Credit: Photograph by Travis Dove / New York Times / Redux
Three men in kayaks cruise along Mexico's Usumacinta River, a light cross breeze rippling its brilliant teal surface. Erik Weihenmayer pilots the center boat, a cobalt-hulled, eight-and-a-half-foot Liquid Logic Stomper 90, outfitted for long distance. He takes even, powerful strokes, sending tiny droplets flying off his center-bent Werner paddles, as his colleagues, Rob Raker, 58, and Chris Wiegand, 40, move briskly with him in tight formation. Wiegand leads in a compact yellow freestyle boat; Raker is right behind Weihenmayer, sitting deep in a weathered red hardshell, beaming behind aviator shades.
"Lookin' good, Big E!" Raker roars – both to Weihenmayer and to the spectacular wilderness. Weihenmayer's slight wry smile in response offsets the impression he gives, with his burly frame, brooding looks, and multi-impact helmet, of an NHL enforcer on vacation.
The half-dozen other men in their group are scattered ahead and behind along this winding river in Mexico's remote southeastern corner, where they've just begun an intensive, weeklong kayak training run. Only their laughter carries over the wide expanse of water to the high rain forest walls, where it is quickly eaten by jungle chatter and the deep, nightmarish roars of the howler monkeys that inspired the Mayan name Usumacinta, or "Sacred Monkey River." No one watching these three kayakers would notice anything unusual about them. But few could imagine what Weihenmayer is doing – or has been doing for most of his life.
(Courtesy Erik Weihenmayer)
The 45-year-old pro adventurer is best known as the only blind person to climb Mount Everest, in 2001, a feat that landed him on the cover of Time at age 32 and made him an international symbol of courage. Weihenmayer also solo skydives and paraglides. He skis double-black slopes and backcountry. He and a small team raced a dozen others across the deserts of Morocco. He has climbed each of mountaineering's vaunted Seven Summits and scaled the 3,000-foot rock face of Yosemite's El Capitan, along with the 2,000-foot, technically tougher frozen Himalayan waterfall Losar.
But despite these achievements, this trip down the Usumacinta has Weihenmayer seriously considering his limitations. For one thing, there's the fact that he's a blind man kayaking. "I've often thought, 'Why am I doing this?' " he says. "This is not what a blind person should be doing." Then again, his sighted companions probably shouldn't be doing this, either.
The Usumacinta happens to run through Mexico's conflict-ridden state of Chiapas and along the border with Guatemala – a region where crocodiles, narcos, and banditos limit traffic to paddlers who are more than slightly adventurous. When Weihenmayer's crew trained here just over a year ago, one tricky canyon passage provided the added thrill of an RPG missile whizzing overhead.
They've returned to prepare Weihenmayer for something scarier than close-proximity military ordnance, and everyone is ferociously dedicated to helping him succeed – or at least survive. This September, in what may be his toughest in a life of self-imposed impossible missions, Weihenmayer will attempt to kayak the entire length of the Grand Canyon. He will put in at Lee's Ferry, nine miles south of the Arizona-Utah border, and paddle 277 miles of the Colorado River: through 15-foot waves, 26-foot falls, and school bus–size whirlpools, facing 200-odd rapids with names like Upset and Specter, plus the hundred unnamed others that would merit a "Satan's Maw" or "Deadman's Neck" on any other river.
It's an inadvisable trip without Class IV rapids skills, an insane one without sight, and Weihenmayer will undertake it with probably the sole human who's as blind and nuts as he is, military vet Lonnie Bedwell. The 49-year-old Indiana native lost his sight in a 1997 hunting accident and went on a gung-ho sortie down the Grand Canyon River last summer with veterans group Team River Runner, with whom he'd learned to kayak just one year earlier. While surviving the trip won Bedwell the distinction of being the Grand Canyon's first blind kayaker, his and Weihenmayer's September trip will be profoundly different – a crew of the world's top kayakers have joined in Weihenmayer's near-samurai mode of achieving the impossible.
Weihenmayer regards the Grand Canyon challenge as less a test of mettle than of a discipline and philosophy he has lived by for nearly two decades. "I mean, I know I can survive it," he says of the run. "But I climbed for 10 years before I did Everest. I feel like I should build up in a classic way to these big endeavors in the world."
Consider a snapshot from the summer of 1995, when Weihenmayer – then a 27-year-old teacher at an Arizona elementary school – walked onto a sunbaked playing field with an arctic mountain tent, plopped down, donned polar mountaineering gloves, and, in 100-degree heat, began erecting and dismantling the tent for hours on end until he had the task down to just a few minutes.
He'd struggled with the tent on a recent climb up Mount Rainier, and since his fingers pinch-hit for his eyes, he'd removed one glove for just long enough to locate a tent seam – and felt his hand freeze into an agonized cinder block before it even touched fabric. On the mountain that day, he made a pledge that he'd later recount in his memoir, Touch the Top of the World: "The things I could not do, I would let go; but the things I could do, I would learn to do well."
Eighteen years and dozens of summits later, the things he's painstakingly mastered are too numerous and various to count. It's clear that his blindness opened up extraordinary reserves of creativity and discipline. At the same time, he reflexively bats away most direct praise. "I get the focus for being the 'blind kayaker,' ?" Weihenmayer told me. "But Rob, Chris, and my other guides are totally consumed. Instead of their own kayaking, they're watching this little remote-control guy going down the river and completely manipulating his destiny." He refines the analogy: "A little remote-control guy who doesn't do expected things; a video game with a bad joystick and a glitch in the software."
But here on the Usumacinta, it's apparent that this little remote-control guy will have to kayak better and more instinctively than most sighted paddlers. Right now, Team Big E is locking into gear: Point man Wiegand scans downstream for white flumes or surface rotation, tasked with finding "the line" of green water running through the white chaos and away from holes, boils, haystacks, and other hydraulic terrors that kayakers euphemistically call features. Raker, the rear guide, follows both the line and Weihenmayer's movements, a round foam headset microphone by his mouth ready to transmit commands like "hard paddle right" and "hard-paddle left" the instant they need to be executed.
Today's trip is intentionally free of any hard-core paddling. As with high-altitude climbing, the early stages of serious kayaking are about acclimatization more than distance, with each new launch requiring an autonomic adjustment. "Kayaking is really more neurological than muscular," says Wiegand. "A lot of people think it's about physical strength – overpowering the force of the rapids – but really, you want to be neuroskeletal: nimble, reflexive, relaxed. Even in total chaos, it should be intuitive."
But chaos is on the itinerary. The charted rapids on the Usumacinta reach Class IV, and uncharted dangers can appear with little warning – less if you can't see. Last year, Weihenmayer's first run down the Usumacinta left him so spun out, he considered quitting the sport entirely.
"The whirlpools and the boils were really crazy," he says. "I got in over my head. I was paddling as hard as I could, and I couldn't get anywhere; this whirlpool was still sucking my boat in." Eventually, he was forced to "swim" – kayak parlance for the gasping, bobbing struggle that follows whitewater ejection – and even on dry land found his body wouldn't let him get back into his boat. "I was so adrenalized I could barely stand," he says. "That made me go, 'I don't know if I can get comfortable in this environment.' "
Instead of quitting, he improved his skills, undertaking additional expeditions in Colorado and Brazil, and logging four long days on the artificial rapids at the U.S. Whitewater Center, in Charlotte, North Carolina. There, Raker and two Olympic kayakers drilled Weihenmayer on his combat roll, his draw stroke, and the other skills he'd need to survive the overwhelming force they call big water.
"[Kayaking] is right in his trajectory," says pro mountaineer Jeff Evans, Weihenmayer's guide on Everest and a dozen other mountains. "That's how he's wired. It's not just kayaking – it's everything. He needs to see what he's capable of. He wants to be scared."
In this, at least, he has succeeded. "More than anything else I've ever done, kayaking has made me work to somehow get a hold of my fear and panic," says Weihenmayer. "To really have discipline over my mind is by far the hardest thing I've ever done."