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No Barriers: Overcoming Physical Limits to Reach the Summit

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Our No Barriers Summit is a four-day celebration to help people with challenges learn new ideas, tools, and innovations to break through barriers and live a more purposeful life. Our fifth Summit was held in Winter Park, just an hour from my home in Golden. We featured all kinds of new technologies: a vehicle with tank-like tracks for paraplegics to access the deep backcountry; a kayak that enabled quadriplegics to paddle; and a power-controlled wheelchair that a person with severely limited mobility could operate with their tongue.

There were plenty of new people joining our community, showing up from all walks of life. On the first day, I was introduced to a twenty-five-year-old guy in a wheelchair named Kyle Maynard. Being blind, I reached out to shake his hand and felt a callused stump at the end of a short, powerful arm that was as hard as a baseball bat. Kyle told me he was born with a rare condition called amniotic band syndrome (ABS). He was a quadruple amputee, his legs ending above the knees and his arms ending above the elbows. Kyle had recently heard about me, and No Barriers, and wanted to push himself and test his boundaries. “I’d especially like to join your hike in the morning,” he said.

For a moment, I was speechless. The hike was up a nearby 12,000-foot peak. We had all kinds of folks signed up: blind people using trekking poles and amputees using high-tech hiking crutches, But I wondered bluntly how a guy without arms and legs was going to hike a mountain. Countless times, people had asked a similar question of me, so I pushed that doubt away.

“That sounds great,” I finally replied.

Besides, we were No Barriers, I thought. If this idea was real, we had to find a way, and we didn’t have much time. That evening, I assembled a team to figure out how we were going to help him pull this off. Climbing mountains required moving up steep jumbled trails, through mud and snow, over giant piles of boulders, and across loose scree slopes. Kyle would essentially have to crawl, moving over the landscape like a crab. We scratched our heads, brainstormed, and schemed. Finally, we went to our hotel rooms and snagged a bunch of bath towels of different sizes. I knew it was dicey and improper to be jacking bath towels from a hotel, but we figured they lived boring daily lives and we wanted to give them some real adventure. We went to the front desk and sweet-talked the clerk into letting us have a few rolls of clear packing tape they used for mailing Lost & Found items. Last, we found a number of plastic grocery store bags.

The next morning, we took turns pushing Kyle up the steep dirt road in his wheelchair. When the road ended, we wrapped all four of his stumps with bath towels to provide a thick padding. Knowing it was going to be wet and muddy, we covered the bath towels with the plastic grocery bags, and then taped everything down tight, wrap after wrap, until it created a strong armor around his stumps. He hopped down and started crawling. Kyle had been moving through the world for 25 years on his arm and leg stumps, and he was surprisingly fast.

For the next eight hours, I hiked right behind Kyle as he scurried upward. Sometimes, he had to drag himself through deep snow with his jeans and shirt getting drenched and cold. When he got to a wall of boulders, he performed a cool acrobatic cartwheel over the jumble, landing on the other side. At rest stops, I peppered him with questions, and the more I asked, the more I was intrigued by his life.

About an hour from the summit, Kyle asked me more about No Barriers, and I shared my goal to grow this idea into a powerful movement. “So many people get shoved to the sidelines and never recover, but imagine,” I said, “thousands, maybe millions of people, all coming together to break through their barriers, to get stronger as a community, and contribute to the world.”

“I know you’ll do it,” Kyle said.

About an hour later we were standing together on the high broad expanse that marked the top. Kyle said his jeans were wet and caked with mud and grass, “But it was worth it,” he said, his voice beaming. The shopping bags were now ripped, the packing tape shredded. I knelt down and put my arm over his shoulders for a few summit photos. Then we both sat silently, catching our breath. For Kyle, the view was visual, but for me, I could hear and feel the ground giving way to air and space that seemed to swallow me, spreading out into a massive expanse of sky. It seemed limitless.

From NO BARRIERS: A Blind Man's Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon by Erik Weihenmayer and Buddy Levy. Copyright 2017 by the authors and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, LLC.