Several months ago I reviewed Erik Weihenmayer’s first book, “Touch the Top of the World.” When I learned his second book (and continuation of his autobiography), “No Barriers“, was coming out earlier this year, I snapped it up quickly, and read it just as fast.
No Barriers: A Blind Man’s Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon
By: Erik Weihenmayer
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 toward growth and rebirth.
Continuing the Journey, with New Friends along the Trail
This book re-introduces us to key people in Erik’s life – his father, his siblings, his wife and daughter. We get to know and see some of their dynamics play out, discover their demons some kept at bay (and later taking over), grow and change with everyone. One thing that the author has done well – in both books – is balance interpersonal dynamics without verging far into sappy emotional supposition or stale dialogue re-creation.
In addition to getting re-acquainted with Erik’s family, we meet new key people in his life. We meet his son, who is sweet and precocious and is too young to express his grief at being taken far away from the only life, country and culture he’s ever known. The challenges of culture shock when adopting a child from a foreign country (and the bureaucracy that goes with it can almost be felt by the reader; I can only imagine what it felt like going through it at the time. And so many people were instrumental in building this relationship – on both sides of the world.
We also meet other disabled people – from sheltered blind children who learn they were capable of doing more than they thought possible, to veterans who struggled through their own mental and physical barriers to climb mountains, to doctors and adventurers and entrepreneurs and bureaucrats and kayaking guides… Erik’s books are always about people; I never once came away with the idea that Erik was this big hot shot who’s done all these cool things, but he had others with him every step of the way.
A Few Too Many Rabbit Trails
Unlike “Touch the Top of the World”, “No barriers” is a long book with many components to it. We travel up a Tibetan mountain with blind teenagers, learn about the BrainPort (a nifty piece of technology that produces visual information on the wearer’s tongue, laugh and cry at the journey of creating a new family, experience the merger between two nonprofits and the pitfalls along the way… it’s all useful and important, but at times I just wanted to get back to Erik’s journeys as an adventurer – climbing mountains, kayaking rivers – or reading more about his family. “Touch the Top” was a much tighter and more cohesive read, but I do understand why all these components were included, to describe a journey of peaks and valleys, of falling down and getting back up again.
Seeing the Forest for the Trees
One of the most profound experiences in the book is not when Erik kayaks the Grand Canyon (though that experience is well-described and riveting), but when he trains and takes a small group of blind Tibetan teenagers and their guides to Tibet’s tallest mountain. Erik is put in touch with Sabriye Tenberken, a blind German social worker who founded Braille Without Borders, a school and training center for the blind of Tibet. Eventually they decide that, both as an educational experience for the teenagers and as a way to break down barriers placed on them by Tibetan society, a mountain climbing trip is in order. Erik is a goal setter – he has a plan, and he is going to achieve it, making adjustments along the route but with the understanding that achieving the goal (in this case, climbing the mountain) is the most desirable end result. But when threatening weather adds further danger to this trek, Erik and Sabriye have vastly different opinions on whether or not to proceed.
Sabriye, affter thoughtful consideration, tells Erik that she has taken what he’s told her to heart, that she needs to respect the mountains and their beauty. She tells him bluntly but kindly that she’s noticed the sound of the wind in the trees, the feel of the glaciers, the stillness of the air. She has done what he’s asked, to appreciate the mountains for all that they offer, but it’s his turn to do what she’s asked and respect their people enough to acknowledge that they’ve already done more than they could’ve ever imagined, and now it’s time to keep them safe.
I read this book months ago, and Sabriye’s idea (though paraphrased here) has never left me. Goals are important, but sometimes we focus so much on the end result that we miss the little things along the way.
This book is well worth your time – at a sprawling 480 print pages and more than 19 recorded hours, it will take a lot of it. It’s profound and moving in ways I didn’t expect. That being said, some passages could have been shortened for a more cohesive read.