Rough Waters: What It’s Like to Kayak Blind Through the Grand Canyon

Adventurer Erik Weihenmayer spent six years preparing to solo kayak the stretch of the Colorado River that passes through the Grand Canyon—home to some of the country’s most notorious rapids.

Rough Waters: What It’s Like to Kayak Blind Through the Grand Canyon

The Colorado River snakes through 277 miles of the Grand Canyon.

Photo by Beth Ruggiero-York/Shutterstock

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Erik Weihenmayer lost his vision at age 13, but he never lost his thirst for adventure. Now 53, Weihenmayer—the founder of the nonprofit No Barriers—has spent his life traveling. He was the first blind person to summit Mount Everest and has climbed all the major peaks in the world. He has rock climbed in California and ice-climbed in Antarctica. In 2008, he decided he wanted to take on a new challenge: to kayak through the Grand Canyon. It was, as you can imagine, quite a ride. In the latest episode of Travel Tales, Weihenmayer shared the experience.

I would love to go back to the beginning. You’ve climbed all around the world. What made you decide to try kayaking?

I was actually on an ice face in Nepal, a beautiful 3,000-foot vertical ice face. We were up bivvying on that climb: We couldn’t make it to the top in one day, so we pulled off onto this ledge and were sleeping in these tiny little sleeping bags. It was cold. There was a wind blowing down the mountain, and I was just shivering and almost hallucinating with cold. We didn’t have much food, either. I think we had one package of soup each and a little stove. I remember going, “Rob, man, are you miserable, too?” And he said, “Yeah.” [Laughs] We started talking about kayaking and rivers and how, a lot of the time, you’re in the sunshine, and you can bring food in the raft behind you, and you can bring beer if you’re over 21.

I thought, Wow, that sounds really good. So when we got home, I said, “Rob, will you teach me a kayak roll?” That’s where you’re upside down [after your boat has flipped] and you gotta take your paddle to the surface and flip over. He stood in a lake in Colorado right next to my kayak and within two and a half hours, I had this shaky roll. After that I said, “Hey, Rob, do you think you’d, uh, guide me down a couple easy rivers?” That’s how it all began.

And you still wanted to kayak after that! How long did you train before you tackled the Grand Canyon?

It was six years. I thought, OK, I could kayak for a year and just go really crazy with my preparation and I could probably survive the Grand Canyon. But I didn’t want to just survive. There have been climbs in the past where I kind of squeaked to the top and felt a little bit lucky or fortunate, but [it was by] the skin of my teeth. I was like, That doesn’t feel good. That’s not why I’m doing these things—to squeak by. I want to really figure out if I could not only survive, but also flourish in that river environment. At that point in my life, I hadn’t really had a lot of experience in rivers. [Most of my experience was] on mountains, which oddly had become my comfort zone.

I was like, ‘I don’t even understand the language of rivers.’ [There are] holes that are like giant washing machines that want to grab your boat and suck you down, and pourovers, which are waves that go over rocks on the water’s surface, and eddy fences, sections of the river that actually run upstream instead of downstream. It was a whole new language and a whole new environment. I really wanted to see if I could flourish in that environment as a blind person, with what I could hear, what I could feel under my boat, what my guides were telling me and giving me commands. That really intrigued me: How far could I take this as a blind person?

When I first started, my gosh: River kayaks are meant to turn, but I’d get on a lake and would get just a little bit of a wind and I’d be paddling—but I’d suddenly be turned around, paddling the opposite direction. My friend Rob would say, “Hey dude, you just turned a 180 and you’re going backwards now.” And I’m like, “Wow, I had no idea. I’m so disoriented right now.” I had to start learning how to orient myself by what I was hearing, by the direction of the wind, by the echolocation—I could hear the canyon walls to each side—[and] by the sun in my face. As the sun changed throughout the day and it moved through the sky and it changed its angle through the canyon. . .

That’s so incredible. How often did you train?

Oh, I was training whenever I could for six years. Maybe not every day, ‘cause sometimes I still had to work and things like that, but three days a week I was kayaking, whether I was on the lake paddling or whether I was in Clear Creek, which is in Golden, Colorado, where I live or finding other rivers all around Colorado, or even taking training trips all around the world. We went to Peru several times and kayaked different rivers. We went to Mexico and paddled the Usumacinta [River]. The first time I actually went onto the Usumacinta, which is this giant canyon that separates Guatemala from Mexico, there was a huge series of rainstorms. The river exploded. This is a little bit technical, but instead of [the river moving at] 40,000 cubic feet per second, it was like 120,000. Basically the river tripled in power. We were just riding these giant waves and giant energy sources down the canyon and I really got in over my head. I got really scared through the process. It was to the point where I almost didn’t even want to get back in my boat again.

How did you get back in your boat? And when did you feel you were ready for the Grand Canyon?

I run an organization called No Barriers and we work with a lot of people with different kinds of challenges. I met with a guy, Ryan Kelly, [a veteran who has] PTSD, one day for coffee. I said, “Hey dude, I feel like I have touches of PTSD. Like I’m really terrified to get in my boat.” And he said, “Dude, PTSD or trauma, it’s not a veteran thing, it’s a human thing. Our lives are full of trauma. We get in over our heads and we question ourselves, we question the decisions that we make. We question how we’re going to rise to the occasion in front of our team and it can paralyze you.” And that’s what it was: [I got] stuck in this paralysis. He said, “It’s just small acts of courage every day. You have to go sit in your boat. Even if you’re sitting in the garage, just go back, just move in the right direction.”

Ultimately, I decided to go back to the Usumacinta the next year and I was able to kayak the whole thing and felt so much more comfortable in my boat. I think after that trip, I said, “OK, I’m ready for the Grand Canyon. I think I’m ready to take on these rivers.”

What was the first day of that three-week trip like?

I had an amazing team: My friend Rob, whom I’d climbed with, and my buddy Harlan Taney, half human, half dolphin. And then I had my friend Skyler and a couple other friends with me. The coolest part was I’d read about this other blind guy, Lonnie Bedwell, who was a really good kayaker. I reached out to Lonnie and said, “Hey, maybe you want to come along with me and we’ll kayak the Grand Canyon together? I think that could be really powerful.”

PTSD or trauma, it’s not a veteran thing, it’s a human thing. Our lives are full of trauma.

OK, you had this big team assembled. What was it like to launch off and begin the journey?

[Laughs] I was so nervous. It was really warm. It was probably 90 degrees and I was shivering. But the good thing about the Grand Canyon is it’s kind of a buildup. You have some beginner rapids before you get to a real big one on the second or third day. Then it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and more intense all the way up to Lava Falls, a gigantic rapid, which is a 10 out of 10 on the Grand Canyon scale.

How would your friends maneuver you through all of this?

I wasn’t going to be able to hear in these giant rapids, these walls of water that were like 20 or 30 feet tall. In my training, my guides would be right behind me and they’d be yelling very specific directions to me, like left, which is like a 45-[degree turn], or hard left, which is like a 90-[degree turn]. And charge, which meant charge into that rapid because you’re about to get destroyed by it. Super simple commands. But we realized that rivers are so crazy, like I’m trying to turn a left and the river is actually pulling me right. It was very hard for me to tell because there’s another dimension under my boat. So even though, yeah, maybe I’m turning left in my mind, the river is still pulling me right and it would pull me into an eddy or some other kind of crazy situation. And Rob, or one of my guys, would shoot past me and be like a hundred yards down the river [where they could no longer see me].

We realized we needed radios that could communicate in water, which is pretty hard to find in itself. But also radios that Rob or Harlan could use to communicate in real time. Even a half a second of delay, which is [the case with] most radio systems, is an eternity. I want to be able to get that command as quickly as possible. So basically on the Grand Canyon, my guides were yelling directions through the radios. But the Grand Canyon is such a silty river. There’s so much silt pouring down that it actually got into the membranes of the radio [during the trip]. Within a couple of days they were barely working. So that became a problem. We had to go back to the old-fashioned way: Just yell your head off.

I like that: Yell your head off. What was going through your mind as you made it through that first set of rapids?

I felt like I was just surviving these things, you know? Like, am I here fully in this experience? Am I a person looking through a window at an experience rather than the person being in the experience? I really have strived for that in my life. That was always my struggle: All the fear or the anticipation of the bigger rapids to come. The feeling that you’re sometimes out of control as a blind person, going down a rapid with just the voice commands of the person, and the stuff you’re feeling under your boat, and the sounds that you’re trying to interpret.

Sometimes that was way overwhelming and it felt like a weight on my shoulders or like crust that accumulates around your soul and kind of pulls you away from the experience. I just wanted to be there fully. Because I really feel strongly that these experiences shouldn’t just be something that you put on your resume, or a trophy on your shelf, or a picture on your wall. They should be teaching you something so that you’re more prepared for the next time. They’re a catalyst to bring you to the next thing that launches you forward into this new chaotic situation in the future. I wanted this experience to be really meaningful.

What was the most meaningful moment for you?

I remember going through one rapid called Upset. It’s got a huge hole that you have to squeak by. It’s kind of counterintuitive because you angle in and you hammer through these big waves that are crashing up against the canyon wall, and then you cut right and you ride this gauntlet between those huge waves and this gigantic hole that’s right to your right. I remember paddling through that and just riding that gauntlet and hearing that guttural hole to my right and hearing the waves just exploding against the wall to my left and feeling like I was so connected with this experience.

I actually had a smile on my face. I felt like I wasn’t just that person interacting with the canyon. I felt like I was the water. I was the wall. I was the wave. I didn’t feel the separation between me and the experience. I remember that feeling lingered with me all day. It was such a beautiful feeling of flow and connection with what I was trying to do. The crazy ironic part is that you train for six years and you get seconds of that feeling. But I really think that’s what athletes are looking for. We’re even looking for that in terms of our human experience, just feeling connected and not separated from this environment.

I really feel strongly that these experiences shouldn’t just be . . . a picture on your wall. They should be teaching you something so that you’re more prepared for the next time.

It became almost a spiritual feeling. I’m not a traditional Christian or Muslim or Buddhist or anything like that, but it did border on this idea where, as I sat on the shore with my feet in the water that afternoon, I was overwhelmed by this feeling of connection. [I felt] I was part of this great environment of something beautiful and big—something that I had faith existed at the end of the tunnel. So maybe it sounds a little cheesy, but it really does become a spiritual experience, these things. It’s not about defying death. It’s about sort of figuring out how you navigate through these really scary situations. —as told to Aislyn Greene

Interview has been shortened and condensed for clarity. Listen to the the full episode, or watch The Weight of Water, a documentary film about the experience that won the 2018 Banff Film Festival.

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Aislyn Greene is the associate director of podacsts at AFAR, where she produces the Unpacked by AFAR podcast and hosts AFAR’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.