The Ramblings of 4WheelBob
America's premier wheelchair hiker speaks.
The Secrets To Hiking in a Chair...

Iguess there are some things that dson't come up in polite conversation when I meet people on a trail or a mountainside. And I'd bet they want to ask some things about what I do or, more likely, how I do them. But polite people don't ask some things because they feel they might be taken as impolite, rude or just too private to ask. So here is a first attempt to tell all about taking a hike in a wheelchair. There's nothing "R" rated here; but let's break the ice. Let me answer all those questions you've wanted to ask, but felt they might be inappropriate. Let's take a couple of easy ones:

Do your arms ever get tired? Oh, heck yes. And over the 17 years or so that I've been doing this stuff, I've picked up on some keys which have helped me get past the "fatigue factor." First is to make sure I bring enough water and electrolyte drink to keep properly hydrated and replace lost minerals. That's an easy one. Harder,though, is taking to the gym and lifting a bizarre amount of weights many times during a workout. I believe in pushing as heavy a weight as possible until it becomes easy, then increasing the load a bit more. And I spend a lot of time doing this - it's a little like building a high performance car - it takes work, a lot of work. A lot of tuning and more tuning. Most of all, the gym is not a place to get comfortable, or to whine. But if you have dreams of seeing the view from alpine altitudes you do what you must to get the job done. The payoff is tremendous.

Don't you get afraid of getting lost or breaking your chair when you hike alone? Hmmmm..."afraid" is not a word I use too frequently. I'd fear a trail or solo experience if I were to go out unprepared. But I make it a point to think about how to minimize risk, so I have a daypack full of handy things - water, carb gel (Gu or similar), a tire pump and patch kit, one extra pair of axles, a compass and maps of the area in which I'm hiking, an extra pair of gloves, a space blanket, usually some rain gear. Oh, my dual - mode headlamp, don't leave home without it. So even if I stay out a little late I can get back without too much consternation. Preparedness is a universal requirement for any hiker, not just those in chairs. Those who have had bad experiences hiking usually have not been prepared for their hike. That sounds like a cruel generalization, but I find it rings true more often that we care to admit. So - no, I prepare. That way I don't have to be afraid.

Do you carry a cell phone? This is typically asked by people who think I care if I get lost. After a trying, troubling week at work, I've had days where I just wish I could roll down a mistake, an unmarked trail to who - knows - where. But I rarely carry a cell phone with me. I don't feel any urgency to be constantly connected to my fellow man. Most cell conversations, in my humble estimation, are unnecessary. We have put too much faith in these electronic leashes - how did I ever survive my childhood? But the real peril of reliance on a cell phone is that it causes us to dull our skills, believing that we can get bailed out by dialing an emergency phone number if we get lost or hurt. Many places I hike have no cell service, and the device becomes nothing but a piece of space taking nonsense. Better to read some basic outdoors skills articles or books, and take some time to practice until you feel comfortable leaving the phone somewhere far away from your backpack.

You must really hate hills... No, I actually enjoy hills. Hills can be a test, whether up or down. And I think tests are cool. How better to gauge progress in the gym? The view from a ridge or hilltop, as well as more formidable mountains, can be spectacular. Since I was a kid I've had a thing for wanting to get to the highest spot on a trail, if only to look into a canyon or over a valley. And for what it's worth, if the hill is very difficult going up, it's usually worse coming down. I become a veritable hockey puck, sometimes able to maintain complete control, other times skating wildly by, searching for a soft trailside or patch of grass to help with the braking. The Ohlone Wilderness Trail comes to mind. Worst of all, the downhills really trivialize all the work I did going up - on Mission Peak, for example, I can summit in a tad less than 4 hours. But once started down, it's less than 30 minutes, and I begin to question all the fuss I made going up. Sad, it is. Really.

What if the trail's too rocky? Not level enough? Or just too difficult?  Wow, that's a lot. I use a short wheelbase, fully suspended chair which enables me to turn and lift the front wheels no matter how tight the quarters. I pop 'em up over rocks and ledges, roots and craters. Learning to do so took time, but I've almost perfected wheelies as a necessary piece of off road travel. Trails that are off kilter present a different kind of problem. Fire roads and trails are usually built as level as possible except for a slight angle, from side to side, to enable rain to run off and keep the road as dry as possible. The issue for me is that a runoff angle requires each arm to be able to carry the entire load for hundreds of yards at a time. The "down" side of the chair as I amble on can be so steep I have to push with one arm, while slightly braking with the other. Able bodied hikers never have to deal with this little engineering anomaly. It's a fact of life on every trail in my world.  A lot of my training is geared to using each arm by itself for extended periods.

As for the "it's too hard" trail...first off, there aren't a lot of them. But when I do have to bail, when it becomes too difficult or dangerous to continue, I cheerfully accept it and move on to something else. I already have a long list of trails to try, so if one turns out to be too technical or too dangerous, c'est la vis. Not a problem.

There's a little insight into my world. You migh notice that it's probably not all that different form the concerns you may have, even if you're able to use your legs. So there's really not a heck of a lot of difference between us after all. Oh, I'm a little slower on the uphills, but I make a MEAN campfire! 

2007-10-01 05:00:01 GMT
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