Nancy Stevens Hiking the Grand Canyon
Photo by Lee Allen

Nancy Steven’s most recent accomplishment is hiking from rim to rim of the Grand Canyon. Stevens (center) was assisted by guide Jill Hewins (front) and friend Bonnie Niemi, as well as her chocolate Lab, Koko.

Nancy Stevens

Blind since birth, she “sees” life — and the outdoors — as a challenge worth grabbing.

Nancy Stevens began her life journey prematurely and blind at birth. She knows nothing of a sighted world. Although not knowing what it’s like to actually “see,” she doesn’t let her lack of vision stand in her way.

“Not a lot of blind people challenge themselves,” said the 49-year-old motivational speaker. “I don’t know anything about a visual world, but I don’t want to live my life regretting not having done things. I’ve developed a can-do attitude. I’ve learned to look for options, possibilities and solutions to allow me to participate in new experiences. It’s not always easy, but there are creative ways of getting things done.”

And she has — as a cross-country skier, cyclist, rock climber and, most recently, an accomplished rim-to-rim hiker of Arizona’s Grand Canyon, a 4-day, 26-mile trek through one of nature’s most rugged and scenic wonders.

“Nancy does not let her disability stand in the way of her goals,” said hiking guide Jill Hewins of Wildland Trekking Company. “Starting at the North Rim on down the Kaibab Trail to places like Bright Angel Campground, Phantom Ranch and the Colorado River all the way back up to the top of the South Rim, Nancy handled all the obstacles the trip presented and, in doing so, probably joined a group of less than a dozen sightless people who have walked those rim-to-rim footsteps before her.”

Hewins, a wilderness backpacking guide since 1986, has to be in excellent physical shape and on top of everything to lead first-time hikers through the canyon, but she admits, “This was a challenge above and beyond my normal challenges encountered in backcountry hikes, but Nancy took everything in stride. Most people consider a rim-to-rim hike a life accomplishment, but Nancy merely checked it off her ‘to do’ list when we finished. She represents an inner resolve to accomplish things, more than just a physical victory, but about staying the course regardless of what comes at you.”

And a hike through the canyon tosses out some challenges. With guide Jill in the lead, friend and hiking companion Bonnie Niemi behind her, and Koko, her chocolate Lab guide dog on a harness at her side, she responded rapidly to warnings about rocks, potholes, tree limbs and other travel hazards along the way.
“What I hadn’t anticipated in planning was that Nancy would need me to call out every single step, so we devised our own code,” said Jill, who called out descriptors such as “rock in the trail,” “pointy rock,” or “edgy rock” to ensure safe forward passage (and limited the number of stumble and fall occurrences to just four minor slips).

“I’m generally a quiet hiker to give my clients space to fully appreciate the experience, but this trip I talked the entire time.”

Aside from safety concerns, much of the talk involving Nancy, Jill, Bonnie and three other hikers involved the canyon’s many scenic wonders. But how does a sightless person envision what others can see?

“I touched the rocks and felt the wind and sun on my face,” Nancy said. “I asked a lot of questions about the terrain, and my companions would describe the switchbacks and how far out they could look, describing the red rock vistas in detail and allowing me to ‘see’ through their descriptions. My hiking companions were great about stopping and letting me touch the rocks and plants — except the cactus of course. And when we camped at Bright Angel Campground, the sounds of running water lulled us to sleep. Being at the bottom of the canyon evokes a feeling of magic. Often in a wilderness setting, you can still hear the sound of airplanes overhead, but down there you hear no sounds of civilization, except for other campers.

“Park rangers told me that 95 percent of canyon visitors never leave the rim while 3 percent hike just a mile or so down to the first overlook and only 2 percent go all the way to the bottom. For me, the rim-to-rim event just appealed to me. It wasn’t just for the challenge or to ‘see’ the Grand Canyon landscape, but to enjoy the whole experience. I had to keep pinching myself to believe I was actually there and doing it.”

“When you finally reach the top of the South Rim and look back at where you’ve come,” says Bonnie, “you can’t quite believe you did it. And with Nancy as an inspiration, it makes you feel like you can do anything and overcome whatever obstacles — from blindness to cancer — that life may throw in your path.”

"Growing up, I used to hear my parents say they wished they had done such and such. I don’t want to be that way, living with regret of not having done something."

Nancy took on many youthful challenges growing up sightless, such as learning to roller skate or ride a tandem bicycle with her sister, to some very sophisticated adult athletic accomplishments. The list is long but includes some highlights: full-pack hikes at Oregon’s Mount Bachelor and Colorado’s Vail Pass, running marathons, speed skating, participating with the U.S. Disabled Cross-Country Ski Team at the Paralympics in Japan, several first place medals in U.S. national skiing championships, and completion of a 3,000-mile bike ride across America to support young women in athletics.

Diagnosed last year with breast cancer (now in remission and recovery following surgery), the athlete said, “The cancer was an additional wake-up call about living life to the fullest. In the past couple of years I’ve stopped saying ‘what’s next,’ and decided to enjoy the moment more, finding a balance in the moment while still having new experiences to look forward to.”

Among anticipated adventures is a 16-day whitewater rafting trip down the Colorado River this fall. “I’ve already hiked across the river and the canyon. This time I want to float down the river itself,” she said.

In the interim, Nancy plans to stay in training for the rafting trip while she continues helping disabled individuals explore and achieve their dreams. Calling her presentations “Jump Start Your Heart,” the motivator with a degree in music includes songs like “And I’ll Sing Every Day of My Life” to show how taking small steps can lead toward fulfillment of dreams.

“Growing up, I used to hear my parents say they wished they had done such and such. I don’t want to be that way, living with regret of not having done something,” she said. “I want to be a part of many of the things that life has to offer. To really enjoy where you are in the process of life, each part of whatever journey you are on, you need to take the time to experience all aspects of that journey to appreciate the changes that take place within yourself.” — Lee Allen