Community & Society
Erik Weihemayer has also kayaked 277 miles of extreme rapids of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Weihenmayer completed the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race and Primal Quest, an adventure race of more than 460 miles. Author of three books, his most recent is No Barriers: A Blind Man’s Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon. Weihenmayer is cofounder of No Barriers, a nonprofit organization devoted to help those who have suffered from mental and physical injuries.
Your accomplishments are astounding and inspiring. Where does fear play into all of this? Fear is not at the center of why I do things. Fear is something you have to figure out to do the things you want to do. For me, the outdoors is an incredible laboratory to do that. Fear is something that you never conquer, you just have to push it to the periphery and learn how to convert it into something else. Is that a central theme to your organization? Yes, I’ve worked with a lot of veterans returning from different conflicts who suffer from PTSD, a lingering trauma that is so difficult to break through. That’s really our primary mission, to get people going again who have been so derailed and living in their own prison on the sidelines. I was so taken by your extraordinary adventure in Tibet taking six blind children and their blind teacher to climb 21,500 feet on the north side of Everest. Blind people in Tibet, as elsewhere, are viewed as the scourge of society and, for various reasons, there are massive numbers of blind people there. In this school the kids were learning computers, mathematics, science, English, Chinese, Tibetan and Tibetan braille. So eventually they would become the breadwinners of their families, changing the dynamic of their handicap. Climbing the mountain added to their prestige and self-confidence.
After losing your sight and then your mother at a young age, what was it that kept you going? You know these terrible things can happen but you still have to have hope, that there are good parts of life you want to experience. The tendency is to want to curl up in a ball, be fearful, and just protect yourself. But as long as you can keep your heart open to things that are good in the world and not be bitter and angry, those good things often happen to you. And I didn’t want to miss out on anything fun in life. What amazes me when reading your books are that your vast experiences are so visual and specific. Do you remember the visual world? I do see a lot in my mind and I am a visual thinker. I map out things in my brain so when I’m climbing a mountain or kayaking a river I can envision the map spatially. It’s all in shades of gray rather than colors since I never was able to see very well when I was young. So I try to describe what space feels like, the sound vibrations bouncing off of objects and coming back at you, what it’s like to touch and hear things. After your descent from Mount Everest your guide told you “Don’t make Everest the greatest thing you ever do.” Was kayaking the Grand Canyon a response to this? Yes, although there were many other factors involved. I committed to it and trained for six years. Tell me about the experience. As a blind person, how do you understand what that environment is? It’s not like you can study it visually. There’s really no way to fully understand rivers because they’re so crazy. You just have to get in the middle of it and decode it. There are eddies, rapids, whirlpools, currents, and all sorts of forces to deal with from all directions. And there are no brakes in kayaking. You go into that chaos and you need to ride with that energy.
Is success a relative term with these types of risks? Definitely. You know that’s why they call it adventure because it’s sort of risk and uncertainty coming together. In the mountains there are no guarantees of summiting. A good record in the mountains is 50 percent or less. You have to get to a high point and celebrate and just have gratitude.
Which is more difficult to do, climb mountains or kayak rivers? It’s been said that mountains are hours of boredom mixed with moments of sheer terror. Rivers are moments of fun with hours of sheer terror! And your favorite? I really love the mountains. You can never run out of mountains to climb. I’ll run out of cartilage before I run out of mountains!
Carol Abrams is a corporate art consultant, a writer, and an educator.
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