When he was three years old, Erik Weihenmayer was diagnosed with juvenile retinoschisis, a rare disease that causes hemorrhaging in the eyes. Throughout childhood, though he couldn’t see well, he could still play basketball, ride bikes, and jump off rocks in the woods behind his house. But slowly, his vision deteriorated, until, at age thirteen, a week before starting high school in Connecticut, he went completely blind.
“The first day of school, I had just been led into the cafeteria by my teacher’s aide—not a great way to become popular during freshman year—and I heard the ruckus of food fights,” Weihenmayer told Folks. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m scared of being blind and not seeing, but what I’m way more scared of is being left out of all the food fights. I don’t want to be sitting on the sidelines, listening to this joy and love go by and not being able to experience it.’”
This food fight-induced FOMO evolved into a fierce determination to prevent blindness from limiting his opportunities in life. Despite warnings that contact sports were forbidden to the blind, Weihenmayer became a high school wrestling star, and later discovered he was a natural rock-climber.
After graduating from Boston College, then working as a wrestling coach and a middle school teacher, Erik set out to “touch the top of the world,” as he’d put it in a later book: In 2001, he became the first blind person in history to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth. (Scaling Everest is an insane feat even for those with 20/20 vision; one in ten successful climbs to the summit ends in death.) That climb earned him appearances on Oprah, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and on the cover of Time magazine.
Any climber of Mount Everest, sighted or otherwise, couldn’t be blamed for deciding they’d done enough treacherous nature-exploring for one lifetime and retiring to eat Doritos on the couch for the rest of their years. Not Weihenmayer. After he’d descended Everest, having just navigated the deadly Khumbu Icefall, his team leader slapped him on the back and said: “Don’t make Everest the greatest thing you ever do.” He took this challenge very seriously.
By age 33, Weihenmayer had become one of less than 100 people to climb all of the Seven Summits. In 2004, Erik and his Everest teammates led a group of blind Tibetan teenagers to 21,000 feet on the north face of Everest. In 2005, he cofounded No Barriers USA, a non-profit organization that aims to help people with physical and mental injuries—from disabled veterans and recovering addicts to elementary and middle school students—overcome perceived limitations in their lives. And in 2014, he became the first blind person to solo kayak the whitewater rapids of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
No Barriers: A Blind Man’s Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon, Weihenmayer’s new memoir, chronicles his time preparing for this latest stunning expedition, and his continuing mission to reframe our collective understanding of disability and human potential. His work extends beyond the empowerment of blind people, and aims to combat the learned helplessness that so often accompanies trauma or disability of any variety. We talked to Weihenmayer about the tools needed to lead a “No Barriers Life,” what it’s like to capsize a kayak in the roaring waves of the Grand Canyon, and why “blind people aren’t going to learn anything if you peel their oranges for them.”
What gave you the tenacity and courage required to become the first blind man to climb Mount Everest and kayak the Grand Canyon? What made you so determined not to let blindness limit your opportunities?
I went completely blind a week before my freshman year of high school. The first week of school, I had just been led into school by my teacher’s aide—not a great way to become popular during freshman year—and in the cafeteria, I heard the ruckus of food fights all around me. I remember thinking, “I’m scared of being blind and not seeing, but what I’m way more scared of is being left out of all the food fights. I don’t wanna be sitting on the sidelines, listening to this joy and happiness and love go by and not being able to experience it.” I remember being motivated by that fear. There’s the fear of doing things that are new and scary; and then there’s the fear of sitting in that dark place forever. It’s scary to move forward, but I think it’s scarier to just sit there in that prison. Intuitively, I figured out how to thrash and bleed my way forward. It’s not like I’m some Super Blind Guy who doesn’t experience fear and is impervious to getting his butt kicked. Understanding that you’re gonna be scared and vulnerable is part of what “No Barriers” is about.
While kayaking the Grand Canyon for the first time, you literally thrashed and bled—crashing into rocks, rolling under the rapids. Why did you choose to kayak the notoriously treacherous Grand Canyon?
I kayaked the Grand Canyon because I wanted to experience the incredible natural wonder of the world. As a blind person, you won’t understand or really experience this incredible place unless you’re in a rapid. You have to put yourself in the action to understand it: You’re this little puny human being riding the energy of this massive force, hearing the waves crashing on the miles-high walls above you.
Also, as I get older and fatter, and I’m teaching a lot at No Barriers, I ask myself, are all these ideas I’m teaching bullshit, or are they real? And the only way to know is to commit to this massive process of [trying something new and difficult]. I thought, It’s going to take me maybe six years to learn how to do this. I’ll be a test dummy to these ideas that I hope are true. It worked, but it was messier and there’s more blood than in the movies. There’s not a nice neat bow at the end. Life is messy. There’s still lingering fear. You never really conquer anything.
For those who haven’t read your new book: How did you kayak the Grand Canyon, practically speaking, as a blind person?
Over the course of six years, I developed a great team and some pretty cool systems. The team kayaks behind me and yells out commands and directions via a high-tech radio [which I listen to through an earpiece]. We looked for many years for right radio system—on a rapid, even a half second delay is too long, it had to be almost real-time communication. We found a communications company out of the UK that specially built waterproof radios for us.
Every rapid has what’s called a line—a zigzagging path that takes you around the rocks and holes and other spots you don’t want to go near. A person kayaked in front of me to pick the line, and a person behind me called out commands through the radio based on what the line-picker was doing. A person trails in behind to pick up the pieces in case someone swims, and a person hangs out at the bottom, in the eddy, the calm spot of the river.
In 2004, you founded No Barriers, a nonprofit organization that aims to help people overcome perceived limitations imposed by physical and mental injuries. What is the philosophy behind the organization?
The conceptual founding of No Barriers came from this climb I did with two of my heroes—Mark Wellman, a world-famous paraplegic who did 7,000 pullups on the rock face while climbing El Capitan; and Hugh Herr, a double leg amputee and scientist at MIT’s biomechanics lab, who works on fusing humans and machines. After he lost his legs in a climbing accident in the ‘80s, he developed prosthetic legs that enabled him to climb better. The three of us did this climb together—I think of us like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a very unique team. We carried Mark to the base for a couple miles, and I used my system where I was scanning up rocks and cracks.
I realized each of us had figured out how to break through huge barriers in our own lives. I thought, “Is there some universal thing we can tap into that helps us figure out how to get back on track after things throw us off our trajectory? Are there universal pieces you can use to build a map in front of you to confront obstacles and harness energies to increase your chances of emerging at the end of the journey having changed? Gotten better, stronger?” That climb was the first time I thought about that, and No Barriers grew from there.
The beauty of No Barriers is that it’s based on the idea that we’re all in the same boat, regardless of the type of physical condition we’re coping with. I’ll sit at a table at a No Barriers event with a little person, a lady with a full heart transplant, a guy who’s struggled with obesity, a veteran struggling with pain management and sick of taking painkillers from the VA, a CEO trying to lead a team, a blind kid and his mother — and we’re all sitting, talking, feeling like we’re completely in the same community, even though we’re absolutely all different. It’s about celebrating how you break through barriers.
What are some the main tools the No Barriers model teaches when guiding people to make recoveries and transform their lives?
We’ve worked hard trying to figure out what those tools are. We’ve identified seven main things: [Vision, Reach, Pioneer, Rope Team, Alchemy, Summits, and Elevate.] Vision, the first one, is not like being able to see into future—nobody can do that. As I see it, Vision is sort of shining a light inside and recognizing something inside yourself—whether you want to call it the soul or the human spirit or a light—and trying to illuminate what that is. When bad things happen, a lot of people blame others and turn outward, thrashing like wild animals. What we’ve tried to show people is how to turn inward, pull out that thing inside, and ask “How do I grow it and nurture it and use it to change myself?” We call that Vision.
We also talk about Alchemy: When really crappy things happen to you, how do you use the energy of that to propel yourself instead of letting it crush you?
Using a term from mountain climbing, we talk about building a “rope team.” When climbing mountains, you’re roped together to your team—you summit together, you might die together. We talk about how to build rope teams in our lives, because a lot of people’s communities are broken.
Then there’s Elevate. The sherpas on Everest always say, “The summit isn’t the real summit, it’s only the halfway summit.” When you summit a mountain, you pound your chest because you’ve accomplished something, you’ve learned something new. Your obligation becomes to bring those new gifts down the mountain and use them to elevate people. It can be hard to figure that one out—because we partly live in a selfish world. But we encourage people to ask, “How can you use those gifts you’ve learned through No Barriers to elevate those around you?”
What did it feel like to actually have kayaked the Grand Canyon after six years of preparation?
It was sort of surreal. For six years, I dreamed about this and feared certain crusher rapids. You get through that and it’s sort of crazy—[the experience] is in me somehow, but it’s almost like you can’t even imagine yourself doing it. Everest was the same way. That was me that stood on top of that thing and was in all these magazines. One magazine headline was like, “Blind to failure,” but it’s like, No, I wasn’t blind to failure. I could’ve failed. When I stood on top of Everest, I shattered the world’s expectations, and I also shattered my own. It was the same with the Grand Canyon.
In Tibet, where you taught blind kids to climb mountains, blind people are often treated as social pariahs, spit upon and shunned. That’s not the case in the United States, but there’s still a lot of work to be done when it comes to inclusiveness and understanding of disability. What does Western culture get wrong when it comes to our collective understanding of blindness and treatment of blind people?
In Tibet, blind kids were sort of the scourge of society. It’s believed blindness is a punishment for something committed in a past life, or a sign of inner demons. People spit on them in the streets. That’s not an indictment of Tibet—in any community of scarcity, guess who falls to the bottom of the caste system? But Sabriye, [who ran a school for the blind in Tibet], had this amazing goal—to make these kids super educated so they couldn’t be invisible, they couldn’t be scourges—to get them jobs so they’re sending home a paycheck. It’s hard to be a pariah if you’re sending home a paycheck. She changed the way people see disability in Tibet in just fifteen years.
In the U.S., I’ve worked with blind kids who come from families who straight up love them. But they’re often [overprotected.] One kid wasn’t allowed to go to the mailbox, because his parents thought he’d get hit by car. He just sat in his room and played video games all day. It’s not even prejudice—people just want to protect you and box you in. But then you aren’t able to discover anything. I’d rather be spit on than have someone peel my oranges for me. [One of my students had never peeled an orange.] You gotta be able to flail and bleed. One of the big breakthroughs in the blindness community is recognizing that blind people aren’t going to learn anything if you peel their oranges for them, even if you do it out of love.