What it's like to kayak the Grand Canyon without being able to see it
- In his new book, No Barriers, blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer details what it was like to kayak the Grand Canyon and shares his journey since becoming the first and only blind person to summit Mount Everest.
The following is excerpted from NO BARRIERS: A Blind Man's Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon by Erik Weihenmayer and Buddy Levy. Copyright (c) 2017 by the authors and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, LLC.
Rising the next morning, I tried to force down some breakfast on a queasy stomach. My nerves were so raw by now, I was referring to breakfast as “bagels and bile” and “dry heaves and toast.” The day started with a long warm-up to Lava, a fourteen-mile flat-water paddle that gave me plenty of time to contemplate what lay ahead. I tried to conjure up everything that Harlan had been telling me since we first launched, to keep my mind free from clutter and distractions, from doubt and fear, to be at peace with my decisions, and to channel the energy of the river. I tried to remove all the negative thoughts that enveloped my consciousness like silty water invading a clear stream.
by Erik Weihenmayer
About a half mile above Lava Falls, Harlan pointed out Vulcan’s Anvil, a fifty-foot plug of basalt, rising straight up out of the middle of the river. “It’s the cone of an extinct volcano,” he said, “the last remnant of that thousandfoot dam.”
One day the river will erode it all and take it downstream too, I thought.
Harlan told me that the Hualapai and Paiute tribes believed their ancestors met at the top of the anvil to solve disputes. It was a sacred place for them, a center of energy and power.
“In the afternoon light,” Rob said, “it looks jet black.” I had Rob direct me over to it, and I paddled a symbolic circle around it. As I raised my open palm toward the rock, I could feel its heat, even from a few feet away.
With Lava now booming below us, we pulled over and went ashore to scout, scrambling over the time-hardened lava rocks, river right. Six years of training and 179 miles through the canyon had led me here. In a way I couldn’t believe it. The hour had arrived. We stood on an overlook above the rapid, and Harlan took my hand and pointed it across the river to Prospect Canyon, the source of the big boulders that had come down and constricted this section so dramatically. Below us, it sounded catastrophic, like a constant thunderclap, like a place where the earth was angry, roiling and erupting with a million tons of water instead of magma.
“Sounds big.” I forced the words out of my diaphragm.
“It’s definitely big,” said Harlan, “but it’s just another rapid. Don’t go into this any differently than the others, like Upset. Remember what that felt like.”
Lonnie was next to me and started talking in an exuberant chatter. “I remember Lava Falls when I had my eyesight, seeing it on Wide World of Sports. This raft went in there, hit the Ledge Hole, and flipped. I’ll never forget the image of that big ole raft vertical, then upside down, all the rigging tearing out, coolers coming out, people flying out, and that rubber boat doing end-over-end flips.”
I tried to picture the Ledge Hole, Lava’s most infamous and awe-inspiring feature, a wide rock pour-over producing a wave twelve feet tall and, on the other side, a massive pileup of white water. It was known as the place on the Grand Canyon where you didn’t want to be. “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” I managed to reply, and then I sank down on a rock.
“When I came through here my last time,” Lonnie jumped back in, “I remember standing right here, where we are now, listening to that roar and feeling the vibration through my feet. You feel that? And I’m thinking, ‘Okay, I’m gonna do this.’ I dropped in, missed the Ledge Hole on the left, got a little squirrely on the right, flipped and rolled back up, and I’m digging with my paddle like a boll weevil through a tater patch, but I got flipped again, and my spray skirt imploded. I coulda swore it took my legs off. Ripped me right out of my kayak so violently, they told me my boat went flying in the air doing flips, twenty feet in the air. I finally popped up, paddle still in my hands, and one of my guides came and rescued me.”
By the time Lonnie had finished recounting his run, I felt dizzy and listless. I thought I was going to puke. I tried to fight the nausea with the proactive breathing exercises Timmy had taught me, but I couldn’t seem to breathe it away. I wasn’t sure if it was Lonnie’s story, the temperature that had topped one hundred degrees, the fourteen-mile paddle that morning, the exhaustion of the last two weeks, or all the pressure and buildup to this moment; maybe it was all of it, but I felt the veneer of confidence slipping away and the debris pouring in, constricting the current of my mind, strangling the flow. I could feel the weight of it all, like those obstructions lurking deep below Lava yet profoundly affecting what I would experience on the surface.
Harlan began describing the line, and I needed to maintain my composure. I listened to him as best I could, given the images of tumbling rafts and kayaks spinning through the air. He took my hand again, pointing it along the line. “We’re gonna ease in center river right, just to the left of a strong eddy line. There are some really weird, powerful boils that are coming off the shore. They’ll try to surf you to the left. Fight the spin and stay loose and relaxed. We’ll have the Ledge Hole on our left and some big pour-overs to our right. We’ll punch through two pretty sizeable surging waves and try to line up for the V-Wave. There are two of them crashing together. The right side’s no good. It’s a muncher, and behind it is the corner pocket—not a good place to wind up. So we’ll charge it angling slightly left to punch through the left side of the V. It’s a good hit, so if you get knocked over, you have enough time to roll up before the next features. If you stay upright, then we’ll keep angling out into the river, so we avoid my old friend the Cheese Grater Rock. Then we’ll straighten out and hit the Big Kahuna waves. There’s a series of them, but two big ones. Then you just ride out the tail waves, and we’re done.”
Through my paddling booties, I could feel the burning lava rock scalding the bottom of my feet. Late afternoon wind whipped up the canyon. My lips were cracked, my throat parched, my tongue chalky.
“Ready to do this, E?” Harlan asked.
“I think so,” I replied. I’d never been so terrified in my life.
I scrambled down the boulders and climbed into my kayak. Although I’d given up the practice of cranking the ratchets in my cockpit eighteen precise times, I still had a careful pre-paddling ritual that took several minutes and served as meditation. First, I pulled the ropes that tightened my backrest and the bulkhead under my feet. I made sure no folds on my dry top would get hooked over anything that would prevent me from wet exiting if I needed to. I pulled on my neoprene skirt, snapping it over my cockpit from back to front. I slid on my helmet, maneuvered the microphone in front of my lips, and wiggled the earpiece so it was flush against my ear. I buckled the chin strap, making sure there were no twists, wrapped the cord of my comm system around the shoulder strap of my PFD: two loops and tuck the system into the chest pocket. Lastly, I held my paddle out, rolling it in my hands; it was easy to grab it backward, so I carefully felt the paddle blades, noting the feathering and angle. We turned on the radios. They beeped to indicate they were working. Harlan was fairly clear: “Check, check,” I heard. “Small left, small right, testing, testing.”
We pushed into the river. I was floating out, away from anything solid, anything I could hang on to. It was happening. Lava’s terrible bellow grew louder, beginning to cancel all other sound except Harlan’s voice. “We’re here, right now, in this moment; nothing else matters. Be clear and calm and concise.”
But unlike Upset Rapid where my actions had felt crisp and fluid, and my surroundings had slowed, now it was my body moving slowly with the canyon racing by. My movements felt labored, my muscles stiff and tense. I felt the power of the current beneath my hull as it hurled me toward Lava’s tongue. I wanted to put on the brakes and pull over, to rethink what I was doing, but there was no time.
“We’re about a hundred yards above now,” Harlan said. “Small left. Hold that line.” I tried to execute his command, but my response time felt seconds behind, and my paddle strokes felt mushy, like I was disconnected from the water. “Small left again. Hold that line. Right there. Nice calm strokes; good thoughtful strokes. Hold that line.”
I silently repeated our familiar mantra: “Relax. Breathe. Be at peace with the river.”
His voice became louder, more urgent. “Approaching those boils . . . fight the spin, fight the spin.” I was struck simultaneously from the right-side boils and the surging main left channel, but as I dug in with my paddle blade, fighting those invisible hands grabbing my bow, I reverted to a bad habit I thought I’d broken two years ago. I felt my upper body lean the wrong way, and I was instantly upside down, with no idea which direction my boat was pointing. My mind swirled like the current above and below me, like a blind man’s version of a fun house, bombarded by mirrors, no sense of space or direction. I’d accepted the fact that I’d probably flip somewhere in Lava, but I would have never imagined being upside-down heading into it. How could this even be happening? It would have been comical if it weren’t so insanely scary. I managed to get my paddle to the surface, snap my hips, and roll back up to the growl of the river. I heard Harlan yelling, “Hard left!” then instantly “Hard right!” and I tried to respond, but my reactions and movements were imprecise. My speed increased as I jostled and pitched over the entry waves and plunged down a slope into what had to be the V-Wave, then felt a collision like hitting a solid wall. My boat was thrown up and backward as I flipped again. My kayak spun above me as I managed to roll up once more, now hyperventilating.
Harlan’s words came fast and loud now: “Left! You’re good! You’re good!” But I wasn’t good. I could feel the current tugging me backward toward a deafening roar, like giant breakers pounding a beach. I was pointing backward going into the Kahuna waves. “Hard right!” Harlan yelled. “Charge! Charge!” But I couldn’t get around in time. An enormous wave broke over me from behind, hitting me in the back of the helmet, knocking my body forward, and yanking my kayak down and under. My arms felt paralyzed as I was buried in an avalanche of water. Then I was over again, tumbling and gyroscoping under all that weight, the opposing currents violently grabbing at my paddle blades, trying to rip it from my hands. Somehow I rolled up in the midst of the storm, but there was no direction from Harlan. Then another wave hammered me from my left, and I fought to brace. I took a gasp of half air and foam as I went under again.
The howling roar became an underwater gurgle of exploding bubbles. Waves pounded my boat from above, bashing me down harder as each of my roll attempts got weaker. At last I was out of air, and I desperately reached for my grab loop and yanked, popping my spray skirt and launching myself out of my boat. I clawed for the surface, for air, inhaling water as more waves slammed down and spun and shook me. My head finally popped above the surface, and I gasped for breath. I could hear voices again—Rob’s? Timmy’s?— but not Harlan’s as I felt a boat next to me and held on to it, trying to catch hold of something; it tipped a little, like the beginning of an Eskimo roll. I realized then I was feeling a smooth hull, the bottom of a boat. It was Harlan. He’d flipped too! I let go, and Timmy was beside me, hauling me toward an eddy.
Then I could hear Harlan again, his voice breathless and quavering, explaining that a big wave had snapped his carbon fiber paddle in half, the severed, jagged edge spearing him in the face. That’s why he’d flipped. But I was hardly listening as Timmy deposited me on shore and I pulled myself up onto the slippery rocks at the river’s edge, thankful to be out of that terrifying maelstrom.
I could hear my team’s voices and their boats clacking into one another as they hovered in the eddy. Rob said, “You’re done, buddy. No more big rapids.” With shaking hands, I took off my helmet. Water and silt streamed down my face as I tried to process what had just happened.
“No worries, Erik,” Harlan said. “You remember that old kayaking adage, right? We’re all just between swims.”
As I sat there, I tried to keep my face from reacting, trying to hide the shock and devastation. Lonnie ran Lava clean, just flipping once. The team whooped and hooted for his success, especially since he’d swum last year. I cheered for him too, but not with as much enthusiasm as I should have. I felt bitter, like I’d let my team and myself down. It felt as if I had dishonored the journey I was on.
We pulled off and camped at Tequila Beach just a half mile below, beside the rapid called Son of Lava. One kayaking tradition is called the Booty Beer. When a kayaker swims and has to be rescued, they have to chug a full beer out of someone’s stinky paddling booty. I went along with the ritual, the boot tipped up to my lips as I guzzled warm, foamy beer, river water, and sweat, but I didn’t taste it. Everything was numb. The boys tried to cheer me up, and Harlan said, “Look at it this way. Right now, you are as far from Lava Falls as you could possibly be. You are through it. Lava is behind you.”
He was right in a way. Swimming through one rapid didn’t make the entire trip a failure. In the overall scheme of things, it didn’t really matter that I swam. I was through it. I was safe. I was alive. Part of me was glad it was over. It was a bitter relief. Now I could get on with it, move downriver, and never have to think about it again, but if that was the case, why did I feel a plaguing regret and a vague sense of possibilities unfulfilled? Years ago in Tibet, we’d failed to summit Lhakpa Ri and had gone on to find a “blind summit” that was just as good. But how were you supposed to know when to let go and when to hang on? When to let the river take you downstream toward something new and when to double back? I turned in early that night, exhausted, defeated, and confused.