Blind adventurer prepares to kayak the Colorado River

Erik Olsen / New York Times News Service /


Published Nov 13, 2012 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Erik Weihenmayer stood on a concrete berm above a gushing crest of whitewater and cocked his head slightly.

“Sounds gnar,” he said.

He was referring to the eardrum-rattling roar surrounding him, the sound of 536,000 gallons of water spewing each second through six industrial pumps at the U.S. National Whitewater Center.

Weihenmayer, considered among the most accomplished blind athletes in the world, is perhaps best known for being the first person without sight to summit Mount Everest. But his accomplishments reach into other realms of extreme sports, including ice climbing, solo sky diving and paragliding. Now he wants to add kayaking, and he is gravely aware of the challenges ahead.

“I think blind kayaking is a different sport than a sighted person kayaking because you rely on your eyes so much,” he said. “I’m trying to feel what’s under my boat and what’s under my paddle, and to use my ears, and everything is happening so quickly. Without eyes, it’s like sensory overload.”

Weihenmayer, 44, has come to the whitewater center to train with his friend and paddling coach Robert Raker, and to master the necessary techniques to navigate a small plastic boat over a moving mountain of whitewater. If the training goes well, he said, next year he will attempt to descend the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, one of the nation’s most challenging stretches of river.

It is a feat no blind person has attempted.

Along with Raker, Weihenmayer is being instructed by two Olympic paddlers, Casey Eichfeld, a member of the U.S. team who competed in mens slalom canoe at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, and Pablo McCandless, a member of the Chilean Olympic kayaking team who competed in Beijing in 2008.

“It’s amazing to watch him progress,” said McCandless, who has been helping Weihenmayer hone his combat roll, perhaps a kayaker’s most necessary skill, and one regularly employed by the best kayakers. The combat roll is the move a kayaker uses to right himself after being capsized.

Unlike many of the nation’s rivers where dangers lurk below the surface of the water, obstructions like rocks and logs that can snag a foot and hold a person underwater or smack a skull, the whitewater center was designed to be as safe as possible, while also providing kayakers the opportunity to paddle world-class rapids. The U.S. Olympic canoe and kayak team trains here.

“The rapids are very consistent, and so you can go through them one after the next and you can keep doing it all day long until you’re exhausted,” Weihenmayer said. “It makes whitewater accessible in a way that, knock on wood, it’s not going to kill you.”

The Grand Canyon will offer no such luxuries. Considered one of the world’s premier whitewater spots, the run features boulders the size of Volkswagens that can create waves 15 feet high. While Weihenmayer and his team will be accompanied by a raft, ample supplies and a satellite phone to reach National Park Service rangers, the team will be essentially cut off from civilization for almost three weeks as they make the descent.

“There are some places where you can’t even use a satellite phone,” Weihenmayer said. “Communication throughout the trip is going to be very spotty.”

“This is 10 times scarier than the scariest thing I’ve ever done, and I’ve done some pretty scary things,” he added.

While he is probably best known for his ascent of Mount Everest in 2001, which landed him on the cover of Time Magazine, and subsequent successful efforts to scale the tallest peak on each of the continents, known as the Seven Summits, many of his other accomplishments, while less publicized, are arguably more impressive.

“I think some of the ice climbs he’s done are the most impressive because technically and athletically they are far more challenging than doing Everest,” Raker said. Indeed, in 2008 Weihenmayer scaled a 3,000-foot ice waterfall in the Himalayas called Losar.

“Everest is a huge, respectable accomplishment,” said Conrad Anker, a mountaineer who has done Losar. For Weihenmayer to pull it off “was just phenomenal,” he added. “For most people that would be their lifetime achievement.”

Weihenmayer began paddling a kayak four years ago by learning to do a combat roll in a mountain lake. He and Raker eventually moved on to slow-moving water on the Upper Colorado River near Grand Lake, where they live. Over time, the two developed a simple system for communicating that would help Weihenmayer navigate a river’s rapids.

Raker, an experienced kayaker, paddles behind Weihenmayer and calls out the direction he wants him to 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 said. “We keep it down to very few commands like small right, small left and hard right, hard left.”

Small right or left means a 90-degree turn and hard right or left means turn a full 180 degrees. Charge means to paddle ahead furiously. The system has worked well on small rapids, but it became insufficient when they moved up to the rougher rapids of the Green River in Utah.

On a trip last year, the team employed two-way radios that were designed to function underwater. But the radios did not work. On one particularly treacherous stretch of Class IV whitewater, which is a class of rapids for more advanced paddlers because of the intense rapids, Weihenmayer became separated from Raker and the radio’s signal diminished in the churning current. Raker’s voice became a muffled mess.

“It was like Charlie Brown’s teacher yelling at you,” Weihenmayer said.

Weihenmayer survived by paddling hard and executing a combat roll when a monster wave capsized his boat. Raker caught up to him and they navigated safely to shore. But the experience left Weihenmayer shaken.

“My brain was so overwhelmed,” he said. “I was hyperventilating, and I was like paddling into the eddy and saying I gotta get out of this kayak.”

He cannot prepare for situations like that at the whitewater center. On his last run recently, Weihenmayer dropped through a 6-foot falls called Sunset that sent him hurtling into a wall of roiling whitewater. The wave knocked him over and he executed a perfect combat roll, righting his kayak and spinning off into a swirling eddy, where he stopped to catch his breath.

“Gnar,” he said.