Grand Canyon Expedition: Day 6 – September 12th
The early part of the Canyon is a good warm up for the harder rapids to come. The river cuts more easily through the softer layers of sedimentary rock, like the red sandstone of the Redwall formation in Marble Canyon, making the topography of the river bed smoother and thus more flat water. Rapids are interspersed as side canyons cut in and during flood events rock debris is deposited into the river, creating a dam effect that then flows over the rocks, forming a rapid. The canyon is continually changing, but these massive scale events are rare. Yesterday, we had a chance to hike up a side drainage called Carbon Canyon and then down Lava Chuar Canyon to make a loop that brought us to our camp. The hike was incredible with massive sheer walls that echoed every voice and click of my trekking pole tip hitting a rock. We hiked up the dry river bed, up and over boulders the size of houses wedged for eons in the confines of the walls. Seemingly with every few hundred feet we encountered a new formation, razor sharp limestone and then softer, even crumbling sandstone carved with deep pockets from erosion. We finally emerged on a plateau high above the river and then descended the dry and cobble strewn riverbed of Lava Chuar.
Yesterday, the owner of our outfitter, AZRA, Fred Thevanin was kind enough to hike down Tanner Canyon from the South Rim with a much-needed delivery of software to hopefully help fix our dispatch issues. He’ll spend the next two nights with us before we drop him off to hike out at Phantom Ranch. The next three days, we pass through harder geologic layers, creating bigger and much meaner rapids. Today begins the Inner Gorge: Hance, Sockdolager and Grapevine rapids . .
September 7, 2014-
Today, I’m launching on a long awaited adventure, to solo kayak the Grand Canyon, 21 days, 277 miles from Lee’s Ferry to Pierce Ferry. Joining me is Navy veteran Lonnie Bedwell, an accomplished kayaker, who like me is also blind. Together, the two of us hope to make a powerful and authentic statement about living a No Barriers Life and the belief that this is possible for each of us.
Follow our journey at KayakingBlind.org
Nature Valley is sponsoring the expedition and created a teaser, check it out:
The expedition is hosted by No Barriers USA, a nonprofit organization I co-founded that empowers people with the message, “What’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way.” With solid rock walls carved a mile deep by the mighty Colorado River, the Grand Canyon is one of the great natural wonders on Earth with a fearsome reputation as one of the most daunting whitewater venues in the world. Lonnie and I have spent the last several years training and developing innovative systems for kayaking rapids with the help of high-tech radios and verbal commands from experienced guides. Even with many past successes, kayaking hands-down is the hardest and scariest thing I’ve ever done. However, this project isn’t just about the adrenaline; it’s about everyone’s journey to live a No Barriers Life, to use our internal tool kit to harness our challenges and live the best versions of ourselves.
Lonnie and I are using the platform of this adventure for an even more ambitious stretch goal: to encourage one-million people to pledge to live a No Barriers Life. Pledging doesn’t mean signing up for a big physical activity, but it should be something that makes you reach, stretch, and even risk a little bit. For one of our injured veterans, it might mean pledging to climb a flight of stairs for the first time after being hurt. For you, it may be pledging to lose weight, stop smoking, run a marathon, or volunteer at your local nonprofit an hour a week for the next year. When you accomplish your goal, hold your No Barriers banner proudly, snap a photo at your “summit” and make this the first step in joining our powerful community of pioneers who continually motivate each other to climb higher.
You can join us in taking the pledge and follow our expedition at:
Some of you probably remember my post a few months ago about Derek Campbell. On November, 2013, he had a major snowboarding accident at a ski resort in Colorado that caused a traumatic brain injury resulting in a stroke. A month after the accident, his dad, Mark, was told by doctors to start thinking about making end-of-life decisions. However, Derek’s heart and soul had a different plan.
Since then, Derek has been on a steep journey of recovery. Four months ago he took his first halting steps, and this past weekend Derek climbed 4.6 miles to his first summit. Derek was part of an annual No Barriers event called, What’s Your Everest, held at Granby Ranch, CO. At the summit, Derek told us he would have never thought this was possible for him, but I know this is just one of many higher summits to come.
Derek’s story has inspired me deeply, and I’ll be thinking of his accomplishment as I leave for the Grand Canyon next week. Let’s all give a shout-out to Derek, his dad, and the No Barriers volunteers and staff who supported him during his climb!
Here’s a photo of me with Derek and his dad, Mark, at the summit. No Barriers is making a video about the event so stay tuned! And keep climbing, Derek!
Teachers are often the light that help shape children’s lives as they grow into adults. Earlier this year, I was blessed to be a part of an inspiring teacher’s story. Clare La Pier reached out to me through my blog shortly after reading my memoir. She’s taken on a lot of adversity in her own life and has used it as fuel to push herself forward, as well as to push her students toward their own summits.
Recently, she took the No Barriers Pledge, and here’s an excerpt from her powerful blog comment:
“For the first time in over 8 years, I feel I can go on a school field trip, which will be snow shoeing in Heart Lake and then climbing Mount Jo in Lake Placid. I did go on www.nobarriersusa.org and made a pledge and set my goal. For the first time since my father passed, I know where he is.
My father passed away this summer, and my mother was ill at the same time and couldn’t make it to his funeral. I was literally numb for months, as my Dad was the strongest man I knew and he and I were inseparable. I didn’t want to cry or upset family members that were trying to move on, so I kept it in trying to find my dad in several odd places, including my closet. My Dad suffered from a rare genetic disorder call Cavernous Malformations of the Brain and Spinal Cord. He was paraplegic for three years confined to a hospital bed in pain that was difficult to control. It was very hard to watch him as his adventurous outdoor life was stripped away. He never complained once, and he too, had to devise “systems” to manage his life. I also have this condition, but only multiple cavernomas in my brain, along with an aneurysm they found. My spinal cord was spared. Anyway, for several of years I was diagnosed with panic attacks and agoraphobia, which now may be attributed to the cavernomas in my brain.”
Clare did go on her school field trip and here’s a photo of her with her No Barriers Flag. We all have barriers, but the hardest part is believing we are strong enough to shatter them. Clare did.
Clare is a special education teacher at Momot Elementary School in Plattsburgh, NY. After learning about how Clare has encouraged her students to take on their own adversities, I had the chance to Skype her class and do a fun Q & A. It was incredible. The kids had some of the most interesting questions I’ve ever been asked, even compared to corporate clients: “What did the people who doubted you say when you returned home after successfully summiting Mt. Everest?” and “When you began your Mount Everest expedition did you feel like you were going into battle? How did you prepare?”
Clare even had her students do writing assignment called, “What’s Your Everest?” Each student took on a challenge for the remainder of the school year and then reflected on if they had completed it or what was next. Check out these photos of her class with their “Everest’s”.
And by the way, Clare and her class did one more field trip, Lake Placid before school was out.
In the spirit of inspiring others, Clare reached out to the media and her story was featured in the Plattsburg Press Republican. They even created video to include with the article. Check them out! http://www.pressrepublican.com/news/local_news/article_60d5c951-d813-52b9-a59c-844a517b1d46.html
If you would like to take on your own No Barriers Pledge, HERE is the link.
Thank you Clare for sharing your story and for helping inspire my team to take on our own challenges and to help others to take on theirs. As the new school year is starting up, I encourage all of us to remember, you will always have an Everest, and each day you can dedicate yourself to climbing closer to the summit.
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.
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