In 2001, Erik Weihenmayer made history as the first blind man to reach the summit of Mount Everest. A drive for thrilling and extreme sports is alive and kicking within him and he’s out to prove that a lack of sight cannot stop him.
Born with a rare disease called retinoschisis, he became totally blind by the age of 13. “Believe me, if I could open my eyes, I would,” the 43-year-old from Golden, Colorado told the Denver Post. “I’ve tried some things, like I solo paraglided for a year and thought: ‘You know, there’s not really a future in blind paragliding. I’m just going to kill myself.’ So I gave that up.”
But white-water kayaking doesn’t scare him…well, not enough for him not to try it. Weihenmayer’s instructor Chris Wiegand, former international whitewater kayaking competitor and coach, has taken 50 blind kayakers paddling. Wiegand said Weihenmayer is the only one he knows to pursue kayaking to such an extreme level.
“On the lake, it’s one thing. You get them on the river and it’s just a different sense of freedom,” said Wiegand.
“Or terror,” chimes in Weihenmayer.
Still with good humor and a desire to accomplish the impossible, Weihenmayer takes on his next challenge with a paddle in hand and his instructor shouting directions to him.
Which doesn’t say that he fearlessly approaches this dangerous sport. Even fully able-bodied athletes have their demons on the rapids. Without sight and with the rapids drowning out the helpful voice of his instructor at times, Weihenmayer throws himself into a wholly different ballgame.
“I think it’s harder (than climbing Everest),” Weihenmayer said. “The biggest challenge is that I have to react so quickly, and almost half the time, things don’t go exactly the way you expected them to. So you’re always reacting. Even on Everest, you can stop and regroup. In kayaking, there’s not a lot of regrouping. It’s hard on my nervous system.”
But what keeps him kayaking again and again is the adrenaline rush associated with it. Not only that, but also the ability to experience the wilderness in a different kind of way. He can share his time on the kayak with his wife and two children; he has built trusting relationships with his instructors and also is a living example of the prophecy preached by the non-profit organization No Barriers that Weihenmayer co-founded.
To get a sense of just how adventurous Weihenmayer is, watch the highlight clip from Expedition Impossible, a 2011 reality TV series that posed challenges to contestants for a prize at the end. In it, Weihenmayer tries kayaking, jumping off cliffs and zip-lining.
Photo: Gary J Wood (Numinosity, flickr)