Blind Adventurer Prepares to Kayak the Colorado
Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to summit Mount Everest, is preparing to take on his biggest challenge yet: Kayaking the Colorado River.
“This is 10 times scarier than the scariest thing I’ve ever done, and I’ve done some pretty scary things,” Weihenmayer told The New York Times.
To date, Weihenmayer's accomplishments span extreme sports such as ice climbing, solo sky diving and paragliding–feats that are not just impressive for someone without sight, but for anyone at all.
Weihenmayer, 44, is now training at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, N.C. with his friend and coach Robert Raker and two Olympic paddlers, Casey Eichfeld (United Statates) and Pablo McCandless (Chile). With the help of these trusted and experienced paddlers, Weihenmayer hopes to master the techniques required to kayak the surging rapids of the Colorado. These include combat rolls, a move used to right yourself if you capsize, and draw strokes, a technique that helps paddlers navigate using the water’s momentum.
It’s part of a process that started four years ago when Raker taught Weihenmayer to combat roll in a mountain lake. The two later moved on to slow-moving water on the Upper Colorado River near their homes and slowly developed a system for helping Weihenmayer navigate rapids. While on the river, Raker paddles behind Weihenmayer and calls out the direction he should turn and how far.
“We try to keep the information to a minimum because too many descriptive things ends up with him having to process too much,” Raker told The New York Times. “We keep it down to very few commands like small right, small left and hard right, hard left.”
"Small" signals a 90-degree turn and "hard" signals a full 180 degree shift, while charge means to paddle quickly ahead. The system worked well on small rapids, but not on more serious stretches of river. On a trip in 2011, the team used two-way radios designed to work underwater. However, the radios didn’t work and Raker’s voice became completely garbled. Weihenmayer only survived by hard paddling and a combat roll when a wave capsized his boat. The experience left him badly shaken.
Still, Weihenmayer is pushing forward for the next big journey. If training goes well, he will attempt to paddle the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon next year. The Grand Canyon rapids will be treacherous, with boulder’s the size of Volkswagens that can create waves 15 feet high. It's one of the nation's most challenging stretches of river and something no blind person has ever attempted.
On the expedition, Weihenmayer and his team will go alongside a raft stocked with supplies and a satellite phone to reach park service rangers. However, the plan is not entirely fool proof.
“There are some places where you can’t even use a satellite phone,” Weihenmeyer told The New York Times. “Communication throughout the trip is going to be very spotty.”