No Barriers: A Blind Man's Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon

No Barriers: A Blind Man's Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon


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2018 Colorado Book Awards finalist in Creative Nonfiction, and National Bestseller and Honorable Mention Award Winner in the Outdoor Literature category of the 2017 National Outdoor Book Awards (NOBA) — “A beautiful book about family and finding a way to achieve more than you ever thought possible.” —Brad Meltzer, NYT bestselling author

Erik Weihenmayer is the first and only blind person to summit Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth. Descending carefully, he and his team picked their way across deep crevasses and through the deadly Khumbu Icefall; when the mountain was finally behind him, Erik knew he was going to live. His expedition leader slapped him on the back and said something that would affect the course of Erik’s life: “Don’t make Everest the greatest thing you ever do.”

No Barriers is Erik’s response to that challenge. It is the moving story of his journey since descending Mount Everest: from leading expeditions around the world with blind Tibetan teenagers to helping injured soldiers climb their way home from war, from adopting a son from Nepal to facing the most terrifying reach of his life: to solo kayak the thunderous whitewater of the Grand Canyon.

Along the course of Erik’s journey, he meets other trailblazers—adventurers, scientists, artists, and activists—who, despite trauma, hardship, and loss, have broken through barriers of their own. These pioneers show Erik surprising ways forward that surpass logic and defy traditional thinking.

Like the rapids of the Grand Canyon, created by inexorable forces far beneath the surface, No Barriers is a dive into the heart and mind at the core of the turbulent human experience. It is an exploration of the light that burns in all of us, the obstacles that threaten to extinguish that light, and the treacherous ascent towards growth and rebirth.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250088789
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/07/2017
Pages: 480
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Erik Weihenmayer is a bestselling author, athlete, adventurer, and motivational speaker. He is the author of the bestsellers Touch the Top of the World and The Adversity Advantage. He cofounded No Barriers USA, which empowers people to break through barriers, find their inner purpose and contribute their very best to the world. Erik lives in Colorado.

Buddy Levy is an author, educator, journalist, and speaker. His books include Labyrinth of Ice, Conquistador, River of Darkness, Geronimo, and American Legend. He is a Clinical Professor of English at Washington State University. He lives in Idaho.

Read an Excerpt

No Barriers

A Blind Man's Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon

By Erik Weihenmayer, Buddy Levy

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2017 Erik Weihenmayer and Buddy Levy
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-08880-2



I wasn't always completely blind. Even though I couldn't see well from birth, I could still play basketball, ride my bike, and jump off rocks in the woods behind my house. Then, when I was three years old, I was diagnosed with a rare disease called juvenile retinoschisis. The odds were about the same as winning the lottery. The disease causes hemorrhaging in the eyes and makes the retinas split away over time; and just like my retinas, my life split away from everything I'd thought was normal one week before my freshman year of high school.

On my first day, I was led into the building by my teacher's aide — not the ideal way to begin freshman year in a sighted school. She guided me from class to class and even to the bathroom. At lunchtime, she led me into the cafeteria, where I sat at a table alone, thinking about everything I had lost. I was afraid of going blind and seeing only darkness, but I was even more afraid of what I'd miss out on. I could hear the other kids around me, their laughter and wisecracks, their horsing around. A food fight broke out, and from what I could hear — all the yelling and screaming — everyone in the room except me was in the thick of it. The darkness was the easy part. The hard part was realizing I would never be in the food fight. I'd been swept aside, shoved into a dark place, and left alone there. Blindness descended upon me with such force that I thought it would swallow me.

I've heard people say we shouldn't be motivated by fear. Even Yoda said it in my favorite movie series, Star Wars: "Fear is the path to the dark side."

But that day in the cafeteria was my first bitter taste of fear. It caught in my throat like bile. It writhed in my gut, intertwining itself through every action, every decision. No matter how I fought it, fear was ever present. It was a tug-of-war, the fear of pushing forward through darkness against barriers you can't see, tugging against the fear of sitting quietly and safely in a dark place.

Earlier that summer, right before the last traces of my eyesight were gone, I was watching TV. I could barely see out of my right eye, with just a little peripheral vision remaining. To see what was happening, I had to put my face almost against the screen, so close I could feel static electricity crackling on the tip of my nose. I was watching my favorite show, That's Incredible! That night, they were featuring the story of a young Canadian named Terry Fox. He was nineteen years old when he was diagnosed with cancer. A tumor appeared in his right leg, and he was rushed in for surgery, where his leg had to be amputated six inches above his right knee. In the hospital recovering, Terry watched children even younger than he was succumbing to disease, and their deaths were a searing pain, sharper than the saw that had taken his leg. Of course he felt for their pain, but his next act was the most surprising thing I'd ever seen. After enduring eighteen months of chemotherapy and witnessing all that death and tragedy, he should have been reduced. As he contemplated his own mortality, he was supposed to retreat, curl into a ball, and protect the precious little he had left. Who would have blamed him? Yet instead, Terry did the exact opposite. He made the astonishing decision to run, and not just for a day, or a week, but from one shore to another, through every province, across the entire country of Canada. It was a marathon a day for thousands of miles.

I pressed my face against the television watching Terry hobble mile after mile in his Marathon of Hope. This was before the days of high-tech flex feet and "smart," computerized prosthetics. His clunky, old-fashioned steel and fiberglass prosthetic leg created a herky-jerky gait, an awkward double-step, and a hop on his good left leg as his prosthetic right foot went back and then swung forward, almost like he was skipping. The look on his face was a contradiction, exhaustion mixed with determination. In his eyes, I sensed something I could only describe as a light that seemed to give intensity and power to his gaunt expression. At first, as Terry ran from town to town, only a few people paid attention, but soon, as news of his daily marathon spread, supporters began to line the roads to cheer him on. By the middle of his journey, throngs were showing up in the thousands.

Later in the piece, the host came back on and said that on day 143 — after running an average of twenty-six miles a day for over four months and 3,339 miles through six provinces, Terry was forced to stop his run. Cancer had invaded his lungs, causing him to cough and gasp for air as he ran. Terry cried as he told the crowd of reporters that he wouldn't be able to finish, but through his tears, he said, "I'll fight. I promise I won't give up."

Terry Fox died seven months after he stopped running. It wasn't fair. He'd only gotten twenty-two years on earth. But in that short window, he had made a decision to run, and that decision had elevated an entire nation. Instead of shrinking away, Terry had gotten bigger. He had lived more than he had died. Donations to his Marathon of Hope fund poured in and reached $24 million, equal to a dollar for every Canadian citizen.

I knew that my blindness was coming. It was a hard fact, and nothing I did would prevent it. As Terry's story concluded, I knelt with tears pouring down my face. I yearned for that kind of courage, and I dared to hope Terry's light existed in me.

I eventually climbed out of my dark place, with the help of my father, Ed, and the rest of my family. I joined the wrestling team, going from a 0–15 record my first year to becoming team captain my senior year and representing my home state of Connecticut in the National Junior Freestyle Wrestling Championships in Iowa. At sixteen, I also discovered rock climbing at a summer camp. I learned to scan and feel for holds on the rock face, using my hands and feet as my eyes. Through trial and error, by thrashing, groping, and bloodying my knuckles and fingers on the rock — I learned that the beauty of climbing was discovering the clues in the rock face, the nubs, edges, knobs, and pockets I could hang on to and remain on the vertical wall. When I successfully made it up a difficult climb, I was overwhelmed by the wonderful sensation of being in the mountains: the wind at my back, the brilliant textures in the rock, the intermittent patterns of coolness and heat under my touch. My senses awakened. Every sound, smell, and touch was so vivid, so brilliant, it was almost painful. One hundred feet above the tree line with the sun in my face and the wind and elements all around me, I felt an intoxicating freedom and the possibility that the adventure in my life was just beginning.

During high school, tragedy struck a second time. Two years after I lost my vision, I lost my mom in a car accident. I was only a sophomore in high school, and my mom, who'd spent years protecting me, driving me to and from eye doctor appointments, and giving me the inner strength I needed to confront blindness, was gone. How can I explain that pain? If I had gone blind a thousand times, it would not compare to what I felt in losing my mother.

After her death, my father wanted to take my two brothers and me on a trip that would bring us all closer together. In school, I had listened to an audio book about the Spanish conquistadors and the lost city of the Incas, and I suggested Peru. Dad agreed, and we set off for the Inca Trail. The trip, which included a hike to nearly fourteen thousand feet, started a tradition of annual family treks to remote parts of the world and fueled my love of the mountaineering life. As I sat with my older brother Mark at the Sun Gate, he described the ancient city of Machu Picchu, with immense rock structures terracing down the valley. I could hear the lost city, far below us, hidden in a deep cleft between high mountains, and I felt like an explorer, with the possibility of new lands to discover.

I went on to graduate from high school and then from Boston College, where I got a degree in English and communications. I ended up teaching middle school English and coaching wrestling at Phoenix Country Day School in Arizona. That's where I met and fell in love with Ellie Reeve. When she learned about my passion for mountains and adventure, she supported me wholeheartedly, and I continued climbing and mountaineering. My confidence in climbing led to other adventures — skydiving and paragliding, skiing, and ice climbing.

But it was the challenge of big mountain summits that most intrigued me. Between 1995 and 2000, urged on by my Phoenix climbing partner Sam, I trained hard, developed strong teams, and started climbing serious peaks. First Denali —"the great one" in the Inuit language — at 20,310 feet, the highest point on the North American continent. For weeks we slogged over minefields of hidden crevasses and upward through a region ruled by the diabolical Coriolis effect, a phenomenon — connected to the mountain's proximity to the Arctic Circle — which results in fierce storms with heavy snowfall, high winds, and biting cold. During those years I also climbed Aconcagua, at 22,841 feet, the highest point in South America, and the Vinson Massif in Antarctica — 16,050 feet and one of the world's remotest peaks. Vinson was also one of the coldest I'd ever experienced, with summer temps plunging to minus forty-degrees Fahrenheit. On top, I took a leak, and the stream froze in midair, clinking to the ground as yellow ice.

A couple of years later Ellie and I were married at thirteen thousand feet on the Shira Plateau of Mount Kilimanjaro. Ellie didn't have a wedding dress, so we wrapped her up in Tanzanian fabric we'd been using as a tablecloth! Our friends built a rock altar and collected beautiful mountain flowers, which Ellie held in a bouquet. At the end of the ceremony, we walked through a gauntlet of Tanzanian porters as they threw rice over us; the only slight glitch to this time-honored ceremony was that they had boiled the rice, and it stuck all over our fleece. Glacial-capped Kilimanjaro stands alone on a flat plain, formed by a massive volcanic explosion that deposited magma in the shape of a gigantic cone called a stratovolcano. It's the only place in the world where you can pass so quickly through five of the earth's distinct vegetation zones: farmlands on the lower slopes, forest, heath and moorland, alpine desert, and arctic. When you arrive at the summit, you're met with the profuse smell of sulfur emitting from the crater. A few days after our idyllic wedding, we left for the top. I told Ellie it was our honeymoon, but she disagreed, describing our twenty-one-hour summit day as "an endless nightmare."

These expeditions prepared me enough, I believed, for an even greater challenge: Mount Everest.

* * *

At 4:00 A.M. on May 25, 2001, I stood at 28,000 feet, still more than a thousand feet below the summit of Mount Everest. I sensed the first beams of sunlight breaking over the Himalayas, and unbelievably, despite the time and the altitude, I could feel warmth on my face, on my chest and shoulders. I was so high up; no other mountain blocked the sunrise. The good weather was a small miracle considering we had been climbing all night through intermittent spells of blasting wind and horizontal snow that caked our down suits with a layer of ice. As we labored toward the Balcony, a small flat shelf at 27,700 feet, lightning had begun exploding nearby, like a terrifying version of a Fourth of July fireworks show. We'd stopped and huddled together in the deteriorating weather, wondering what to do, debating whether to keep going up or to descend. Doubt and fear had swirled in my head like the wind that whipped around us. More than 170 people had died on Mount Everest. Earlier, I'd walked right by a frozen, mummified corpse lying next to the trail, and I tried not to think too deeply about his last moments, his suffering, and his regrets.

Stalled out for almost an hour, I was so cold I bounced up and down, windmilled my arms, and swung my legs back and forth, trying to raise my body temperature and return blood flow to my numb hands and feet. I'd been preparing for this climb half my life; I'd been training intensely for two years, and I'd been toiling up and down the mountain over the last month and a half to acclimatize. And now, hostile weather was going to turn us back. Although desperately wanting to make it to the top, I also wasn't willing to go bullheadedly forward and throw my life away. I pictured my wife, Ellie, and my little one-year-old daughter, Emma, at home, bundled together under warm blankets, reading a storybook. My mind started to settle on the grim reality of heading down when a voice from our team at base camp crackled over the radio.

"The storm's clearing down here. It's on top of you now, but I think it may pass over."

Sure enough, one of my teammates had looked up to study the night sky and reported that stars were beginning to shine through the clouds. That was just the confirmation we needed to push forward. Later, he described the sunrise breaking, cirrus clouds streaking above in the jet stream, and the skies turning a spectacular, electric blue.

By 8:00 A.M., we had struggled to the South Summit, 28,700 feet above sea level. As I knelt in the snow, my brain felt as numb as my hands. A heavy weight took hold of me, a weariness that seemed to oppress every muscle in my body. I adjusted my mask securely over my mouth and nose, then checked the knob on my oxygen tank exactly as rehearsed: twelve clicks to provide me with two liters of oxygen per minute. I'd contemplated this place a thousand times, and now the moment had arrived. If I was going to turn around and descend, this was the time to do it. From a tactile map I'd once felt, I knew that the true summit of Mount Everest still loomed nearly a half mile away, protruding like an island in the sky. Beyond was a rappel down the backside of the South Summit, a treacherous four hundred–foot crossing of the knife-edge ridge, and finally the wildly exposed forty-foot spur of the Hillary Step. If I proceeded, it meant unwavering, absolute commitment. I gathered my will, stood up, and stepped forward, falling in behind the boot crunches of my team. We lowered down the twenty-foot vertical snow face onto the severely sharp ridge, the width of a picnic table and heavily snow-corniced. To the left was an eight thousand–foot drop into Nepal, and to the right, a ten thousand–foot plunge into Tibet.

I slowly, carefully probed my ice axe in front of me and found the frozen boot steps that ran along the leftmost side of the ridge: Scan and step — scan and step. Despite the thin oxygen and my exhaustion, I tried to stay focused, or as the Buddhist Sherpas said, to keep my mind "still like water." This was a No-Mistake Zone.

At last, I came to the base of the vertical Hillary Step. Feeling the rock under my gloves, I was suddenly in my element. I stuck the crampon points of my right foot tenuously into a thin rock crack, the left points into a snow cornice, slid my ascender as high as it would go on the rope, stood up quickly, and reached for the next bulge of rock to hang on to. At the top, I pulled myself onto a flat ledge and splayed out in a belly flop, resting, breathing. I slowly rose to my feet and began trudging up the last slope.

Each step felt like I was pushing through half-hardened cement. Six deep steady breaths, then another solid step. Just keep moving, I thought. Six more slow breaths, another step. Time blurred around me, and inside the layers of hats and hoods, all I could hear was my heart pounding in my chest and the heavy, guttural breathing in my mask.

Then I sensed a teammate pausing in front of me and felt thin, wiry arms beneath a puffy down suit wrapping around my neck. "Erik," the voice rasped, hollow, wispy, and strained from calling commands to me through the night, through the storm. His voice tried to say more, but his quaking words dissipated in the wind. Then he leaned in close, pressing his face against my ear. "Big E"— his voice gave way to tears, then struggled out in an immense effort —"you're about to stand on top of the world."

A few steps later, the earth flattened out and there was nowhere else to go. I hugged my teammates. They'd believed in me fiercely, even when I tried to count myself out. "Thank you," I said, the tears flowing and freezing on my face. Then I was handed a radio.

"This is Erik," I called into the transmitter. "We're on top. I can't believe it; we're on the top. Tell Ellie I love her, and we'll be home soon."

Kami Sherpa's voice came back clear and serious: "Congratulations, but Summit is not real summit. Only halfway summit. Weather changing. Go down now. Go down now."

I knew that most accidents happened on the descent, when bodies were spent, legs were shaking, and climbers were trying to beat the afternoon storms that inevitably rolled in. The clouds were lowering again, and the temperature was dropping. Jeff Evans, standing next to me, called out, "You'll never be here again. Look around."


Excerpted from No Barriers by Erik Weihenmayer, Buddy Levy. Copyright © 2017 Erik Weihenmayer and Buddy Levy. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword xi

Prologue 1

1 Vision 7

2 The Dream Factory 21

3 Blind Summit 37

4 Alchemy 68

5 Déséquilibre 80

6 The Bucket Champion 96

7 Leading the Way 111

8 Anita, My Love 125

9 A Grain of Sand 134

10 The Adventure Glutton 150

11 Arjun's Playground 160

12 "Not My Yak!" 183

13 The Gates of Lodore 196

14 Bath Towels and Packing Tape 216

15 Soldiers to Summits 240

16 The Open-Heart Policy 253

17 Whirlpools 268

18 Eighteen Clicks 293

19 The Other Blind Guy 315

20 The Blindest Man in the World 325

21 Eddied Out 342

22 Smile 359

23 The Weight of Water 378

24 Flow 403

25 Lava 420

Epilogue 439

Acknowledgments 457

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