October 6, 2014
Written by Ellen Weihenmayer: It’s fun and rather easy to surprise a blind guy. The kids and I hopped on a plane and flew to Flagstaff, Arizona. From there, we got on the raft guides’ bus and drove 6 hours to the take-out at Pearce Ferry. My friend, Kim, came along. Kim is our family’s cheerleader, starting with her film work at base camp while Erik was on Everest. Also, Erik’s lead climbing Sherpa and friend, Kami, met us in Flagstaff. Kami is “Uncle Kami” to our family. He helped us in the arduous adoption process for our son, Arjun. He’s always up for an adventure.
Rolling my TravelPro suitcase to the take-out, I found myself in the middle of nowhere. This take-out is not yet Lake Mead but definitely out of the Grand Canyon. What was once under water is now a tamarisked land of sand resting on sand dunes. Separating the dunes is a stripe of fairly mellow water that had earlier boiled with power but now seemed tired. This is where we met Erik. We knew the drill. Our surprise celebrations at his extraordinary finishes have occurred before: 1. Cessna plane landed at their basecamp on the Kahiltna Glacier, Denali. ‘95 2. Climbed the backside of El Cap. ‘96 3. Primal Quest Lake Tahoe (4am finish with three-year old Emma). ‘03 4. Leadville 100 - kids ran with Erik across the finish line. ‘10 The surprise went like this. Everyone heard about our arrival and kept very quiet. Harlan Taney led Erik to the shore, giving his last commands after 21 days of incredible guiding. “Paddle forward. Little left. Forward.” Harlan’s strong voice cracked with emotion as he saw Erik’s kids inching their way towards the water. When Erik stepped out of his kayak, 277 miles after entering this mighty river, we were there to rush and shout and hug. So awesome. Kami simply said, “Namaste.” Erik struggled with reality as the dream-like voice repeated itself. “Kami??” Then, more hugs all around.
There are people in Erik’s life who belong in my mind and in my heart forever for achieving something that is too hard to even define, much less describe. The Everest team is God-like for their courage, perseverance, and patience. On the El Capitan climb, Hans Florine led with talent, strength, and confidence. When this Grand Canyon team stepped out of their boats and onto solid ground, I knew that they had all emerged profoundly changed by their experience. They had formed a noble brotherhood that time won’t diminish. Upside down in a rapid, Harlan’s one main thought during Lava Falls was not of danger for himself but instead, “I wish I could talk to Erik and tell him I’m upside down.” Rolling up quickly, his first thought was of Erik.
It may be too conceited to speak of Erik alongside Major John Wesley Powell. It has been said about Powell that throughout his life, he maintained the “incarnation of the inquisitive and courageous spirit of the American. He wanted to know and he was willing to risk his life that he might know.” Both Lonnie and Erik truly wanted to know as well: was it really possible to ride an avalanche of angry waves down the Colorado without ever seeing a single drop of water? After checking out the recent footage, I can tell you the risk was real. There is not a way to distinguish, in my eyes, the elements of air and water. Only water. Everywhere. Powell would have been very proud. Pulling my little carry-on suitcase through the muck after an epic overnight storm, we found that all roads abruptly washed away at the take-out. We were stuck for another 6 hours while we waited for the water to recede and the dirt road repaired. It was time for the kids and me to sit a spell beside our grand Colorado River and hear a story or two before the water flowed its secrets downstream. Scorpions on kayak skirts, a mouse inside Erik’s kayak, hugging lessons (no pats allowed), drum sessions, waterfall jumping, booty beers, carping for air; we had heard just the very beginning of stories. While the team slept hard during their long 6-hour ride back to Flagstaff, I saw legs twitching and arms stretching upward, still holding their imaginary paddles. Their dreams were developing into stories. Just you wait. You’re going to love them!
You can learn more about the expedition by going to KayakingBlind.org