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)
Lesson 1: Follow the Leader
The second part of my Flash Sonar training with Daniel Kish focused on something I haven’t done in over thirty years, riding a single bike. My team, Daniel, and I took to the park and decided to give it a shot.
Daniel has come up with an innovative technique in which he ties a zip tie to the bike of the person riding in front of him, and it turns into a version of follow the leader … but Flash Sonar style. The zip tie attaches to the frame so that it strikes the spokes with each rotation of the wheel, creating a strumming noise that is constant and clear for my bat senses. To get my feet wet, my teammate Tanner attached his zip tie to my bike, and we were off and riding through the grassy park. Tanner would try to challenge me by doing zigzags, kind of like a game of cat and mouse. When we’d come to a stop, I quickly learned that braking on a single bike is vastly different than on a tandem; I made the mistake of using my front brake only and flipped over my handlebars. After recovering, I told my team this was the most fun I have had in a long time, and I didn’t want to stop. We had to, however, because it was getting dark for the folks with eyesight.
Lesson 2: Around the Block
Since riding in the park was such a success, we decided we should take it to the street. The street added a lot more speed, especially going downhill, and properly braking became more crucial than at the park. With practice, I got better at it with commands from my team. Tanner would say things like, “less brake, Erik,” as we rolled down the hill. I also used Daniel’s clicking technique to hear parked cars on each side as we rode by. Daniel has helped give me the chance to do something that I didn’t think I was capable of doing again.
I couldn’t help thinking back to when I was 12 years old pretending to be Evil Knievel as I launched off the wooden ramp in my driveway. Back then, we’d ride around the neighborhood with cards sputtering in our spokes. I’m a little older but it still sounds cool, and I’m loving the feeling of speed and independence once again. Thank you, Daniel.
Watch the video below to see me riding. I warn you, though, I look like a drunken sailor:
It is never too late to get back on the saddle, in my case, bike saddle… even after you fall off it a few times. And now is the time! As 2014 takes off, I encourage you to take the pledge to live a No Barriers Life and do something that excites, scares, and challenges you to be the best version of yourself. Follow the link here to make the personal pledge: http://nobarriersusa.org/eriksclimbersclub/ .
“What’s Within You Is Stronger Than What’s In Your Way!”
I love creating systems which break new ground. Lucky for me, an amazing sensory system for navigating as a blind person already exists. It’s essentially what bats do, a kind of echo location, mastered by the guru, Daniel Kish. Flash Sonar is the name Daniel coined, in which you make sharp clicks with your tongue and listen to how the sound echoes off objects to figure out their size, shape, and distance. Most blind people have learned to do this to some degree, but it’s passive and not developed with a conscious process. Daniel, blind himself from a year-old takes this technique to a stunning new level.
Daniel recently flew out to my HQ in Colorado for a few days to help me improve my bat skills. We kicked off with a simple exercise of Daniel holding plates up to my left or right and me trying to identify which side. Then we walked around the neighborhood investigating the different sounds like parked cars, mailboxes, houses, trees and bushes. Daniel is also an expert teacher, and sped up the learning process with a series of questions about each object to help me form images in my mind. He’d ask, “Describe how that sounds… How does it sound different from the tree you just heard?” I’d answer with, “It somehow sounds softer than the tree, and not as tall. Maybe it’s a shrub?” Afterwards I’d reach out to feel it and confirm with my hands.
We then tested my skills in the park by trying to identify trash cans, water fountains, picnic benches, and rocks, all things blind people would like to be aware of during their average day. “Sounds like a wall of some kind over there,” I’d say, and Daniel would reply, “Let’s go investigate and find out.” I wish I’d known Flash Sonar a few months ago when I was walking through the airport and slammed my forehead into an overhanging metal beam. I hit the deck with blood pouring down my face and into my eyes. I still have a big scar and worst of all, I lost my latte. So it was especially gratifying when, by the end of the day, I was finding metal poles in a pavilion and even locating thin metal sign posts. It all took immense concentration, but the good news is that it’s fully possible, and only gets better with practice.
Check out the video blog of our training together.
Also, check out this video clip of Daniel’s protégé, also blind, riding his bike through a maze and setting a new world record.
In a couple days, we’ll be posting Part 2 of our training when I learned to do something I hadn’t done since I went blind 30 years ago. Stay tuned, and I hope you use this to set your own ambitious, and slightly scary, stretch goals for the new year.
Three weeks ago, I was in Phoenix giving a presentation and planned a kayak adventure on the side. Diamond Down is a 53-mile section of the Colorado River about 4 hours from Phoenix. It travels through the last stretch of the Grand Canyon and makes for a perfect day trip. It’s also perfect training for the longer 277-mile run of the GC that I have my sites set on for next fall.
We actually had to cancel our first trip scheduled for mid-September. The day before departure, my kayaking guide, Harlan Taney, called to tell us about the torrential monsoon rains that had washed out the dirt road to the put-in. So now on our second attempt, weather was looking almost as bad. A storm was predicted to move in and dump five feet of snow in Flagstaff and make for cold miserable conditions on the river.
One side of me said to cancel again; kayaking in the cold rain isn’t my idea of fun, but Harlan, who has led 200+ trips down the Grand Canyon, looked at the weather map and he thought there was a chance we might just beat the worst of the storm. Lately I’ve been coaching myself with what I call my, “open mind/open heart policy.” Some of the best gifts of my life have come when I keep my mind and heart open to the possibilities and trust my team. So I bit my lip and responded, “Let’s do it.”
The 6:30 a.m. start was a little painful. The temperature was about 45 degrees and raining, so I left the hotel room bundled in fleece and put on my dry suit in the truck. Fred Thevanin, owner of Arizona Raft Adventures came prepared with a full survival suit. Fred, along with his colleague, Dennis Smoldt , would be driving us out of the canyon on the motorboat for the 40 miles of flat water after the end of the 11-mile section of rapids. Harlan brought his kayaking buddy, Roy Lippman, who would be a second safety kayaker, and Skyler Williams would be the third.
Diamond Creek rapid is not more than a hundred yards down from the launch. So my shoulders and hips were still tight from the drive into the canyon as it approached. In what seemed like only a few paddle strokes down the river, a big crashing wave caught me by surprise and almost flipped me. I braced right hard and fought the surge of the river, narrowly avoiding going over.
I was trying out a new faster boat that was making my turns a little squirrely, and Harlan was having to give me more directions and corrections than usual over our Neptune BlueWave headsets. This was making me quite nervous as I descended into the bigger rapids of the day. At one point I told Harlan that because I wasn’t used to the new boat, I didn’t feel it was necessary for me to do the two more serious rapids, one of them named Killer Fang Falls, for two large rocks that protrude from the water like fangs; the hard Vishnu Schist geology has been carved by the water for eons, producing an exposed rock that is fluted with sharp points and edges. It can easily flip a boat and puncture a blind kayaker. Made worse, this is supposedly where Glen and Bessie Hyde, known as the “honeymoon couple,” disappeared without a trace.
Harlan wasn’t giving me an easy out, however! When I twice mentioned I might skip the big ones, he repeated calmly, “I think you’ve got these.” The cold and rain suddenly seemed like the least of my worries. Killer Fang Falls starts with a challenging left to right move narrowly passing the fangs and then across a powerful series of lateral waves crashing into the canyon wall. The water pushes you hard into the wall and then surges back again, creating a turbulent no-man’s area that works hard to flip you before finally flushing you out. Harlan kept me on the perfect line and at the bottom, I was past the fangs, past the crazy laterals, and still upright.
Soon I could hear the deep thunder roar of the next rapid ahead as it echoed off the canyon walls. My kayak team always remarks that, at the sound of rapids, my expression perks up and my eyes grow wide. That must have been the case as I floated down the smooth glassy tongue into the onslaught. Crashing waves bombarded me from the right as Harlan weaved me between several rocks. Just when I thought I was through the toughest part, a wave knocked me sideways and instantly I was upside-down. One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand . . . The key I knew was to stay calm.
On my last river trip in Peru, a wave shoved me sideways and I got knocked over in a similar way. When I tried to roll up, I was in the middle of a big hole and couldn’t get my paddle to the surface. . After trying a couple times unsuccessfully, five one-thousand . . . six one-thousand . . . I pulled my skirt and swam. Later, my team told me if I’d waited another five seconds, I would have been swept out of the turbulence. So this time, I waited until it felt calm above, braced my paddle, and made my roll. To me it felt like an eternity under the water, but Harlan said I rolled up with confidence and kept paddling forward, almost without skipping a beat.
After several more big rapids and one more roll, we were through the chaos and into the flat water. My open mind/open heart policy had paid off. For the next three hours we motored the flats as Fred regaled us with stories of Col. Powell, with only one arm, his team battling rapids in clunky wooden boats on the first complete Grand Canyon expedition and almost starving to death along the way. Harlan chimed in with harrowing tales of kayaking steep narrow creeks and 40-foot waterfall drops, and Skyler mimicked an impression of my signature puckered face as I smack into crashing waves. Everyone laughed, and it went back and forth for hours as we shivered away in the cold rain and wind.
Thanks to Harlan and the AzRA team for another great adventure.
Touch the Top announces we are selling our REACH Pendants again this year. Last year we took a big reach ourselves by embarking on this new venture, and it was so wildly popular, we’ve decided to bring it back for the holidays. All proceeds will go towards a scholarship for a deserving teenager to participate in a No Barriers – Leading the Way experience. These trips take teams of kids: blind and sighted, deaf and hearing: on multi-day journeys down the Grand Canyon. The mission is to help youth learn to tap into the human spirit, push through adversity, and embrace a No Barriers Mindset. “What’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way.”
Here’s a link to learn more about Leading the Way 2014: http://nobarriersusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Final-Sound-Academy-2014-1.pdf
My friend Cheryl Cutting designed this beautiful sterling silver pendant to inspire everyone to reach towards their own possibilities. The word REACH is spelled out in the Latin alphabet on one side and Braille on the other.
The hand symbol encourages you to reach into the unknown, to strive for greatness, and to find purpose. The mountains represent both audacious goals and the possibility of reaching personal summits. The stars in the sky symbolize dreams coming true, success, light in the darkness, and navigating your way through the wilderness.
The REACH pendant is tough yet beautiful. It is for men and women, athletes and non-athletes, abled and disabled. It is the perfect gift for anyone facing adversity in their life—or anyone who has overcome it.
Here is the link to submit your order:
Important: We have nine pendants up for grabs to arrive by Christmas but you must place your order by the end of the week on Friday, December 20. If you want to use them for kicking off the New Year, we have more pendants available and will continue to sell them after Christmas.
It is utterly amazing to witness individuals who push themselves to show the world what determination, teamwork, and a common vision can accomplish.
Imagine cross-country skiing nine miles a day with a total of 208 miles over the course of 16 days in temperatures as low as -50 degrees Fahrenheit and winds blasting against you at 50mph. To add icing on the cake, put yourself in the shoes of someone pulling 154 pounds on an arctic sledge with your eyes and hearts set on the vision of reaching the South Pole.
As some of you know, this is the 2013 South Pole Allied Challenge, a project No Barriers has taken on. Three teams of wounded servicemen and women are challenging themselves mentally and physically to show the world the courage veterans have after sustaining physical and cognitive injuries. Their ability to take on adversity after serving in the military, and facing life-altering injury is in itself inspirational. The teams departed on November 14, 2013. Their aim is to reach the South Pole around December 17, 2013. Way to go No Barriers and the staff for supporting such a great cause!
Back in August, at the No Barriers Summit in Telluride, I met the entire team. Just last week they were honored to meet the Queen of England. I have been telling my friends I am only two people away from knowing the Queen of England! I am figuring out if I can make this into one of my good jokes or not . . . jury is still out. Either way, it gets me talking about the South Pole Allied Challenge and what a significant expedition this is, to reach across the globe and along the way touch civilians, active service members, and veterans.
My friend, Charley Mace, with whom I climbed Everest, has been training the US Team for the last year. Thanks Charley for helping the Team! The three teams taking on the challenge are the US Team, which No Barriers is supporting, the second is from the UK, and the third is a combination of Australians and Canadians, referred to as the Commonwealth. To show support for veterans, Prince Harry, who is an active duty Captain in the British Army is accompanying the team.
The South Pole Allied Challenge is truly a living testimony of the No Barriers Mindset, “What’s inside of you is stronger than what’s in your way.” To give you an example of one of the individuals on the team, meet Mark Wise.
Mark served as an (Army) infantry officer in the First Battalion. During his time in Afghanistan in 2009 Mark was involved in an IED incident where he suffered from partial hand/forearm amputation, facial damage, and burns. Mark doesn’t see his experience as a reason to take a step back from serving but rather as another reason to keep going. Here is a quote from Mark, “As a leader of soldiers your responsibility never ends. I feel obligated to continue to set the example for those who follow not only in my footsteps as a wounded service member, but also for those returning home from combat.” To learn more about the team click here.
To learn more about the SPAC Challenge of 2013 and see current updates please visit the link to Walking with the Wounded’s website: http://walkingwiththewounded.org.uk/southpole2013/
If you would like to support the US Team please visit the link here: https://nobarriers.fundraise.com/southpole
Below are some of the videos on the South Pole Allied Challenge of 2013
A short video describing the SPAC of 2013: http://www.soldierstosummits.org/The-Program-Allied-South-Pole-2013-Challenge.aspx
Video on the departure of the teams on November 14, 2013: http://walkingwiththewounded.org.uk/southpole2013/video/
A couple weeks ago, I returned from our third Soldiers to Summits expedition high in the Peruvian Andes, with 15 veterans, all with either physical injuries or mental and psychological trauma. I met the team back in August at the No Barriers Summit during their first training session. I got acquainted with Aaron Hale, blind for less than two years. Aaron was leading an Army bomb squad when an IED exploded in his face. It took out his eyes, blew out his eardrums, took away his sense of smell and fractured his cranium and face bones. With the support of his wife and kids, Aaron fought his way back. His life philosophy: “to stop moving is to stop living.” Marine Ryan Garza also made a big impression on me. He was leading sweep teams through four battlefield deployments and was blown up several times before the big one, which shattered his foot into 80 pieces. Doctors said he’d never walk, let alone climb a mountain. However after many surgeries, Ryan felt he was ready to join S2S and push himself to the next step of his life.
The team first headed up to the rural Quechua nation of Q’eros for some service work and cultural exchange where they learned ancient Inca mathematic techniques, and in turn taught basic first aid skills. The team carried heavy rocks to build a cui pen for the locals (Cui is guinea pig, a staple in the Quechua diet.) They also brought and assembled a solar panel for a new school being built and helped paint the structure.
A couple members on the team told me that looking around the village and the indigenous people, it looked remarkably similar to their experience in Afghanistan. One even said he found himself reaching for his firearm as a programmed response and being nervous when it wasn’t there. It made me realize that for many of these men and women, it was the first time they were out of the U.S. without being in a life-threatening situation. How positive was it that this new experience could be a part of rewiring the brain and teaching our team that the world can be a friendly inviting place, full of adventure, instead of danger.
Afterwards, the team trekked forty miles over the week through the Cordillera Vilcanota, past remote llama and alpaca hearding communities. Vilcanota circumnavigates Apu Ausangate, a massive snowy peak with giant hanging seracs and deep crevasses crisscrossing the glacier, as well as being the most important deity for the Quechua people. Throughout, the weather was cold with spells of torrential rain and hail, and many were suffering from altitude sickness. People were pretty exhausted at the end of each long day, and were forced to draw upon their inner strength to keep positive. In the face of those hardships, on a very snowy day and after a long climb, we reached the top of Mariposa, and our four rope teams stood on a tiny mound of space at almost 18,000 feet.
Aaron struggled up to the summit a moment behind me, exhausted but satisfied. He said he started the day feeling low and thought about quitting in the first grueling hour. But his teammates and guides told him to “suck it up.” Being a warrior, Aaron rose to the challenge and kept trudging. I was so impressed by everyone on the team who took turns guiding him throughout, seamlessly stepping in to replace each other with zero prompting, and calling directions for hour after exhausting hour. Ryan Garza came up soon after Aaron, with the encouragement of his rope team and help from his special leg brace and high-tech mountain crutches.
At the summit, Army veteran Pedro Sotelo pulled a very large American Flag from his relatively small pack. Seeing this happen, a couple team members started laughing, and someone said, “I can’t believe you brought that all the way up here.” I’ve found that soldiers are constantly busting on each other and joking around in the face of arduous situations, but not this time. Without hesitation, Pedro shot back, “A lot of good people died for this flag. That’s why I’m here – to honor them and to keep pushing forward.”
As we stood with the giant American flag raised and the tiny No Barriers flag overlaid on top, I reflected on all the struggles we face as human beings, and all the ways we try to push forward. I think No Barriers starts with a belief that every human being has the potential to climb, and that by tapping into the human spirit we can equip ourselves with the toolkit to live a purposeful life.
After the summit we debriefed in the hut, and one veteran opened up and told us, before S2S, he was dangerously close to suicide, but applied, figuring he had nothing to lose. He said he was so glad he did and that he now had a family again to watch his back and to draw strength from. He ended by saying that he now had more hope and confidence that he could lead and serve again.
As I get older, I realize that the pattern of progress perfectly mimics a climb – two steps upward – one slide back. We struggle to take on our demons, to embrace a new life after catastrophic changes, to build something great, or to find purpose in our lives. Daily obstacles wear us down and knock us back, and there are moments we feel we’ve gone backwards and lost our traction. But like Pedro, we keep pushing forward anyway. And if we are true to our extended journey, we also experience those moments of breakthrough, of transformation, and we realize our summits are within our reach.
Thank you to all of you who have supported our Soldiers to Summits team, and on this important holiday, I want to thank those who have served our nation bravely. Veterans Day teaches us all about the kind of men and women who are the truest sense of what we all aspire to be, pioneering, resilient, and persistent in our drive to move forward.
We honor veterans because we know the weight they carry is heavy, and the weight of that flag should be carried by us all, not just by a few.
And last, thanks to my dad, Ed, a Marine, who has inspired me my whole life. Semper fi!
See a powerful video clip that summarizes the expedition and the No Barriers mindset.
Some of you have already heard that an amazing blind guy, Lonnie Bedwell, a Navy Veteran, just kayaked the Grand Canyon. He was part of a descent of the Colorado River with an organization serving veterans, Team River Runner. I’d heard of Lonnie and even met him once at an event for disabled skiers, and he’s humble, and down-to-Earth, as well as courageous.
I also have plans to kayak the GC next year. Last April, I did a trip down the Canyon to get my feet wet and see if a full kayak descent was possible. I exceeded my expectations, managing to kayak most of the major rapids, but taking a motor boat on the flats to save time.
Lonnie’s recent descent is so powerful for the veteran community, for blind people, and especially for folks around the world facing challenges. Increasingly, my life is about encouraging people with challenges to dream big, then to pursue those dreams systematically and with perseverance. I try to personally live a “no barriers mindset” to expand the envelope, to try things that others might feel are difficult or impossible. So I love to see doors opening and people like Lonnie who are also taking on this charge!
This month, I’m heading to the Maranon, the Grand Canyon of South America, to train. I’ll be with my friends and kayaking guides, Harlan Taney, Steven Mace, and Skyler Williams. This is further team preparation towards my kayak descent of the Grand Canyon next September.
A few days ago, I reached out to Lonnie and asked him to be part of this September descent and he seems interested. I hope he comes aboard. Imagine what a message that would send – two blind people taking on one of the world’s most wild and iconic rivers – each in solo kayaks. With one person doing it, there’s always a chance it’s an anomaly, but with two, we move even closer to No Barriers – No Excuses! I’ll keep you posted.
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