I’m now back from our memorable trip to Kazakhstan hosted by Eurasian Bank. When I fly halfway around the world for a speaking engagement, especially to a place with some of the most dramatic mountains in the world, I can’t help but get out and climb.
Jet-lagged and enveloped in a blanket of cold, my climbing partner, Rob Raker and I departed the frosty city of Almaty, Kazakhstan and headed up high in the Tien Chan Mountains for some rock climbing . . . Kazakh-style. As we ascended the narrow and bumpy road, winter was soon upon us and we had to stop to put chains on our truck tires. After a lot of spinning and grinding, we finally reached a spot where we started trudging uphill against a strong icy wind.
Our goal was a 250 meter tower called, the Bastion, and a classic rock route called Oktyabryonok, which we understand means, “child of the revolution,” named after those lucky enough to be born in October, the month of the Russian Revolution.
Arriving at the base, it was a new experience for me sitting in a deep pile of snow in my two insulated jackets, gloves and fleece hat, squeezing on rock climbing shoes. I’d blown it by forgetting a pair of wool socks but luckily, our host, Dmitry, had an extra pair. Even despite the socks, my feet were already numb and would stay that way throughout most of the day. Needless to say, as a blind person, I’m a better rock climber when I can feel my hands and feet, so the cold dramatically notched up the difficulty level as we started up the first pitch.
Our Kazak guide, Dennis, led up on two ropes, allowing Rob to climb about ten feet above me calling out crucial holds like, “a foot above your right hand is a good edge,” and “reach farther right for a side pull . . . try lay-backing it.”
The slick icy hand-holds were trickier and more strenuous to grab with gloves, and the small ledges, all covered with snow, threatened to send my feet skittering off into space. Despite that, we made decent time, stopping at each belay station to energetically swing our leaden feet and hands to bring back the blood flow. One of the pitches involved a big traverse right, and I knew a fall would send me swinging a long way. Fortunately Rob gave me great directions when I really needed it, and a few times, I may have grabbed a hanging quick draw, but I made sure there’s no photographic evidence of that.
We reached the fourth pitch about 2:00 PM and we were still in the sharp cold of the shade. However, the sun was creeping towards us, and for a tantalizing few minutes, remained an arm’s length out of reach. Then it washed over us, basking us in soft warmth and transforming moods; for the first time, our gloves came off and we climbed bare-handed. I even heard Dennis far above whoop with happiness. But the sun was fleeting and gone as fast as it had arrived. To speed things up and beat nightfall, I “jumared” a pitch. (Meaning I used ascenders to climb up fixed ropes. The ascenders slide up the rope but teeth on the device bite the rope and don’t slide down). On ascenders, and the fixed rope, I was finally as fast as Rob who was free climbing with his typical joy and enthusiasm.
As is often the case, the last pitch was a crux. It was too hard for me to climb with gloves, so despite frozen fingers, I climbed bare-handed, falling on one section a couple times before my numb hand finally stumbled upon the secret hold that completed the puzzle in the rock. I moved upward and reached the top around 4:30. The rappel took us into twilight as Rob and I visibly shivered at each anchor, and we touched the snowy ground, according to Rob, just before dark.
“That was one way to beat jet lag,” I mentioned as we inched our way down the slippery trail.
Despite the frigid conditions and tingling in my toes that has only recently dissipated, this experience has inspired me to get back into the climbing world – after a six-year hiatus to learn to kayak. It’s good to be home. Hurray for climbing adventures ahead!
Mountain Hardwear, Scarpa, and LEKI Athlete,
Last Thursday, I spoke at Kindred Health Care’s Clinical Impact Symposium in Louisville, KY.
After the conference, I was able to head over to the Kentucky School for the Blind to share and interact with some of the students. It was really fun getting to spend some time with the kids, and talk about my recent adventures but more importantly the No Barriers Mindset message.
As a young person, really for us all, life can be tough to navigate, but especially being blind. I’ve taken my knocks over the years, bled along the way and had to learn to always keep reaching. The kids had tons of questions, not just about adventure but more important topics like getting through high school and going to college, finding a job, going on dates and building relationships.
I’m very glad to have been able to spend the afternoon with these kids. Hopefully some of my stories will encourage them to take on adventures of their own. Thanks to Kindred Healthcare for helping make the connection.
On Tuesday, I spoke at the MillerCoors Veterans Day remembrance in my hometown of Golden. Local WWII historian Greg Kyle, let me check out some equipment from the famous 10th Mountain Division, an elite winter and mountain warfare unit that trained in Colorado during WWII.
Can you believe that they carried 90 pounds in their packs, plus skis and a rifle! For a little background, as the war in Europe intensified, the fight in the rugged Alps of Italy became critical and the 10th Mountain Division was called into action. Despite tremendous losses, these brave young men were able to break the Nazi entrenchment and contribute enormously to the success on the Western Front. Also, I was honored to be able to meet, in person, some original members of the Tenth Mountain Division. Needless to say, an inspiration for mountaineers and one tough bunch!
For those who want to learn more about the 10th Mountain Division and how they helped America win WWII, here is a video link- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NDLwezMHOAE
Last weekend, we actually had a No Barriers USA board retreat up at Camp Hale which is where the Tenth Mountain Division trained. It’s amazing to be a part of such an awesome rope team. Learn more about the No Barriers Board of Directors at http://www.nobarriersusa.org/about-us/boards/
On October 18th, I spoke in Oahu at a leadership conference for Hawaii Pacific Healthcare, a group of hospitals in the Hawaiian Islands. I love their theme, “unprecedented collaboration” as they work to change the healthcare industry through the way they deliver care to patients.
The next day, HPH sponsored a talk to the community at University of Hawaii, and despite an approaching tropical storm, almost 4,000 folks showed up. I was signing books and shaking hands for hours and loved hearing so many No Barriers stories from people of all ages and backgrounds.
These two talks combined with some outrigger canoe surfing and boogie boarding made for an experience I’ll take with me forever.
Some of you know I celebrated my birthday in the Grand Canyon during our No Barriers expedition. What an amazing place to have a birthday party. That night, the team gave me some very meaningful gifts. Rob Raker laid out an exhibit with crazily-shaped pieces of drift wood he’d been carefully collecting throughout the journey; one piece felt like an old man’s staff , another like a bent arm and another like a cello.
After that we sat in a circle singing and playing the drums, guitars, and shakers brought by our band leader, Timmy O’Neill. The acoustics of music bouncing off the canyon walls was a treat for the blind. And lastly, Katie Proctor, one of our AZRA leaders, wrote a heart-felt poem that speaks poignantly to the No Barriers message of our adventure together. The poem was surrounded by artwork of the canyon done by Seth Dahl, one of Lonnie’s guide. My wife says it’s absolutely beautiful. The boils, often the worst when least expected, represented the unpredictability and hardship on the expedition. The canyon walls, massive and confining, forced us into some of our greatest challenges, like Lava Falls. In many ways, the Grand Canyon uniquely captures, in reality and metaphorically, the journey to live a No Barriers Life.
I’m sharing it with you here:
Some say seeing is believing.
But I’ve been a witness.
To truth being felt.
The unseen is understood when experienced.
The open-heart policy.
Paddle in hand.
Each stroke leaving a wake of inspiration behind like currents expanding out to distant shores.
You will never know the magnitude of their impression.
The momentum of possibility.
You will not be eddied out in your quest for experiencing the fullness of current.
Strange how having the courage to live from a place of nonsense can lead to the living of your wildest dreams.
Through the journey, children will ask you about faith. Just trust and ah……give it a whirl.
Barriers dissolved under a star bear sky.
My recent No Barriers Grand Canyon expedition was my most physically and mentally challenging experience yet. It was a big stretch for me and my team. Throughout, there was plenty of fear, intensity, even some panic. However, there were also moments of joy and celebration. Now with the expedition behind us, it’s time to celebrate the journey and all the barriers shattered along the way. Many of you joined us by following along through our dispatches from the river, and some of you supported us by taking the No Barriers Pledge yourself, committing to your own No Barriers Life. So let’s take a moment and all celebrate together. Check out this video which speaks to that celebration Grand Canyon style. Learn more about the expedition at KayakingBlind.org
Our expedition partner, Nature Valley just put together an incredible short video clip as a summary of the expedition. Of course there is lots more to share but this encompasses a little bit of everything from the adventure. It even has the surprise finish that Ellen wrote about yesterday. Enjoy!
Written by Ellen Weihenmayer:
It’s fun and rather easy to surprise a blind guy. The kids and I hopped on a plane and flew to Flagstaff, Arizona. From there, we got on the raft guides’ bus and drove 6 hours to the take-out at Pearce Ferry. My friend, Kim, came along. Kim is our family’s cheerleader, starting with her film work at base camp while Erik was on Everest. Also, Erik’s lead climbing Sherpa and friend, Kami, met us in Flagstaff.
Kami is “Uncle Kami” to our family. He helped us in the arduous adoption process for our son, Arjun. He’s always up for an adventure.
Rolling my TravelPro suitcase to the take-out, I found myself in the middle of nowhere. This take-out is not yet Lake Mead but definitely out of the Grand Canyon. What was once under water is now a tamarisked land of sand resting on sand dunes. Separating the dunes is a stripe of fairly mellow water that had earlier boiled with power but now seemed tired. This is where we met Erik. We knew the drill. Our surprise celebrations at his extraordinary finishes have occurred before:
1. Cessna plane landed at their basecamp on the Kahiltna Glacier, Denali. ‘95
2. Climbed the backside of El Cap. ‘96
3. Primal Quest Lake Tahoe (4am finish with three-year old Emma). ‘03
4. Leadville 100 – kids ran with Erik across the finish line. ‘10
The surprise went like this. Everyone heard about our arrival and kept very quiet. Harlan Taney led Erik to the shore, giving his last commands after 21 days of incredible guiding. “Paddle forward. Little left. Forward.” Harlan’s strong voice cracked with emotion as he saw Erik’s kids inching their way towards the water. When Erik stepped out of his kayak, 277 miles after entering this mighty river, we were there to rush and shout and hug. So awesome. Kami simply said, “Namaste.” Erik struggled with reality as the dream-like voice repeated itself. “Kami??” Then, more hugs all around.
There are people in Erik’s life who belong in my mind and in my heart forever for achieving something that is too hard to even define, much less describe. The Everest team is God-like for their courage, perseverance, and patience. On the El Capitan climb, Hans Florine led with talent, strength, and confidence. When this Grand Canyon team stepped out of their boats and onto solid ground, I knew that they had all emerged profoundly changed by their experience. They had formed a noble brotherhood that time won’t diminish. Upside down in a rapid, Harlan’s one main thought during Lava Falls was not of danger for himself but instead, “I wish I could talk to Erik and tell him I’m upside down.” Rolling up quickly, his first thought was of Erik.
It may be too conceited to speak of Erik alongside Major John Wesley Powell. It has been said about Powell that throughout his life, he maintained the “incarnation of the inquisitive and courageous spirit of the American. He wanted to know and he was willing to risk his life that he might know.” Both Lonnie and Erik truly wanted to know as well: was it really possible to ride an avalanche of angry waves down the Colorado without ever seeing a single drop of water? After checking out the recent footage, I can tell you the risk was real. There is not a way to distinguish, in my eyes, the elements of air and water. Only water. Everywhere. Powell would have been very proud.
Pulling my little carry-on suitcase through the muck after an epic overnight storm, we found that all roads abruptly washed away at the take-out. We were stuck for another 6 hours while we waited for the water to recede and the dirt road repaired. It was time for the kids and me to sit a spell beside our grand Colorado River and hear a story or two before the water flowed its secrets downstream. Scorpions on kayak skirts, a mouse inside Erik’s kayak, hugging lessons (no pats allowed), drum sessions, waterfall jumping, booty beers, carping for air; we had heard just the very beginning of stories. While the team slept hard during their long 6-hour ride back to Flagstaff, I saw legs twitching and arms stretching upward, still holding their imaginary paddles. Their dreams were developing into stories. Just you wait. You’re going to love them!
You can learn more about the expedition by going to KayakingBlind.org
Now that I’m home, I’ve had a little time to reflect on our No Barriers Grand Canyon Expedition. Lonnie and I embarked on this journey as part of our No Barriers Pledge, our commitment to live a No Barriers Life. As two blind people, we understood that choosing to kayak 277 miles through the Grand Canyon and through some massive white water, wouldn’t be easy. Choosing this kind of path is never easy! It’s like paddling forward into darkness, into the roar of whitewater below, consciously choosing to enter the chaos, a storm that overwhelms the mind and the senses, and will most likely pummel you before you emerge on the other side. Who would choose this life? It sets us up for struggle and even some bleeding from time to time. However, I also believe this choice offers a depth and richness of adventure, friendship, love, beauty, joy and purpose that cannot be experienced in any other way.
Moving forward in this uncertain way is hard, but in the case of Lonnie and me, we came to the expedition equipped. Although we both have obvious challenges, we came with a toolkit built through preparation on many rivers and life experiences. We were also equipped with an outstanding team of friends and guides who shared our vision and to whom we trusted our fates. In my case, a vital part of the toolkit was an innovative high-tech communication system discovered after two years of searching and experimentation. But I believe the most important tool is something very hard to describe; let’s call it an internal light. For some, those who have experienced major adversity and have been shoved into a dark place, that light only flickers and is in jeopardy of burning out. However, fueled through our hard choices, that light ignites and becomes the energy to propel us forward, through the barriers that try to knock us flat, towards purpose and fulfillment in our lives.
Sometimes I meet people and they call me “inspirational.” Of course this word is meant as a compliment, but I secretly wonder if it’s a word that actually separates us. It says, you are the inspirational blind man and you exist over there, but I’m just a regular person and I exist over here. I think this is a defense mechanism that prevents us from looking inward and tapping into our own inner light. Lonnie and I fully intended the story of our descent to be a universal one. It’s not just about two blind people kayaking. It’s about you and what’s possible for all of us when we choose a No Barriers Life.
One of the personal highlights of our past trip was my experience in Lava Falls, head and shoulders the biggest rapid in the Grand Canyon. As I paddled into the massive roar, with my friend/guide, Harlan, yelling directions through our comm system, I flipped on a surging boil-line and was upside-down floating into the tumult. Over the last several years, I’d dreamed and worried about Lava, and floating into it upside-down was never part of the plan. I did manage to roll up and avoid the crushing “Ledge Hole,” but the crashing lateral, “V-Wave” below flipped me again. As I rolled up, another crashing wave hit me sideways, and I was over again, trying to roll up with it’s weight pummeling me from above. After a couple attempts, I pulled my skirt and swam out of my boat. Unbeknownst to me, Harlan had lifted his paddle to brace against the same wave that flipped me, and the power of it, snapped his paddle in half. So now he was also upside-down. Harlan managed to roll up with half his paddle, and our safety boaters were right there at the bottom pulling me to shore.
That night, camped right below the rapid, I listened to its thunder and contemplated what the river was trying to tell me. To swim through one rapid didn’t make me a failure. A story-book ending is only a human contrivance; the river is in charge and tells the story it wants. However, half of me felt like my story with Lava wasn’t finished.
Lava is one of the very few rapids on the Grand Canyon that you can repeat. I tossed and turned that night, wrestling with what to do. The next morning, I’d made my arduous decision, and we slowly hiked up a winding trail, dragging our boats through Tamarisk bushes slashing at our faces. Then a difficult paddle up a series of eddies, a tricky ferry across the river, another scrambling hike, and we were at the top again. Harlan asked me if I wanted to warm up with some paddling, but I said, “No, let’s do this.”
My second run was much like the first. I almost flipped again on the same boil-line, crashed into the laterals and was knocked over. I rolled up sideways, flipping again. This time, however, I rolled up in the middle of the chaos, got flipped again, rolled up a third time and heard Harlan’s voice, “You’re through it. You’re through it,” and then the cheers from my team waiting below. There was a lot of kayak hugging and some tears, mostly from me. I told Harlan that I’d been scared to try it again, but had trusted in an open-heart policy: commit, let go, and have faith you will emerge on the other side stronger.
So back to the message of our expedition. Please don’t write it off as a story of inspirational blind guys or adrenaline-junky pursuits. It’s about you and your own No Barriers story – what ever that looks like. Don’t let yourself off the hook. Wrestle with your own important and difficult choices; employ your open-heart policy and trust that you will ride that storm towards a new and beautiful and unexpected place. And most importantly, believe that what is inside you is stronger than the challenges in your way, and commit to growing that internal light. No matter what our background, ability, or circumstances, we have much to contribute, and we owe it to our families, our teams, and most importantly to ourselves. So keep paddling and allow your light to shine.
As part of your journey, join Lonnie and me and take the No Barriers pledge:
Please share with your fans, friends, and families. Learn more about the expedition at KayakingBlind.org and join the social media buzz by using #KayakingBlind on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Side hikes in the canyon are one of the highlights of any trip. Check out this gallery of some of the favorites from the expedition.
- Erik on Grand Canyon Expedition: Day #6 September 12, Photos & Update
- Michael Dean on Kayak Training
- Joe on No Barriers Grand Canyon Expedition Reflection
- Danna on No Barriers Grand Canyon Expedition Reflection
- Kathleen Archuleta on Kayaking Blind Grand Canyon Expedition Recap Video
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