5 Minutes with blind kayaker Erik Weihenmayer
This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of Canoe & Kayak.
By Eugene Buchanan
Paddlers often talk of ‘running blind’ to explain the unnerving feeling of paddling into a rapid they haven’t scouted. Erik Weihenmayer takes that concept to new heights. Best known as the first and only blind man to reach the summit of Mount Everest and climb the world’s Seven Summits, Weihenmayer now has his sights set on a new a goal: kayaking the Grand Canyon in fall 2013. To prepare, he paddles weekly on Clear Creek near his home in Golden, Colo., with guide Rob Raker yelling instructions from behind and another paddler, often Chris Wiegand, showing the route ahead. He’s run the Green River’s Gates of Lodore and Desolation/Gray canyons this way, as well as Mexico’s Usumacinta. “He’s improving daily,” says Raker, who’s taking him to Peru’s Urubamba River this August. “But it’s tough because he needs certain information that the rest of get with our eyes. I have to watch his every move.”
— Watch the video below to see Erik Weihenmayer paddling.
I started four years ago in a pool class, but I never really got the roll. So my friend and climbing partner Rob Raker taught me. That summer we ran Gates of Lodore.
I thought it’d be a fun new sport to learn, and my family (including kids Arjun, 10, and Emma, 12) could actually come with me.
It’s really hard to read a river by sense of touch or hearing. You can hear it, but you don’t know if it’s a hole to avoid or the tongue you’re supposed to go down.
We had to figure out a system. We experimented with several high-tech, waterproof radios, but they didn’t work too well. A second before I went into Class IV Cow Sleep Rapid on Desolation, the radio went silent. I was screaming ‘No Radio!’ I paddled the rapid for about 10 seconds before Rob finally caught up and started yelling. I was so glad to hear him. Now he just yells from behind me.
We’ve worked out a series of commands: Small Left or Right means a 20-degree turn; Left or Right means 45 degrees; and Hard Left or Right means turn 90 degrees. Charge means go hard or you’re going to get hammered. Pause means to stop paddling, and Stop means stop hard. It’s loud in a rapid so you have to have words that are distinct.
I get why there aren’t any blind kayakers in the world. Blind people don’t get much speed in their lives, and rivers move pretty fast.
Everything happens so quickly. Once one thing goes wrong, it leads to a cascading series of events. The commands only help so much. You’re always slightly behind the eight ball, having to react to what’s happening under your boat.
You have to really understand the map of the rapid and how it works. We’ll scout everything beforehand and (Raker) will explain it to me. Something that usually only takes five minutes takes me a half-hour, because we’re eddy-hopping our way through it.
I got in over my head on the Usumacinta. It was about 100,000 cfs, with whirlpools and boils all over. I couldn’t get oriented. Then I swam on another nearby river. I got frazzled and twitchy and definitely took a step back.
That’s when I went to two five-day training sessions at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. Chilean Olympic kayaker Pablo McCandless showed me the lines in a two-man kayak.
When you’re climbing big mountains, you’re moving fast but you can stop whenever you want to reassess things and turn back if you want to. You can’t do that on a river. It’s a notch up in terms of the fear factor compared to anything else I’ve done. It makes you feel like a wimp sometimes.
I think I’m getting it. I can see why people love the sport.