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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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Adventurers & Explorers

Jun 29, 2018

Engagés: Upon Reflection. Calm, Patience, Humility.

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WRITTEN BY

Sean Verity

During May of 2018, The Outdoor Journal reported on five French explorers who were traversing Greenland’s toughest terrain.

Their goal was to complete 700km in 30 days. In the face of much adversity, the expedition finally made it home to Paris, having being trapped at the finish line without food, and unable to extract themselves due to bad weather.

You can read about those final few days here, and a review of the Nixon Regulus, used during the Expedition here.

In this article, written one month after the expedition, Maxime Lainé reflects upon this period in his life, and what it meant to him.

As an entrepreneur I’ve learnt to fail, sometimes to succeed, but overall, I’ve learnt to get the most out of each experience I face, and eventually share those experiences with anyone who is interested.

I wanted to share what I’ve learnt from the most enlightening experience of my life, and how it triggered something deep inside of me.

I’m not a journalist nor a story teller, but simply someone with a story to tell. I might not be able to articulate my complex feelings perfectly, so I will just be myself, and be honest.

In May 2018, I crossed Greenland by foot from East to West along the Polar Circle, with 4 other entrepreneurs, in total autonomy. It took us 31 days to cover more than 550km. We faced extreme conditions, with absolutely no form of any life, under temperatures reaching -40C.

Our daily routine.

We woke up every morning at 5am or 6am. It took us 2 and a half hours to melt the snow, so that we had water for breakfast. We also needed additional 2 litres each for the day. We got left the tent at 8:15am, we packed them up, and we could start walking at around 8:45am or 9am. At first we had to walk at least 8 hours a day, up to 10 hours towards the end, occasionally up to 13 when the weather permitted us. When we stopped walking, it took us 1 hour to set up the camp, and then 3 additional hours to melt the snow so that we could cook, fix things and take care of our feet, before we could finally go to sleep. And then repeat, again, and again, no matter what, because we had to make it to the other side.

Calm, patient, humble.

I remember how I felt on the first day, excited, impatient and ready (at least that’s what I thought) to face Greenland. Like a kid that can’t wait to play outside. However, Greenland had other ideas, the terrain and weather taught us in its own way, that…

our success would depend on our capacity to remain calm, patient and humble. 

The first days of the expedition were “easy”. The snow was firm, it was quite sunny, and even if our pulkas were at their heaviest, weighting 90kg per person, we were expecting more of a mental challenge. At that point, it was just another physical challenge. 

For the first part of the expedition, we had to walk up to the highest point of the crossing. 2600m, almost half way, albeit a little bit closer to the east coast. After that, there was a flat plateau, continuing at the same altitude for about 100km. Finally, we had to walk down towards the coast, to reach our extraction point on the eastern side at 900m altitude.

We expected the first part to be the hardest. We were climbing up, and then, as we would walk down, it would get easier and we would be able to cover more kilometres per day.

We were fools, but we didn’t know it yet. 

When the first storm hit us on the night of the 11th day, we were almost relieved to spend 60 hours in the tents to get some rest. Even if it was physically intense, we all thought we would be able to get to the other side without any trouble. On the following day, we walked 28 km in 11 hours to reach our first objective, Dye military base located at 66.4934N – 46.3204W. However, at the end of that day 14th, we all started to realize that things were getting more critical. One of us felt pain in his back and knees, so we volunteered to carry some of his weights, in addition to the 90kg we already had to carry per person. As for me, I felt such a pain in my right ankle, that I could barely walk when I took my skis off at the camp. 

Fortunately, over the next 2 days, we were very limited as to how much we could walk, since there was another storm coming. That 16th day, we just walked 10km for 5 hours. The wind was coming in at more than 70km/h from the south, and caused our pulkas to flip over.

We were definitely going beyond our limits, this was the time to set up the camp, and be safe.

Setting up the camp under those conditions was crazy, but vital, and we managed to do it as a team. Once in the tents, we realised that we had pushed it to far, it had started to become very dangerous. If we could not set up the camp, then we would have just died from the cold. From that very moment, every day was going to be more critical than the day before. We were not even half way through the expedition yet, but we didn’t know it. We did know that our lives depend on our actions, our choices, and on our team. We realised that our bodies are amazing but fragile machines, that nature can break at anytime. 

However, the humility that we had already been taught, apparently wasn’t enough. The next few days were the coldest, with temperatures between -20C to -40C, and winds reaching 35km/h. We had lost too much time, stuck in the storms, we had to move forward. We were relieved to reach the highest point of the expedition. Finally, we had made it, but at a price. The cold froze my toe, and broke Antoine’s ski plugs. Fortunately we had a spare pair, but from now on, another equipment issue could risk the whole expedition.

From this point, we we headed downhill and the expectation was that it would get easier. We started to make some calculations and tell ourselves; “if we could walk 10 hours a day at 2.5km/h, then we could reach our objective in x days. On top of that, we’re going downhill, we should actually be able to walk 30km to 35km a day, without any additional effort, since we would not feel the weight of our pulkas”… However, Greenland decided to teach us humility one more time. 

It started to snow, day after day, after day.

It was physically so intense to walk that deep in the snow, pulling our pulkas was a burden that we had to accept. Each step challenged our body, and our mind. We started to walk 9 to 10 hours a day, but despite our expectations, barely managed to walk the same distance than when we covered when walking uphill.

Being tired was not a reason to stop. We told ourselves, tired is just information.

We had to push our limits forward. We had to find energy we didn’t know that we had, deep down inside us, or we wouldn’t make it. 

At the end of every day, we kept on making the same time vs distance calculations. However, there was always more and more snow every day. Every day the visibility worsened, until we could not see our skis. On the 28th day, we wanted to make 30km, it was important for us to do so. We made it, in 13 hours. We were so tired that when we set up the camp, we were in some sort of zombie state, too tired to even think. On the 29th day, the snow continued to play with our nerves, and we barely walked 6 km in 5 hours. One of us was injured, and could just not push forward.

That was it, our limit was reached. 

We were at 20 km from the extraction point, but just 5 km from the coast. We had to make a critical decision. We just had 1 day left of food. At our current pace, we would reach the extraction point within 3 days. We could kept on walking, or set up the camp here, and wait for the helicopter to pick us up tomorrow. We decided to set up the camp, and wait for a clear weather window for the helicopter to come in and get us… The next day arrived, and no one could get to us because of the weather. It was the 30th day, and we were completely out of food. The next clear weather window was in 4 days. 

At that very moment, something triggered in our minds.

We were not making any sort of calculations anymore, we were not expecting anything from anyone. We just accepted it. Nature always win. Period.

We just had to smile and face it. Finally, Greenland taught us humility, and we knew it. In the tent, we were just talking, peacefully, calmly. We had to call the pilot every hour to give him some updates about the weather, and every hour he would tell us that we had to wait one more hour. Until the 31st day, in the afternoon, we finally saw the chopper. Accepting our fate felt like the obliged path we had to take, to unlock the door to make our way home.

Reflection

It was unexpected that one of the hardest parts of the adventure, was to keeping our minds busy for 10 to 13 hours a day. I realised that I had so much time to think about things I had never considered before.

I would think of my girlfriend, my friends, my family, my startup Weesurf. Then I started to think about myself. I asked, why am I doing this? What kind of life do I want? What makes me truly happy? Why do I do the job that I do? Why do I love this or that? What can I change about myself? And for every question, I kept asking myself, why? For example, why do you want to make money? To buy stuff? But why? To travel? But why? To get a flat? But why? And I finally figured out what kind of life I wanted to follow, and what makes me happy…

Discover, Learn and Share.

I also realised that I used to consider money as something to value things and to set barriers. Something we all have to live for, and to live by, but I ask myself how I lived so many experiences over the last 2 years, and at that time I didn’t get paid by Weesurf. I went to Greenland to pursue my dream with almost no money on my bank account. I put in all my strength and effort, to make it all possible, because that would make me happy. I would discover, learn and share an adventure. No matter what, I would do my best to realise it. Whilst I was walking on the ice, I imagined if everyone would have a passion for his or her project, if everyone would put all of his or her faith and efforts to realise his or her dream, people would probably be happier. 

I’m very thankful that Thomas changed my life when he offered me on the Station F’s Slack, to set up a team to cross Greenland. He has made me an happier person. I told myself that I’ll do my best to do the same for everyone else.

So ask I you this. What is your dream? What prevents you from making it real? What are you doing to make it happen? If you’re not struggling enough, maybe it’s not your dream. What is your dream?

Remember, calm, patience, humility.

You can discover your own ice sheets in Greenland here with the Outdoor Voyage.

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