheering friends meet in the wide green eddy, and the four pull in tighter, kayaks nose to nose around Weihenmayer's center, the quartet slowly rotating in the green water, their faces beaming, the pitch and tone of their voices sounding jubilant.
But the rush of water is too loud for anyone but them to hear what they're saying.