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SunLit Interviews

Interview: After conquering Everest, blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer and writer Buddy Levy want to lean into life’s chaos

Rather than assume the role of omniscient narrator, the authors of "No Barriers" sought to take the reader along on an unforgettable adventure

Erik Weihenmayer

Erik Weihenmayer is the first blind person to summit Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth. No Barriers 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.

Erik Weihenmayer

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.

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

What inspired you to write this book? 

In my 20’s I wrote a memoir, Touch the Top of the World, and although there were messages embedded within, it was pure narrative. In my 30’s, I wrote The Adversity Advantage, a self-help book, an effort to impart some wisdom on how to harness the power of adversity to bring us health, innovation, and happiness, in business and in our personal lives. It seemed time to take my experiences and bring meaning and order to them. But, although the book imparted some valuable techniques and outcomes, something felt incomplete.

Now in my 40’s, I realized that fitting our lives into compartments with precise rules and guidelines didn’t feel as fulfilling. As life happens to us and begins to weigh heavier and heavier, I realized how messy it all is. I wanted to write a book that didn’t fit into any one category — part memoir, part adventure saga, maybe part self-help, but more subtle, more about deciphering the messy map we’re all trying to build and navigate, and finding a way to thrive in that imperfect chaos.  Instead of engineering a prescribed story in which I’m the omniscient narrator, I wanted to be a participant, kayaking and climbing hand-in-hand with  the reader, and together we’d go on a journey to see what we could discover along the way. That seemed more true.

Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?

I often recommend Dove, by Derek Gill and Robin Lee Graham, a wonderful book about a young boy who sails solo around the world. The author doesn’t hold back; he describes the adventure sprinkled with joy and triumph, but equally the crushing loneliness and self-doubt as he contemplates what he’s taken on. I was blown away by the brutal honesty, AND ironically, that gave the book its true inspiration.

I love long rambling narratives that twist and swirl around, the themes continually circling back on themselves, books like The World According to Garp. Its author, John Irving, describes this beautiful process of binding together the disharmonious parts of our lives as, “the way fog shrouds an uneven landscape, the way heat reaches through a rambling house into every room.”

I wanted to achieve a similar feel, like threads of different colors weaving into one tapestry. As I began writing, I realized the river provided the perfect metaphor: rapids that drop over ledges, collapse under their own weight and circle back and churn like a continuous washing machine, Or the constant whirlpools that emerge from nowhere, sucking you down into the abyss, and spinning you  around until you’re dizzy and disoriented. The course of my life has been more circular than linear, and I think the learning process reflects that as well.

Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?

I feel the prologue does a good job setting up some of the themes of No Barriers. On the surface, it’s about my experience kayaking blind through Lava Falls, a 10 out of 10 on the Grand Canyon scale of difficulty. But it’s also about confronting barriers, trying to navigate through uncertain terrain, trying to move forward in our lives. When you kayak, you’re riding the massive energy of the river, but the energy you’re experiencing is only a tiny sliver of the big picture. As I wrote, “What creates the surface energy are the features far below, a million pounds of water surging against boulders of every size strewn across the bottom: steep drops, undercuts, and narrow grooves between unseen rock.”

I wanted No Barriers to dive down below the surface and wrestle with those unseen depths of the mind that demotivate us, that sabotage us, that crush our forward momentum; and on the flip side, those inner forces that shove us towards our highest aspirations and propel us towards self-discovery. I wanted to understand how we take that debris of the mind and build it into something lasting and profound.

What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on the book? 

The most rewarding part was diving down into the writing process, committing to it, letting other things go for close to a year, and just writing for 8+ hours a day. When immersed in that process, the disparate parts of my life, the decisions I’ve made, the seemingly random people I’ve met along the way, my shifting and conflicting beliefs, all began to weave and interlace into a trail-map, like a dozen tributaries flowing through side canyons into one river. It all led to living what I call a No Barriers Life.

What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?

Writing about my brother, Mark, was the most painful part of the process. He had so much to give and contribute to the world, and so many people who loved and supported him. Yet he couldn’t ultimately break through the barriers in his life. I wanted the book to be honest, not like fictional books or movies in which the heroes always triumph over adversity. Some barriers cut us short from our potential, and can even destroy us. Mark described addiction as a heavyweight boxer who continually kicked his butt and sent him sprawling and bleeding in the corner “but I keep crawling back for more,” he said. “ I don’t know if I can ever win this, but I’ll never stop crawling back into the ring.”

In the process of writing, I found that even the darkest parts of our lives can be a kind of alchemy, energy that propels us towards something brighter. 

What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?

Although I’m not a Buddhist, when going back and reexamining experiences I had in Nepal and Tibet, I found some important connections. Buddhism expresses a light that we can spread throughout the world, a light that  can end suffering. Maybe that’s  unrealistic, but I was compelled by the process of turning darkness into light, emptiness into substance, yearnings into reality, despair into love. All these ideas kept appearing through every chapter, and they built into an overwhelming  question: what is that light inside us that we are trying to spread? In my opinion, there is something (and maybe light is a good expression of it) that can burn through the crust of our experience and connect us to something bigger, more infinite, something we can never understand fully.

What project are you working on next?

The organization I co-founded, No Barriers USA, puts on an annual Summit, a celebration of what it means to live a No Barriers Life.  It’s typically held in a small mountain town, but this October 5-6, we’re bringing it to the Big Apple. For two days, we’ll take over Manhattan with an anticipated 5,000 people attending and an incredible lineup of speakers and performers. Headliners are Ice-T, and the band, Judah and the Lion. We’re also showcasing America’s Got Talent finalist, Mandy Harvey, a singer and songwriter who is profoundly deaf. Also featured is Dr. Hugh Herr, who has been described as the Sixty Million Dollar Man. Having lost both legs in a mountain-climbing accident, Hugh is currently the head of MIT’s Biomechatronics Laboratory, building the most sophisticated prosthetic limbs in the world. Mandy and Hugh were both a part of my book, ”No Barriers.”

Buddy Levy

Buddy Levy is an author, educator, journalist, and speaker. His books include American Legend, Conquistador, River of Darkness, and Geronimo. He is a clinical professor of English at Washington State University.

What inspired you to write this book?

I met Erik while covering an adventure race in Greenland in which Erik was competing. I managed to imbed myself with his team and was amazed as he trekked, kayaked, mountain biked and paddled through the rugged East Greenland terrain, and by how his team worked together to achieve what seemed unachievable.

Buddy Levy

I kept in touch with Erik and wrote about him for magazine articles over the years, and after I attended a few No Barriers Summits, he asked me to come along on his kayaking blind Grand Canyon expedition. Sitting on the side of the Colorado River one evening, Erik expressed interest in writing another book, and I was all in.

Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?

I grew up in Sun Valley, Idaho, where Hemingway spent a good deal of time, and was introduced to Hemingway early so he’s one of my favorites, and also Cormac McCarthy. Character: Lady Bret Ashley from The Sun Also Rises.

Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?

The prologue starts with Erik in the heart of a dramatic whitewater rapid and really illustrates some of the main themes of the book, including finding one’s way through a rapid’s “line,” which is a great metaphor for life and transcending barriers.

What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?

Meeting the many people that have been a big part of Erik’s life and telling their stories was incredibly rewarding. Their tenacity, perseverance, grit and determination was inspiring and I feel really blessed to have been a part of the collaboration.

What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?

The sections pertaining to Erik’s family — mostly those with his brother and son — were very moving and at times emotionally challenging.

What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?

The concept of sensory substitution—the brain’s ability to circumvent the loss of one sense by feeding its information through another channel—was fascinating to learn about. Erik worked with a man named Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita, a pioneer in the field, and I learned a great deal by reading and researching Dr. Bach-y-Rita’s work.

What project are you working on next?

I’m currently finishing a book called Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition, which is one of the most compelling stories I’ve ever encountered in the annals of polar exploration. It will be published by St. Martin’s Press in Winter 2020.

Buy: “No Barriers” at Book Bar
Excerpt: “No Barriers”