Book review: “No Barriers: A Blind Man’s Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon”
Special to the Daily
Erik Weihenmayer may not be a household name, but his main claim-to-fame is known to most — he is the only blind person to-date who has summited the highest mountain on earth, which was documented in 2003 by Colorado filmmaker Michael Brown in “Farther Than the Eye Can See.”
Though summiting Mount Everest proved that Weihenmayer was a force to be reckoned with, it may be his most recent venture that places him among the elite adventurers in the world.
Weihenmayer’s new book, “No Barriers: A Blind Man’s Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon,” allows a very intimate glimpse into the life odyssey that brought him face-to-face with the famous rapids of one of America’s most iconic rivers.
Weihenmayer was not born blind; he had known the world through his eyes before he lost his slowly diminishing sight as a teenager, but it was then, after he hit bottom, that he decided to view his situation not as a disability, but as “a different ability.”
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He does not deny that the reckoning did not come overnight. He was, after all, an angst-filled teenager. On the cusp of high school, a rare childhood disease reached its culmination, taking his vision entirely. A new school environment was hardly the place to cope with this new and challenging reality, Weihenmayer says. “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 felt real fear for the first time. “It was a tug-of-war, the fear of pushing forward through darkness against barriers you can’t see, tugging against the fear of sitting quietly and safely in a dark place.” Even sighted people battle this demon, this malignant force of complacency and acquiescence, so it is all the more remarkable how Weihenmayer transformed his life out of that darkness.
For Weihenmayer, a supportive family and his own determination kept him moving beyond a place of despair. He took up wrestling and rock climbing, both very tactile sports, and soon big mountains became his goal, starting with Denali in Alaska, and moving through the iconic tall mountains on each continent, culminating with Mt. Everest, which he summited in 2001. Fame followed … as did the threat of the inevitable lull, the drop that his fellow climbers had warned him about. “Don’t make Everest the greatest thing you ever do.”
More than Kayaking
So, Weihenmayer decided that “whatever came next, it would have to mean something.” Since life’s trajectory is never linear, the path that took him finally to the Grand Canyon in a small fiberglass craft, began after he first traveled all around the world, with life-changing interactions and experiences along the way.
“No Barriers” is only partly about his kayak trip on the Colorado River. The bulk of the very in depth and personal book details the journey of learning and growth that allowed him to reach the point where he felt he could tackle the tumbling brown waters with only voice cues from his kayaking companions. Before the narrative climaxes in the Grand Canyon attempt, itself, Weihenmayer highlights some significant moments along the way to his goal, including the adoption of their son and the establishment of his nonprofit, No Barriers, which grew to be about “turning pain into purpose, darkness into light.”
No Barriers Summits have become gathering places where people can present their innovations and ideas to better facilitate a fulfilling journey beyond disabilities. After several years of ups and down, successes and failures, the tag-line for No Barriers has become fixed to a core principle—“What’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way,” which had always been Weihenmayer’s guiding principle, as well.
“No Barriers” is so much more than a book about kayaking or water sports, or sports in general. For Weihenmayer, learning to kayak blind meant learning to trust a powerful entity he couldn’t see, the mighty Colorado River. He calls the experience “the art of embracing chaos—and hands down the scariest thing I’ve ever done.” Trusting the river, and the skills carefully and deliberately acquired, also involved Weihenmayer following the seemingly counterintuitive advice often given to skiers as they stare down a steep slope—“lean down the hill.” There is a commitment involved, as there is in all things in life. When met with inevitable hurdles and roadblocks, the key is to keep looking for ways forward, to stay curious and open to opportunities. Therein lies the sweet spot of life — the “line” through the chaos, toward discovering what it really means to be alive.
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