2016: A Year of Reaching!

As the pace slows this holiday season, it’s a great time to reflect on our experiences, the people who have influenced us, and the lessons we’ve brought down from the mountain. My 2016 was filled with lots of adventures with family and friends; including epic rock climbs around the country, a kayaking trip to the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, and biking through beautiful fall foliage in Vermont. 

Crossing a desert spine on the approach to Moses, one of the most classic climbs in Canyonlands National Park near Moab, Utah. 

Photo Credit: Connor Koch

Back in Yosemite with my long time climbing partners, Hans Florine and Charley Mace.

Photo Credit: Charley Mace

Kayaking in Baja, Mexico with my family and friends.

Photo Credit: Rob Raker

A beautiful New England scene: Fall in Vermont with my wife, Ellie.

But my most meaningful summit wasn’t physical; it was finishing my third book, No Barriers: A Blind Man’s Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon. For a long while, I felt the internal energy building to write about the last fifteen years, like a swelling wave, but my procrastination and laziness kept it only a concept. I just wasn’t ready.

However, Mark French, head of my speaker’s bureau, goaded me on, insisting we could find a book agent and even a co-writer to share the burden. My old friend, Buddy Levy, had been an embedded reporter on some of the adventure races I’d completed, and he’d experienced and covered a bunch of No Barriers events. He’d also been along on the first half of my Grand Canyon expedition. Buddy was fully indoctrinated and ready to press “go.” Mark introduced me to Gail Ross of the Ross Yoon Agency who worked tirelessly to sell No Barriers, and we ultimately chose the publishing company St. Martin’s Press. The icing on the cake was that my former editor, Laurie Chittenden, had joined the St. Martin’s team. Laurie had been the editor of Touch the Top of the World and had been a gentle guiding force in that project. So now I had the trifecta. In other words, I was stuck – I couldn’t turn back. But, there was initial fear on my part: What if I had nothing left to say? I already had two published books under my belt … was there more to write?

Well, 11 months later, as the book topped 300 pages, my publisher was now pleading, “please end this thing, blabbermouth.” Twenty pounds heavier and reeking of coffee breath, I finally emerged from my hermit lair with No Barriers. I know I’m biased, but I feel it’s my proudest effort yet. Touch the Top of the World reflected the ambition and optimism of my 20’s; The Adversity Advantage, co-authored by world-renowned thought leader, Paul Stoltz, was an attempt in my 30’s to put some context to my experience and share my philosophy around adversity – how to use it as fuel to your dreams. The only shortfall with The Adversity Advantage was that it was too neat. It took until my 40’s to realize how messy our lives are and that in the real world plot lines and themes don’t wrap themselves into a tidy bow. I wanted No Barriers to reflect that. For this reason, it doesn’t categorize well. Actually, none of my books have fit categorization perfectly. I remember coming upon Touch the Top of the World on a bookstore shelf; the staff had put it in the “disability” section, and it was next to a book entitled, “Understanding Mental Retardation.”

If they had trouble placing that book, No Barriers will be mission impossible. It’s not quite a memoir, not quite a self-help, and not quite an adventure tale. Yet, it’s all of these. The book begins as I descended Everest in 2001, and my team leader, PV, issued me a strange and intriguing challenge. He said, “Don’t make Everest the greatest thing you ever do.” No Barriers is my response to that challenge, from leading expeditions around the world with blind Tibetan teenagers to helping injured soldiers climb their way home from war, from adopting my son to facing the most terrifying reach of my life: to kayak the whitewater of the Grand Canyon. Along the way, I chronicle the lives of people I’ve met: adventurers, scientists, artists, and activists: who, despite trauma, hardship, and loss, have broken through barriers of their own. These pioneers have shown me surprising ways forward that surpass logic and defy traditional thinking. Like the “line” a kayaker uses to navigate a rapid, I hope No Barriers provides a map that we can build to move towards growth and purpose. It’s not an easy path, but it’s possible.

So far, reviews have been positive, like this recent one from Booklist, leading book review site comprised of members of the American Public Library Association: “More than a story about a blind man converting the improbable to the possible, this volume provides a powerful testament to the human spirit…”

I hope the book will take our No Barriers movement that is still just a seedling, and grow it, spreading the message far and wide. To make it fun, we’ve even implemented a sweepstakes with the winning prize, an all-expense-paid trip to the next No Barriers Summit in Squaw Creek, June 1-4. Come join me and about 1,200 of my friends and community. Over the next weeks, we’ll be sending and posting ideas for how you can help the book gain traction. Let us know if you have ideas. 

Have a joyous holiday season and a No Barriers year ahead!


A few pioneers who have inspired me:

Deaf jazz singer, Mandy Harvey, performing at a No Barriers Summit.

Photo Credit: No Barriers 

Hugh Herr: After losing his legs below the knees to frostbite during a climbing accident on Mount Washington, Hugh returned to school, got PhD in biophysics at Harvard University, and now designs the world's most sophisticated prostheses. 

Photo courtesy of Hugh Herr

Kyle Maynard: The first quadruple amputee to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro. Here we are climbing Copper Mountain together at our 2016 No Barriers Summit.

Photo Credit: Rob Raker

As my sight gradually diminished in late adolescence, I watched Terry Fox on TV running his Marathon of Hope across Canada to raise funds for cancer research. I could only see if I pressed my face right up against the TV screen, but as I watched Terry run, step by painful step,  I wondered if the light that burned inside of Terry also existed in me. 

Photo Credit: Canadian Press

Sabriye Tenberken with her partner, Paul. After I climbed Everest, Sabriye and I teamed up to take a group of blind students from the school she ran in Tibet on an expedition up 23,000-foot Lhakpa Ri. 

Photo Credit: Paul Kronenberg

Mark Wellman at our No Barriers Summit at Copper Mountain helping Chris Klein, a speaker with cerebral palsy, ascend his rock climbing wall. A co-founder of No Barriers, Mark was paralyzed in a climbing accident, and went on to create a unique climbing system of ropes and pulleys that allows him to continue his love of climbing and has completed famous ascents of El Capitan and Yosemite's Half Dome.  

Photo Credit: No Barriers

Keep climbing in 2017!