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May 2006

Hell On Wheels

Bob Coomber is determined to become the first man in a wheelchair to ascend a 14,000-foot mountain.

Sisyphus in a wheelchair. That is the quickest way to describe the spectacle that is unfolding before me: a man attempting to roll himself up a rutted, rock-strewn jeep trail at 12,500 feet while getting whipped by a frigid morning wind. This is no ordinary, standard-hospital-issue wheelchair: It is a knobby-tired, custom-made, $5,000 beast with a suspension system that has conquered some of the Bay Area’s most rugged trails. And this man is no spindly sapling. Back home he can hammer 210 pounds on the shoulder-press machine, and he rocks a triceps machine to the tune of 320. He’s been training for this challenge for months, strapping three 50-pound steel weights to the back of his chair and hauling them around the gym–an exercise he calls his “John Deere routine.”

But despite all he’s done to prepare himself, he can’t gain purchase on this slippery slope, and for every revolution up, he slides half a turn back down. Rocks the size of baseballs and bread loaves–something any two-legged hiker would step over without breaking stride–create an obstacle course requiring a complex choreography of mini-switchbacks and wheelies. Just as he nudges ahead, his wheels slip into the grooves in the doubletrack, lurching the chair awkwardly to the side. He lives at sea level, so every few minutes at this altitude he has to stop to suck wind, his heaving body doubled over in his wheelchair. In this battle of man versus adversity, it is clear that the man is getting his *** kicked.

At least Sisyphus could roll his stone uphill without a peanut gallery watching. Standing around taking notes feels like the height of gawkery, so I climb the hill and huddle in the lee of the rocks with a sleeping bag wrapped around me, waiting for Bob Coomber to make it up this first stretch of trail leading to the summit of White Mountain Peak.

This is his third attempt at conquering this mountain, at 14,246 feet the third highest in California. Coomber, 51, suffers from two competing medical conditions that make what is normally a vigorous dayhike into an ordeal of Olympian proportions. He’s got Type 1 diabetes, which forces him to constantly titrate his blood sugar to keep himself within operating range. And he’s got an advanced case of osteoporosis that that has left his legs too weak to support the weight of his body.

He hasn’t let this stop him from doing what he loves most, which is exploring the terrain of his home state. Coomber, in fact, has already gone places that may have never seen a wheelchair before–to the top of 2,517-foot Mission Peak, and along the entire length of the 28-mile Ohlone Wilderness Trail, which gains 3,100 feet of elevation. Along the way, he has come to live an inspiring life.

From a safe distance, the Bob Coomber Story seems to fit a classic mold–a tale of one man’s heroic struggle against the odds. Cue the horn-blaring soundtrack, the slo-mo scenes of triumph. But the complications of Coomber’s character defy that simple plot line. And as he sits folded in half in his chair, his quest to become the first person to climb White Mountain Peak in a wheelchair leaves me pondering one essential question: Why is he doing this to himself?

As a child growing up in the East Bay enclave of Piedmont, Coomber spent many a summer exploring the treasures of the Sierra Nevada with his family, hiking and camping up and down the state from Plumas County to Sequoia National Park. “I wasn’t a fan of exercise, per se,” he says, “but I never stopped moving.” Years later, when he was diagnosed with diabetes, his doctor speculated that Coomber’s inordinately high activity level had kept the disease at bay for years.

The diagnosis didn’t come until the summer of 1978, when Coomber was 22 and working part-time as a reserve officer in the Oakland Police Department. He couldn’t understand why he had so little energy. “A few years earlier I could play basketball for 8, 10 hours in the sun,” he says, “and here I could hardly run a block.”

Life has had a store of lessons lined up for Bob Coomber, and he has demonstrated a willingness to learn them the hard way. When the diagnosis came, he embarked on a course of denial. Being “extremely needle-phobic,” he avoided using injectable insulin, even when it became obvious that pills weren’t doing the job. He kept drinking too much beer, eating too much sugar–cop food, as he puts it. He no longer had the energy to trek the Sierra, but he continued to ride motorcycles like a fiend, spontaneously taking off on madcap marathons to Salt Lake City. The fact that he felt “like crap” most the time did not rouse him from his neglect.

The long downhill slide of his denial hit a low point in 1986, when he was 31. Coomber’s weight had been dropping precipitously, and a bout with the flu left him in a diabetic coma, 121 pounds of meat on his 6-foot-2-inch frame (his normal weight was 175). “The doctor told me matter-of-factly that if I didn’t make some changes, I probably wouldn’t live to see another year,” Coomber recalls. He found an insulin shooter that worked without needles, but he struggled to bring his weight back up. “I was ecstatic when I hit 130,” he says, “and it took several years to get up to 160.”

But outrageous fortune still had a few slings and arrows earmarked for him. On July 5, 1990, a day that is forever branded in his memory, he was walking around Lake Almanor, in Plumas County, with his father and daughter. To this day he doesn’t quite comprehend how it happened, but his left leg completely buckled. “Take one of those rubber Gumby dolls,” he says by way of explanation, “and just below the knee, fold the leg up, in a big U.” The sound of the leg shattering was so horrifying that his 70-year-old father sprinted from 100 yards away when he heard it, and it played on the soundtrack of Coomber’s nightmares for years to come. “I still shudder to think of it,” he says.

Because he had been experiencing diabetic neuropathy in his legs–numbness caused by his blood-sugar condition–Coomber felt no physical pain. Yet the damage was profound. He not only broke his fibula, tibia, and ankle, but he shattered the bones in hundreds of pieces. It was ugly enough that an orthopedic surgeon proposed amputation as an option. Coomber elected instead to gamble on getting his leg pieced in place with screws and a steel rod.

Defying the odds, the bones in his leg grew back together. But doctors told him what was becoming increasingly obvious: He had a serious case of osteoporosis. And while there are medications that help increase bone density, the strain they put on the kidneys is considerable; for a diabetic whose kidneys are already compromised, the added stress would be borderline suicidal.

Coomber says that nothing motivates him like someone telling him he can’t do something. So when his doctor advised him to give up trying to walk, he took it as a challenge. He preferred the advice of his physical therapist, who assured him he could be fully ambulatory again. What ensued was a display of the hardheaded determination that defines Coomber. After 7 months of rehab he was back on his feet, but it took only one full day of ordinary walking on a cane for him to break his right ankle. When that one healed, the left one broke again.

It wasn’t until he broke his right leg, just below the knee–again while simply walking with a cane–that Coomber exited the hospital in a wheelchair, and accepted the fact that his bipedal days were over. “I would say he pushed it,” says his second wife, Gina, who was just getting to know him at the time. “He doesn’t really believe in obstacles. And he’s the most stubborn man I know.”

I didn’t fully appreciate that aspect of Coomber’s personality until I joined him on the flanks of White Mountain Peak. His first summit attempt, in the summer of 2004, was thwarted when he came down with a wicked cold the night before the hike. I joined him last August for his second assault on the Fourteener, located east of Bishop on the Nevada border.

At Coomber’s suggestion, we’d gotten to the area early and stayed a night in an Owens Valley campground at 8,000 feet to acclimatize. Then we headed by four-wheel drive to nearly 12,500 feet, to the University of California’s Barcroft Lab, where researchers conduct altitude-related research on humans and animals. Having secured the university’s permission, he planned to head out from the parking lot, figuring he could wheel the 10-mile round trip in one 12-hour push.

During the night, I woke to the sound of Bob retching and moaning in the neighboring tent. His blood sugar had shot up to somewhere around five times the level of a person with a normally functioning pancreas. Though he was not yet in imminent danger, he needed that number to drop or he would be heading toward unconsciousness and, eventually, diabetic coma. He dosed himself with insulin, but his body barely responded.

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