The adventure documentary The Weight of Water, about blind athlete Erik Weihenmayer’s quest to paddle, in a solo kayak, the length of the Grand Canyon, premieres November 3 at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. Directed by Emmy-winning filmmaker Michael Brown, the film chronicles the three weeks Weihenmayer spent negotiating Class IV rapids on the Colorado River through the Grand alongside a cohort of friends and guides, including blind kayaker Lonnie Bedwall and rockclimber Timmy O’Neill.
Weihenmayer was diagnosed with retinoschisis, a rare eye disease, at age four and went blind by age 13. He took up rock climbing in high school, and found the tactile nature of the sport suited him. He would go onto become the first blind person to climb Mount Everest, followed by the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each of the seven continents. He was also the first blind person to rock climb the iconic Nose route on El Capitan, Yosemite’s 3,000-foot granite monolith, and he went on to set a speed record on El Capitan, climbing the 11-pitch East Buttress in less than 24 hours. So far, none of these feats have been repeated, or even attempted, by another blind person.
Although he’s clearly an accomplished adventurer, The Weight of Water shows a more vulnerable side of Weihenmayer, who spent six years learning to kayak before undertaking the full length of the Grand Canyon. On the river, he struggles with fear and anxiety while facing challenging—and dangerous—conditions. At one point, heavy rains unleash so much silt into the river that his waterproof radio headset jams and he can no longer communicate with river guide Harlan Taney, who serves as his eyes on the water.
“Being a blind climber, you’d think I’d be immune to certain things,” Weihenmayer told Men’s Journal in a phonecall days before the premiere. “But I was starting over with kayaking. And the fear left me completely nauseated sometimes.”
In addition to plenty of epic footage of bright-colored kayaks heaving through the churning waters of the Grand Canyon, the film homes in on Weihenmayer’s struggle.
“Erik’s quest is really to stay in the moment, because it’s the only way he’s going to succeed in the rapids,” says Brown. “When he’s not in the present moment, he gets himself into trouble. Which makes it universal for all of us, because we all struggle with that.”
As the film unfolds, other characters begin to reveal the weight they’re holding. One, for example, has just been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re blind,” Weihenmayer says. “We all have this crust that builds up. We think it’s protection, but it’s actually a prison. The film is about finding the way through that.”
Editor’s note: The Weight of Water premier at the Banff Film + Book Festival on November 3 is sold out. A VIP party and pre-screening with Weihenmayer and Brown has been added for Thursday, November 1.