To kick off the summer, my family and I descended a six-day stretch of the Salmon River through the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area in Idaho. The family, including my brother Eddi and his two older kids – Edwin and Brooklyn, voted it the best river trip ever. The Main Fork of the Salmon is a wide, friendly river with big wave trains and only a few muncher holes to avoid. I kayaked with the same team that will guide me on the Grand Canyon: Harlan Taney, Steven Mace, and Skyler Williams – while my family paddled a raft, duckied, and even tried their hand at stand-up paddle boarding on the mellower sections. One great aspect of the river is that everyone challenged themselves in different ways on the rapids, while at night, we all met up for campfires, amazing barbecues, scary stories and finally, slept peacefully under the stars.
In the middle of the trip on a beautiful sandy beach, we celebrated Emma’s 14th birthday with a chocolate cake. Everyone sang and pounded the table. For this special day, with reluctance, I allowed her to paint my toenails. The sacrifices a dad makes!
The beach games on this trip were really memorable; Harlan led a fun game called, Hunker Down. Two contestants play a tug-of-war with rope while standing balanced on ammo boxes.
Harlan, ever the gamer, also introduced us to The Big Slider. Flipping a raft upside down on the edge of the beach, we oiled it up. A sprint, jump and dive sent us sliding across the boat and into the very chilly water. Here’s a video of my big slide.
On our last night, James Ellsworth, the head of the trip, broke out a bag of costumes. Because a picture is worth a thousand words, we had to edit a few out.
On our last fun night, we played beach Olympics involving a crazy obstacle course. Five sit-ups, throw on a PFD, take it off, spin around fast, throw a ball in the ducky, spin around faster. As dizzy as we were, we all nearly ended up in the River of No Return.
Thank you, James, our river host, and to the rest of the MFRE guide crew for an amazing trip!
Middle Fork River Expeditions
My friend Tim Conners and his mom Betsy have just taken a huge step in their lives. Tim was diagnosed with Leukemia when he was 15 years old. After going through chemotherapy and then a bone marrow transplant that resulted in a complication that made him blind, Tim, needless to say, has been through the ringer. However, Tim is a “climber”. I originally met Tim when I was contacted by the Make a Wish Foundation a few years ago. After speaking with Tim, my teammate Skyler and I brainstormed with him and his mom and decided to do something fun but also adventurous together. We chose to do a high ropes course and river rafting trip. It was the first time Tim had stepped out of his comfort zone and done an adventure since he became blind.
Now, Tim is currently on a trip at the Grand Canyon called “Leading the Way” with Global Explorers, a program of No Barriers USA. I had the privilege of guiding some of the early Leading the Way trips. These experiences bring together teenagers who are both blind and sighted through an adventure that involves a community project like painting a school or planting trees in an endangered area. On July 2nd, Tim hikes out of the canyon, one of the most physical and mental challenges of the trip, and of his life.
I think Tim’s take on life reminds us all to keep crushing our own personal barriers even when they seem extreme.
To see the blog of when when we met each other two years ago, here is the link: http://www.touchthetop.com/blog/a-dream-comes-true-1512
Help me in cheering him on at his Care Bridge website as he hikes out of the canyon tomorrow! You can log in to the page with your Facebook account or by registering a new account. http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/timconners#_=_
Here’s a short excerpt from Betsy talking about how Tim has trained for the Grand Canyon adventure:
“While preparing and working out for this Grand Canyon trip Tim also achieved a 4.0 at Ithaca College. He set a goal of running up and down our stairs 50 times without stopping to build his endurance. The Saturday before he left he made it up and down 51 times. He also rode his Tandem Bike (something Skyler first did with him on his make a wish trip) over 8 miles each time and we hiked using his trekking poles (something Erik introduced him to)over 5 miles at a time. As you can tell I am a very proud mom and am thrilled that Tim has gone from walking in leg braces 3 years ago to now hiking and rafting in the Grand Canyon. He heads to UCLA on July 27th for a leadership week that he received a scholarship for. Even just flying alone all over the country is a major milestone.”
Please read the blog written by his mother that talks about his Grand Canyon adventure.
Betsy Conners, June 22, 2014:
Tonight Tim is camping with the Global Explorers Group on the north rim of the Grand Canyon! He has spent the past two months preparing for the physical challenges he will face over the next 12 days. He has been walking, hiking, running our stairs, and riding his tandem bike all over town.
On June 26th he will begin white water river rafting 90 miles down the Colorado River. The group will be camping along the way in parts of the canyon that most people do not get a chance to visit. He will be studying the effects of sound pollution on the canyon. On July 2nd he will make the tough hike out of the canyon as that is the only way out. The temperature in the canyon the other day was 106.
The picture on the front of his page shows him with all of his gear ready to go. I did not cry when I left Tim off at college, when I left him at the Carroll Center, when he went to Huntsville, Alabama for Space Camp, or when I left him at Perkins, but this morning when Mike and I left him at the airport this morning the tears came. I am so proud of his strength and determination.
Some people may think we are crazy for sending Tim on this adventure but to those of you who know Tim well know that once he sets his mind to something there is no stopping him. Ever since his Make a Wish with Erik Weihenmayer he is more determined than ever to show that neither cancer nor blindness can hold him back – he has adopted the no barriers mindset.
Last week we walked for the 4th year in a row at the Oswego County Relay for Life. Tim is not only hiking out of the canyon for himself but is also hiking in honor of all those who he has met who have lost their battle and are not able to hike on their own. I would ask that all of you send Tim positive thoughts between now and July 3rd and in particular on July 2nd when he is hiking out of the canyon. He is going to have to push his limits on this trip both physically and mentally but as he kept telling me it will not be worse than fighting for his life in ICU 46 months ago or than wrestling camp in Virginia.
Two blind guys are going to take on kayaking the Grand Canyon in September 2014.
As Lonnie Bedwell and I paddle 277 miles through the Grand Canyon, we hope to encourage 1 million people to take the No Barriers Pledge, a pledge that says, What’s within me is stronger than what’s in my way. We hope our big challenge will push others to pick a significant barrier holding them back, attack it, and shatter it into a million pieces.
I first learned about Lonnie when my team and I were doing a training trip on the Colorado River. We heard about another blind kayaker and were very surprised. Learning to whitewater kayak has been one of the hardest challenges I’ve ever taken on. After a typical day of kayak training — getting flipped in rapids, hitting rocks sideways, and sometimes pulling my skirt and taking long unpleasant swims – I’d often laugh and say, “Well, I guess there’s a reason why there aren’t many other blind kayakers in the world.”
So the idea that there were actually two of us was hard to believe. In August 2013 with Team River Runner, Lonnie paddled the Grand Canyon. Team River Runner is an organization similar to Soldiers to Summits, except it uses kayaking to help veterans heal after life-changing injuries. After hearing about Lonnie, I called him up to say congratulations and an idea began to grow in my mind: one blind kayaker paddling the mighty Colorado River could be seen as an anomaly, but two becomes a more powerful statement that a No Barriers Life is possible for all of us.
As you will see from this quick video clip, Lonnie and I have very different kayaking styles that fit our personalities. After teaming up with him and his guides at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, I am even more thrilled to have him on the team.
Meet my friend Lonnie Bedwell…
Pledge to live the No Barriers Life, and have your family and friends take the pledge too. It doesn’t mean you have to paddle the Grand Canyon blind. Instead, it’s picking a challenge that scares you a little and will push you to reach in a new direction. Stop smoking, lose weight, volunteer to lead a Scouting group, or take on learning a new sport. Support our work by attacking your own barrier, and take the No Barriers Pledge.
Stay tuned for upcoming updates as our training continues!
Two weeks ago, my high school friend and now Army Lieutenant Colonel, Scott Fitzgerald, invited me to speak at Lewis/McChord Army/Air Force Base to a battalion of soldiers, most of them soon deploying to Afghanistan. The base is in DuPont, Washington, near Seattle, so it was surprising to have sun shining when my teammate Tanner, my guide dog Yuri, and I landed and took our first steps out of the airport. We felt it was a good omen for such an important day. Before arriving at the base, we fueled up in true athlete fashion with crispy chicken sandwiches and fries from Wendy’s.
My talk was in an old-style movie theater complete with a projector room in the back, balcony, and even a popcorn stand in the lobby, so I figured if the soldiers were bored, they could always entertain themselves by throwing popcorn at the unsuspecting blind guy on stage; Yuri would have loved that. LtCol Fitzgerald’s team, however, were true gentlemen and gentlewomen, engaged, absorbing everything, and even laughing uproariously at parts of my story like when I mistook a syrup bottle for a soap bottle and tried to wash the dishes with syrup. Overall, it was a special opportunity to share a message of harnessing adversity, to use it like fuel to propel ourselves forward and emerge on the other side, not damaged goods, but stronger and better. This is part of the struggle to live a No Barriers Life every day. These soldiers are deploying in a month or two to replace and cover the soldiers exiting Afghanistan. In other words, they’ll be engaged in the crucial mission of bringing our troops home, and they’re sure to face some major adversities along the way!
After I spoke, Scott surprised me with a battalion coin and awesome Lewis/McChord shirt. I am always honored when I receive battalion coins. It makes me feel a part of the military’s rope team. My son, Arjun, and I collect these coins in a booklet, and we love going through them together as the years go by. Thank you Scott!
Over the years I have spoken to many military operations, from Wounded Warrior Battalion West Marines to bases throughout Europe on a USO Air Force tour, and I feel fortunate to have been asked to give a little to our country, even though I’m a wimpy civilian. Thank you to all of those who serve and have served, and especially to the Lewis/McChord team.
This may be a little unusual for one of my blogs, but look carefully at the flower arrangement designed by Patricia Taira of Mary’s Flowers and Gifts in Florence SC, to beautify an event I participated in this week for McLeod Health, a non-profit faith-based healthcare organization which services northern South Carolina. The two boots, the climbing rope and ice tool, buried amidst gorgeous flowers, wins my designation for the Flower Arrangement of the Year. It dramatically reinforced the “reaching” theme of my presentation.
This wasn’t the only special part of the evening. Founded in 1906, McLeod has a rich history of providing services to meet the healthcare needs of the region, including one of the Nation’s largest and finest hospital-based health and fitness centers, which my team and I had the opportunity to enjoy earlier in the afternoon. The 650 physicians and 6,000 employees of McLeod are VERY proud of their heritage. I was impressed by the “family” spirit of the affair. And the amazing flower designs on every table, especially this one featured, were just the tip of the iceberg.
I’ve had the privilege of knowing lots of “climbers” over the years. One of them is Kyle Coon who I met when he was just seven years old. Kyle and his father, Steve, first met my dad, Ed, and me at an event I was speaking at in Jacksonville, Florida. After my presentation, Kyle seemed almost in shock. His reaction on that day still fills my father and me with emotion. When we sat down together, Kyle immediately hit me with rapid-fire questions like, “You climbed to the top of Everest??”, “You can jump out of airplanes alone??” Ed and Steve sat ten feet away silently smiling and exchanging heartfelt hope as they watched Kyle interrogate me with excitement.
Like me, Kyle is also blind; months before our first meeting, both his eyes had to be removed because of cancer. By the end of our conversation that day, Kyle was a little closer to knowing his life didn’t have to be about limitations.
Several years later, Oprah hosted a show with the theme of “Who was Your Greatest Inspiration in Life?” I went on the show thinking I was just going to tell my story about a bus driver who had a profound effect on my life. To my surprise, this wasn’t the whole plan. Waiting for his cue behind the stage was Kyle, who had come to thank me for my mentorship. Kyle stepped on stage and read a letter in Braille telling his story and expressing his appreciation. Tears came to my eyes.
When I refer to Kyle as a “climber”, I don’t mean he climbs mountains, although he has climbed a fair number of peaks. After I met him the first time, he went on to join and compete four years on his high school varsity wrestling team; he hiked the Ankascocha Trail into Machu Picchu in 2006; in 2007, he and his mountaineering team summited Mt. Kilimanjaro, the Roof of Africa. Kyle is now moving into speaking and has presented at the University of Central Florida where he also graduated with a degree in Communications and met his bride-to-be. Over the years, I have gotten a lot of satisfaction from mentoring Kyle and witnessing him grow and transform. Just a few weeks ago, I got to catch up with him when I was speaking nearby.
Even though Kyle is a tremendous “climber,” he’s now ready to start his career and hasn’t been able to find a full-time job. Like so many people coming out of college today, Kyle is constantly sending out resumes without landing any prospects. The most-recent data from the National Federation of the Blind states that over 75% of blind people are not employed. So even for blind people as well prepared as Kyle, finding a job is especially difficult. I find it ironic that someone who has achieved so much at such a young age is confronting the biggest barrier yet, finding meaningful employment.
If you know of an employer that may be interested in interviewing Kyle, feel free to comment on this blog or on Facebook, and I’ll pass it along to him. Kyle’s work ethic and vision to succeed will drive any company forward. Let’s help Kyle to keep climbing.
Last week, the Touch the Top Team and I spent a morning climbing with some local youth from the Redirection Center in Littleton, Colorado, which helps kids work through some of the challenges they face, both from circumstance and choices.
The Redirection Center partners with a great local organization called the Binning Family Foundation, to facilitate an experiential outdoor program throughout the year with activities like hiking, horseback riding and rock climbing. For the last several weeks the kids have been learning about climbing, so it was fun watching/listening to them test their safety skills: putting on harnesses, tying figure eight knots, and calling climbing commands.
However, I think the coolest part was getting to belay as the kids tested their strength and courage on some over hanging routes that really pushed their limits. Can you believe they trusted their lives to a blind belayer? A few brave students even reciprocated by donning blindfolds to give “no sight” climbing a try.
I also spoke to the group about alchemy, a philosophy I try to live my own life by. Alchemy is the ability to turn led into gold, not just by surviving life challenges, but harnessing them to propel ourselves to new, bold, and profound places. I pray they took it to heart as they continue to learn, grow, and transform.
Last Friday, our film High Ground, highlighting the struggles of injured soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan as they re-enter a civilian world, was shown at USCENTCOM (U.S. Central Command) in Tampa. Major General Michael Garrett presided over our visit. We learned such a screening was unprecedented in USCENTCOM history, a huge honor for us all.
High Ground portrays our first Soldiers to Summits (S2S) program, culminating in the climb of a steep and icy Lobuche, 20,075 feet and eight miles from Everest. I was in Tampa with S2S participants Steve Baskis and Aaron Hale, both blinded on the battlefield. They added a lot of reality to this very powerful story. This showing was arranged by Major Brian Smith, an S2S supporter from the outset, now a member of our Advisory Board, who is based at USCENTCOM.
USCENTCOM is our military command for the Mideast (minus Israel), from Egypt to Pakistan. Security there was extremely tight, with frequent electronic screenings of individuals in between closed doors, and with rooms electronically swept for bugs after people exited a critical office.
High Ground was produced by Don Hahn of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King fame, and directed by Michael Brown, who produced the award-winning documentary of my Everest climb, Farther Than the Eye Can See. The power of High Ground was evident in the emotional response of MG Garrett – who has commanded many combat forces – as he made closing remarks to the mostly military audience.
High Ground engenders heightened respect for our service men and women who volunteer to serve our country, and especially for those soldiers who incur life-changing war injuries. We owe them all our great thanks.
Interested in blind skiing?
A couple of weeks ago, my guide Jeff and I taught a clinic for guides of the blind at Sugarloaf, Maine. I always love being a guinea pig, so check out some of the guides testing their new skills guiding me!
Meet my new friend Noah Carver!
It was fun getting to teach a clinic for some guides from Maine Adaptive Sports and we got to ski with a few of the blind participants.
Over the past year and a half, I have been striving to complete another summit in my life, a $1 million pledge to No Barriers USA.
One of the great blessings of my life has been roping up with others who share the same vision, and I thank them all for helping me to fulfill my pledge. I share this to remind all of us to never stop climbing and to never forget, what’s inside of us is stronger than what’s in our way.
Also I don’t think I have ever shared the beautiful video that my Everest teammate, Didrick Johnck, and No Barriers USA made for me at our last No Barriers Summit to show appreciation. It was fun to watch old clips, like when I was on Oprah.
Check it out: (6 minutes)
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