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Why a blind Colorado man kayaked the Grand Canyon

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Erik Weihenmayer

Erik Weihenmayer kayaked 277 miles of the Grand Canyon's Colorado River, navigating through some of America's most fearsome waters.

Skyler Williams

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Erik Weihenmayer has a problem with movies.

"Like, you know, there's this nice, sweeping arc upward and this nice crescendo with the music," the famed adventurer says from his Colorado home, "and you eat popcorn, and everyone's grown and changed and happy ending."

"It's not that simple."

"Mini crescendos" are more accurate to life, Weihenmayer says. He experienced one of those atop Mount Everest, where he stood as the first blind person to reach Earth's ceiling in 2001. Climbing the world's other six highest summits came with more "mini crescendos."

And more came as Weihenmayer kayaked 277 miles of the Grand Canyon's Colorado River, navigating through some of America's most fearsome waters.

"You have this one moment where you ride this massive rapid, ride this perfect line, and you hear this massive wave crashing against a wall to your left, and there's this giant hole to your right, and you're just squeaking through, threading the needle, and everything works out," he says. "And you have this moment. ... And then the next rapid you go into, you get destroyed."

Weihenmayer recounts the 2014 journey in "No Barriers," named a Colorado Book Award finalist and now available in paperback.

It's his first book since 2007's "The Adversity Advantage," the self-help guide that admittedly makes him feel conflicted.

"The secret to life has to be found, and the discovery process to doing that is magic," he says. "So I almost feel like it short-changes people to give them, like, here's the 10 secrets. That's BS anyway. My secrets might not be your secrets.

"So I wanted to write a book that wasn't a self-help book. It was a story."

Like "Touch the Top of the World" about that Everest ascent, "No Barriers" is a memoir. But it's deeper, with more difficult reflections.

Weihenmayer revisits his freshman year of high school, when a slow-eating disease wiped out his vision, just as he feared throughout childhood. "The darkness was the easy part," he writes of sitting by himself at lunch as action broke out around him. "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."

The next year was harder, when his mother, his champion, was killed in a car crash. After that, his father took him and his brothers to Peru, where they hiked the Inca Trail.

Weihenmayer's love for the outdoors was developing about then. He'd found the joy of climbing — "discovering the clues in the rock face, the nubs, the edges, knobs and pockets," he writes — and it gave him a feeling similar to wrestling.

"I loved the fact that kids would totally beat my head into the mat, and they didn't have any pity or mercy," says Weihenmayer, his team's captain during senior year. "And I loved having success at something, where blindness wasn't necessarily the most important thing."

Away from the mat, the outdoors became his platform. He moved to Colorado in the 1990s to train for the biggest, baddest peaks out there.

Not that the mountains ever bored him, but the river was a new test. Kayaking scared him. Not since he was a teen coping with the darkness had he felt so out of control.

Clues stayed put on rock. Now they had to be discovered in the rushing current. The challenge facing Weihenmayer: "How do I move my body with that crazy chaos that's happening beneath me?" He practiced six years before taking on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

Now he's eyeing the next adventure. This summer, he'll lead high schoolers — one deaf, one blind, one with cerebral palsy and another with depression — on a trek through Nepal. He also plans to try Yosemite's Half Dome and again try Ama Dablam, the 22,349-foot in the Himalayas that bested him once.

There's always more to do. After all, Weihenmayer says, "I don't know if there's ever a crescendo."

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