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.
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.
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.
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.
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/
- 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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