Since biblical times, it has been said that the eyes are a window to the soul. But human history is filled with false assumptions.
The Weight of Water, which premiered in early November at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival and won the Grand Prize for film, opens with sublime images of a magnificent natural world, where shadows and light sweep across walls rising from a canyon carved by the Colorado River eons ago. The water continues its course, and soon we see a person in a kayak, riding the tumbling rapids. His blank eyes stare outward. Something looks off. His face reacts with slight delays, out of sync with the waves hitting his tiny boat.
“I’ve climbed Mount Everest, so why am I so fucking scared?” we later hear Erik Weihenmayer asking himself. Given that he is blind, it strikes me as a fairly easy question to answer.
Emmy Award–winning director Michael Brown’s new documentary takes us into Weihenmayer’s journey as he paddles, in a solo kayak, the 277 miles of the Grand Canyon. Weihenmayer is joined by Lonnie Bedwell, who is also blind, and a crew of river guides and camera operators. Weihenmayer, now 50, didn’t start kayaking until he was nearly 40. The technical crux looms large in the film—the boat-flipping rapids of the notorious Lava Falls, a chaotic stretch with holes that can swallow kayaks and drown people.
Life probably would have been easier for Weihenmayer if he were born blind. In a heartbreaking early segment of the film, we learn that young Weihenmayer lost his eyesight slowly, the result of a rare condition called retinoschisis, in which one’s retinas gradually split apart. His mother, Ellen, was ferocious in advocating for her son, going into schools and demanding that he be taught alongside the other kids. Weihenmayer has described her as the dustpan that swept him up when he was broken. When he was 13, as the remnants of his eyesight were abandoning him, his mother was killed in a car accident, leaving him completely shattered. Soon after, he went totally blind. He describes blindness initially as a prison. His father, Ed, a former U.S. Marine, still has a crew cut and sits bolt upright, using direct language to describe that time in his son’s life. Ed even recites an old saying he had drilled into the boy, imploring him to never quit. But Ed’s voice cracks and his eyes grow damp when he says that he’s never figured out how, at that age, his son wasn’t destroyed by losing both his mother and his eyesight.
In high school, Weihenmayer discovered rock climbing, a slow and methodical activity where his hands and feet provided him a tactile map of his environment. Soon his internal prison opened into a new world. “This is the opposite of what I thought blindness would be like,” he says. He’s climbed the Seven Summits, the Nose on Yosemite’s El Capitan, the 2,300-foot ice route Losar in Nepal, and completed the Leadville 100 bicycle race.
And still, blindness presents very real obstacles—no matter our feel-good cliché of barriers existing only in the mind.
“I hate it when people tell me anything is possible,” he says.
We see him at home with his family, preparing for the Grand Canyon trip. He can’t seem to sit still. His teenage daughter helps him sort gear. He tries to not bump into things. He’s good-natured when told that he put his shirt on inside-out.
On the river he bumps into thunderous rapids as his friend and river guide, Harlan Taney, shouts on-the-fly instructions via wireless headset: “Left, hard right, hold that line, hold that line, charge charge charge!” Between Taney’s directions and the ambient soundscape, such as reverberations from crashing waves and echoes off the walls, in his mind Weihenmayer develops a complex mapping system of the rapids and their deadly traps.
No wonder he’s scared.
Throughout the film it becomes apparent that Weihenmayer shares insecurities familiar to most humans, regardless of his superhero list of accomplishments. His inability to see his objective is inconsequential; rather, what matters is the freedom that comes from finding self-control amid the darkness of the world. Like anyone, he grapples with failure, worry, and ego, and the difficulty of being present at critical times, yet something deeper pushes him forward, as if he is incapable of quitting. He says that he wants to be the bravery that others see in him.
We gain glimpses of an inner world perhaps similar to our own, under circumstances incomprehensibly different. How fascinating that a theater full of people watched breathtaking scenes from the life of a man unable to see any of it himself, and who cannot see us watching him. Although I have always been drawn to the natural world, I couldn’t help but wonder what this says about the limitations of the sighted, who so often need to venture afar to explore the depth that lies within.
Erik Weihenmayer’s eyes serve as a naked and beautiful metaphor for the vast potential of the human experience. And while he is correct about some barriers being real, in The Weight of Water, Brown and Weihenmayer also show us that vision is more powerful than sight.