Blind adventurer kayaks harrowing Colorado River rapids

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Photo: blindMost Coloradans know blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer for his incredible outdoor exploits like climbing the Seven Summits or mountain biking the Leadville 100. He also wrote a best-selling book, "No Barriers," which to date has sold more than 600,000 copies. He runs a non-profit organization of the same name that encourages soldiers, others with physical limitations, and, basically, everyone else to get out and live beyond their physical or mental limitations. In September, the 46-year-old father of two put his own philosophy to the test again, when he kayaked — in a solo boat — 227 miles of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.

When he started this quest three years ago, Weihenmayer believed he was the world’s only blind kayaker. But late last fall, he discovered another blind boater, Navy vet Lonnie Bedwell. It turned out Bedwell, from Indiana, also had his sights on the Grand Canyon. Weihenmayer was shocked to discover that he wasn’t the only blind kayaker in the world. After the shock wore off, Weihenmayer says, “I reached out. We met last spring at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, to meet and paddle together.”

The meeting went well. On Sept. 7, Weihenmayer and Bedwell launched their three-week trip.

Along the way, says Weihenmayer, they encountered all of the “mythic-sized waves” the Grand Canyon is known for. For 178 miles, Weihenmayer paddled with little incident. But at mile 179.2 sits the terrifying Lava Falls. Listening to directions from his guide through his Bluetooth headset, Weihenmayer lined the nose of his boat into the rapid as best he could.

It wasn’t good enough.

“There’s a ‘boil line’ at the top of the rapid,” he says. “It’s the trickiest part, because you have to stay right, while paddling away from a massive ledge hole. I flipped in the boil. As I went under, I thought, 'I have thought about this rapid for six years, no way I’m going in upside down.' So I rolled up, started paddling, and got hit again, flipped, and went under.”

Doing perhaps the most dangerous thing a boater can do in the Grand Canyon, Weihenmayer pulled his spray skirt and swam. But instead of letting that experience crush him, the following morning, the adventurer — who went completely blind at the age of 13 — hiked and ferried his boat back to Lava and paddled it again, this time, successfully.

He and Bedwell ran the rest of the river without injury. The Weihenmayer-Bedwell team included professional filmmakers and photographers, as well as a film crew from HBO Sports. They captured both blind men doing something most people would never dare. They did it, they say, to show others that no matter what their physical, mental, or psychological limitations may be, they can dream big, follow through, and exceed their own expectations.

Read freelance producer Tracy Ross’s Outside Magazine account of Weihenmayer’s breathtaking training trip kayaking the Usumacinta River between Guatemala and the Mexican state of Chiapas.