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The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir

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Athletes

Jul 13, 2017

No Barriers Can Stop Blind Kayaker and Climber Erik Weihenmayer

Erik Weihenmayer was the first blind person to climb Everest and to complete the Seven Summits. In his new book, he tells the story of trading mountains for rivers as he set out on a quest to become the first blind person to kayak the Grand Canyon. But if the book makes anything clear, it's that his blind firsts pale in comparison to his vision for changing people’s lives through his nonprofit, No Barriers.

WRITTEN BY

Michael Levy

In his new book No Barriers: A Blind Man’s Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon, Erik Weihenmayer writes, “I’d been swept aside, shoved into a dark place, and left alone there. Blindness descended upon me with such force that I thought it would swallow me.”

He is describing the experience of losing his vision at the beginning of high school, but it could just as easily describe some of his hairier moments learning to whitewater kayak. For example, the book starts with a moment during his descent of the Grand Canyon when he gets stuck upside down in his kayak in a rapid called Lava Falls. Dark. Disorienting. Terrifying.

When I talked to Erik Weihenmayer earlier this week, he said the connection was anything but oblique. “My fear of kayaking was sort of like my fear of going blind,” he said. “While kayaking in Mexico the first time, I got in over my head and got sucked down into these big vortexes. Your brain gets overwhelmed. I started having dreams of being sucked down the river and swallowed up.”

But Erik’s book isn’t about getting swallowed by blindness or rapids. It’s populated with characters—friends, family, mentors—that time and again demonstrate his belief that “Life is a good journey—even if shitty things happen along the way and you get destroyed a few times. It’s still a great ride.”

Climbing the Marmolada in the Dolomites in 2015. Photo: Manrico Dell’Agnola.

Long before he was ever a whitewater kayaker, Weihenmayer was a climber. In 2001 he became the first blind person to summit Mount Everest, and the following year became the first blind person to complete the Seven Summits.

After Everest, the leader of Erik’s Expedition, Pasquale, told him, “Don’t make Everest the greatest thing you ever do.” Erik took those words to heart, and while he has continued to break barriers as the first blind man to complete all sorts of other impressive feats, he has also sought to imbue his expeditions and work with greater meaning.

“I’ve seen so many people either get stuck or shoved to the sidelines or destroyed in their lives,” Erik tells me. In the book we see it firsthand. There’s his friend and kayaking partner Rob who suffers from an aggressive cancer. There’s his brother who suffers with substance abuse and ultimately died far too early.

“What with my experience going blind, I can’t stand seeing people stuck. So it’s increasingly become my lifelong mission to figure out how to get people unstuck so they can be happy and fulfilled again,” Erik explains.

Erik’s primary vehicle for that mission is No Barriers USA, an organization he founded in 2005. No Barriers has taken thousands of people with disabilities on adventures around the world and shows them what they’re capable of. The organization’s mission is to “unleash the potential of the human spirit.  Through transformative experiences, tools and inspiration, we help people embark on a quest to contribute their absolute best to the world.”

Despite Erik’s initial claim to fame being his first blind summit of Everest, No Barriers has a much broader mandate: to help anyone who is or might become “stuck.” One of the organization’s most successful and enduring programs is No Barriers Warriors, in which veterans mount alpine expeditions, some to serious mountains like Lobuche, in Nepal, and Cotopaxi, in Ecuador. 

“Blindness is one visible barrier, but the majority of the world has invisible barriers: they have massive anxiety or doubt, low self esteem, PTSD. There are so many possibilities. In a way, as No Barriers has grown, I’ve often thought that if you lose a leg or you go blind, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones. For those physical disabilities there are prosthetics, but with barriers of the brain, there are no prosthetics.”

Today, No Barriers USA is almost a $5 million revenue organization with 30 staff members, that works with nearly 5,000 people per year.

Erik Weihenmayer. Photo: Skyler Williams.

The other strand of Erik’s book is obviously his mission to become the first blind man to kayak the Grand Canyon. Now 48 years old, he didn’t begin kayaking until he was 40.

Once the seed of running the Grand Canyon was planted in Erik’s mind by friend Harlan Taney, he spent years learning the sport, training on other rivers around the world and perfecting systems with friends to help him navigate a violent river he wouldn’t be able to see. With an earpiece in his helmet, he received instructions, information and warnings about what was coming his way

Or rather what he was going towards. Compared with the slow, methodical nature of climbing, kayaking was fast and unpredictable. Erik says, “Kayaking was like getting thrown into a storm. You’re just reacting and responding, and I can’t see what’s next. Waves hitting you left and right, you’re getting slammed into rocks. I’m getting hit, flipped, and I’m listening to commands in an ear piece, so there’s just so much happening so fast.”

Before Erik went for his descent of the Grand Canyon, another blind kayaker, Lonnie Bedwell, did it before him. Though initially somewhat bitter about missing out on another “first,” Erik ultimately saw it as inconsequential: The mission was still about breaking barriers, just a different set of barriers now. Erik writes about a proposition he made to Lonnie after the latter’s descent:

I don’t know about you, but people often tell me how ‘inspirational’ I am. […] And I know they mean it as a compliment, but sometimes that word can divide us. It says, ‘You’re the inspirational blind guy, and you exist over there, yet I’m just a normal person, and I exist over here.’ As you know, in a little more than a year, I have plans to kayak the Grand Canyon. If one blind guy paddles it alone, people can easily write it off as some kind of anomaly, but if two blind guys paddled it together, then the story gets bigger, and it becomes more about what’s possible for everyone. It says that all of us can push forward and be that inspiration. So what I’m getting at is, will you join me on my expedition?”

Bedwell accepted on the spot.

When Erik, with Bedwell and Harlan Taney on the team as well, finally paddled 277 miles down the Grand Canyon in 2014, he felt ready and confident.

But even with his preparation and his support team, there was no avoiding the fact that things could go wrong on a river as serious as the Colorado.

He remembers being particularly nervous about running a section called Upset Rapid. One of the other team members, Timmy O’Neill, had run the section not long before and had gotten stuck in a hole. “You don’t want to be in that situation,” Erik tells me. “Timmy got sucked way down and held there for a while. He came up and then got shoved under again. He was probably under for like 30 seconds—an eternity when you’re in a kayak.”

Going into Upset Rapid on his actual descent, Erik Weihenmayer focused on slowing his breathing, and pushing fear out of his mind. And everything went great.

“There were massive waves on the left, a huge hole to the right, and I just squeaked through on this narrow line right between. I trained for 6 years, and those 40 seconds were worth it all. So amazing. Afterward I just sat on a beach, reflecting on being connected with the river and riding that perfect line. You just feel lighter.”

Which is also how Erik has felt ever since his book was finally published. It took him a year, but he churned it out. He would’ve liked to be “outside playing” of course, but he knew that he had to put down this story: of himself, of the people around him and the mission he and No Barriers are on. “I just wanted to tell about this cool journey and the real people I met, all blundering, and feeling and bleeding their way forward. We’re all in the same club at the end. And that’s what i wanted to do: just write about real people, no bullshit.”

To learn more about Erik Weihenmayer and to purchase a copy of No Barriers: A Blind Man’s Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon, visit his website, http://www.touchthetop.com, and to learn more about No Barriers USA, visit http://www.nobarriersusa.org.

 

Feature image: Erik Weihenmayer kayaking on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Photo: James Q. Martin. 

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Environment

May 14, 2019

Bringing Kiwi Back to Wellington

As New Zealand announces a new plan to reverse the decline of the iconic kiwi bird, Wellingtonians are already lining up to save their emblematic bird.

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WRITTEN BY

Sean Verity

This article was made available to The Outdoor Journal via a press release by Tourism New Zealand.

As New Zealand announces a new plan to reverse the decline of the iconic Kiwi bird, Wellingtonians are already lining up to save their emblematic bird. Wellingtonians are known for their love of flat whites and their passion for the arts. But there’s a new pastime that’s rapidly growing in New Zealand’s capital and all around the country.

Assembling and setting traps for rats, stoats and other predators in their own backyards. It’s a somewhat unlikely hobby, but in Wellington alone, there are now more than 70 community groups involved in pest management.  They’re all aiming at making their home town the first predator-free capital city in the world and a paradise for native birds such as the tīeke (Saddleback), hihi (stitchbird), kākā, kākāriki and toutouwai (North Island robin). 

In Wellington alone there are now more than 70 community groups involved in pest management all aiming at making their home town the first predator-free capital city in the world. Photo by: Capital Kiwi

Ever since conservation project Zealandia created a fully fenced 225-hectare ecosanctuary within the city limits in 1999, native birdlife has returned to many suburbs and Wellingtonians have embraced their avian friends. The groups are part of a groundswell of community conservation initiatives sweeping New Zealand and delivering fantastic results.

“Where once it would have been a remarkable sight to see a single kākā (a boisterous native parrot) in the wilderness of our mountain ranges, we now have literally hundreds of them across Wellington city, screeching across city skies,” says self-confessed “bird nerd” Paul Ward. Buoyed by the birdsong orchestra he thought, “Why stop there? Let’s bring back New Zealand’s most iconic bird, the Kiwi.” “The only time I’d seen a Kiwi growing up was in a zoo, and that’s not right for our national taonga (treasure),” he insists. 

The flightless birds with hair-like feathers and the chopstick bill have been absent from Wellington for over a century due to the loss of their habitat and the spread of predators. Ward’s ambitious project Capital Kiwi hopes to lure Kiwi back to the Wellington region within the next decade. Approximately 4,400 traps will be set on 23,000 hectares of public and private land stretching from the outskirts of town to the coast.

“Kiwi may disappear from the mainland in our lifetime”

As long as stoats, ferrets and weasels are around, Kiwi chicks have hardly any chance of surviving their first year.  An average of 27 Kiwis are killed by predators each day according to charity ‘Kiwis for Kiwi’ which supports community-led initiatives around the country. They warn that at this rate “Kiwi may disappear from the mainland in our lifetime.” 

But projects in Rakiura / Stewart Island in the south of New Zealand, Whangarei Heads in the north and Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty have shown that with the involvement of the community as kaitiaki (guardians) it is possible to grow a wild Kiwi population. 

The project Capital Kiwi hopes to bring New Zealand’s iconic birds back to Wellington by setting more than 4,000 traps in the hills on the outskirts of the city. Photo by: Capital Kiwi.

Michelle Impey, from Kiwis for Kiwi explains that one of the challenges of Kiwi conservation is “getting people to understand and care about something they can’t see and don’t experience.”

Kiwis are nocturnal, and with only a few exceptions live far removed from cities, towns and villages. “Bringing Kiwi closer to where Kiwis live makes them top of mind, completely relevant, and creates a sense of ownership with those who are privileged enough to have them living on or near their land,” Impey adds. She hopes that the new project will create “a city of Kiwi conservationists” who feel a personal attachment to their national bird. 

In August 2018 the government’s Predator Free 2050 initiative, which aims to rid New Zealand of the most damaging introduced predators that threaten the nation’s natural wildlife by 2050, announced their support for Capital Kiwi, committing more than NZ$3.2 million over the next five years.  It may sound like a lot of money, but the other way of looking at this is “What is the cost if we don’t?” Ward ponders.

“Can we, as a nation of Kiwis, afford to let our national icon die and become extinct? What would that say about us as guardians of the taonga (treasure) that makes our country so special and unique?”

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Ninety-year-old Ted Smith, who lives in the small seaside settlement of Makara just over the hills from Wellington, helped to kick off the project with the setting of the first trap in November. He and his local community started trapping in their backyards a decade ago which resulted in a remarkable increase in birdlife – tūī, kākā, kererū, pūkeko, kingfishers, quails and others. “If we allow Kiwi to die out then we deserve to be called idiots,” he says. Wellingtonians love the vision of having Kiwi rummaging through their gardens and Ward says he’s been overwhelmed with the offers of help and support from the community.  

“We want to see Kiwi come back into Wellington”

Capital Kiwi has received hundreds of emails from people keen to help. Schoolchildren are now monitoring tracking tunnels, mountain bikers and trail runners check reserve trap lines on lunchtime rides and families come together to build traps. If the eradication proves successful after three years, the Department of Conservation will look at translocating Kiwi to the hillsides. The hope is that in less than a decade, tourists will be able to post their Kiwi encounters on the outskirts of Wellington on social media, and locals will beam with pride at hearing the shrill call of the country’s iconic birds in their backyards. 

“I would love to be woken up by the sound of the Kiwi. We want to see Kiwi come back into Wellington,” the capital’s Major Justin Lester says. 

The Department of Conservation is backing Capital Kiwi too. “Getting Kiwi back into the hills of Wellington where people can hear them call is a great way to demonstrate what New Zealand could look like if we get rid of the stoats and ferrets,” DOC’s Jack Mace says. 

“It would certainly add another feather to Wellington’s cap as one of the best places to see New Zealand’s unique wildlife.”

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Cover Photo: New Zealand’s little spotted Kiwi at Zealandia Eco-sanctuary in Wellington. Photo by: Zealandia Eco-sanctuary

 

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