On September 27, blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer completed his toughest challenge since his 2001 summit of Mount Everest: kayaking the highly technical whitewater of the Grand Canyon. In case that doesn’t register, that’s a blind man in a single kayak — not a tandem — negotiating some of the most difficult rapids in America.
It took Weihenmayer and team three weeks to navigate the burly 277-mile stretch of the Colorado River, complete with class IV rapids, two-story high waves, and whirlpools that could swallow your car. “I’m amazed that we were able to do it,” Weihenmayer says, speaking to Men’s Journal from his home in Golden, Colorado, just days after the feat.
Weihenmayer spent six years learning how to solo kayak. River guide Harlan Taney serves as his eyes, paddling just behind Weihenmayer and speaking commands like “keep charging,” “left turn,” and “hold that line,” into a waterproof radio headset that works off of Bluetooth. Without sight, Weihenmayer relies heavily on Taney’s instructions and the distinctive sounds, or roars as it may be, of the river’s different water features, as well as the feel of his paddle in the water and his boat moving through it.
His skills are so dialed in that — using a technique called flash sonar — Weihenmayer can “see” an eddy line by its sound and vibration. But that doesn’t mean kayaking blind is easy. Weihenmayer says that learning to paddle whitewater was 10 times scarier than the scariest thing he’s ever done, a strong statement coming from a man who has been doing audacious things in the outdoors since losing his sight 32 years ago at age 13.
On the Grand Canyon, heavy rains at the start nearly caused Weihenmayer to abort the expedition — which was sponsored by Nature Valley — altogether. There was so much silt in the water that it jammed his radio equipment, severing communication with Taney. To continue, Weihenmayer learned to rely more on the sound of the water than the little voice that had been speaking into his right ear, and Taney stayed as close as he could, yelling commands over the din of the rapids. “Basically, we found plan B,” Weihenmayer says. “Always have a plan B.”
Weihenmayer credits his all-star team of kayaking guides, including Taney and adventure icons like Timmy O’Neill, with buoying his spirits, and teammate Lonnie Bedwall (who was the first blind person to kayak the Grand Canyon in 2013), with stoking his courage over the course of the three weeks. “I hope that people — even ones who don’t have vision problems, but maybe they’re in a rut, or bored with what they’re doing — will look at what we did and it will fire them up,” Weihenmayer says.
But he doesn’t want his expedition misinterpreted. “My message isn’t to go out and do extreme sports. I think that would be a mistake,” he says. “My message is for people to go out and live a No Barriers life, whatever that looks like for them.”