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Hell On Wheels

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

With Coomber still heaving at daybreak, we packed up camp and took the long, dusty road back to the Owens Valley. After an agonizing 2 hours, we made it to Bishop, and over Bob’s weakening objections, I drove him to the Inyo County Hospital. Six hours later, he was stabilized and rehydrated enough to make the ride home. He eventually thanked me for overruling him, but at the time he was too sickened, both by his ordeal and his sense of failure, to give me any indication that I had done the right thing.

But Coomber’s hardheaded persistence may be the key to his life outdoors. He describes himself as a positive person, and on the surface, at least, that’s hard to dispute. The wire-rimmed glasses and the mustache call to mind Ned Flanders, the relentlessly upbeat neighbor on The Simpsons. There is a certain willed cheerfulness to him, manifested in the way he peppers a conversation with “good stuff” and “sure thing.” But as Simpsons fans will recall, Flanders turns out to be Satan, and Coomber’s positivity is balanced by a devilish sense of humor.

Still, after the last of his bone breaks landed him in the wheelchair, it took all of his power to keep depression at bay. “At first, I was so bent on adapting that I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself, so I never got too depressed,” he says. “But it was hard.” He logged enough hours in front of the TV to know he’d find nothing transcendental there. He was working for an auto-finance company in Hayward, and during lunch hour he starting rolling down a fire road to the San Francisco Bay waterline. He was still operating a primitive, hospital-quality folding chair, but he started getting the hang of maneuvering over irregular terrain by popping wheelies and riding mostly on the two large back wheels.

Soon, he fixated on his first hill. “It only goes up a couple hundred yards in elevation,” Coomber recalls, “but it might as well have been a 10,000-footer.” He didn’t reach the top in his first few attempts–he lacked the arm strength–but he discovered that he could turn his chair around and wheel himself backward, using his feet as brakes to prevent the chair from rolling down again. After work one summer evening, he decided that he wouldn’t stop until he reached the top. After an hour of grunting and sweating, he finally made it. “It kind of opened doors for me, mentally, thinking maybe I could try this in other places,” Coomber says.

It has been a slow ascent, metaphorically speaking, from his first off-road experience to White Mountain Peak. “Every time I found I could reach a certain level,” he says, “I’d try to do a little more.” In the late ’90s, he landed a job at Wells Fargo, and the company’s health plan allowed him to upgrade to a more rad chair designed for adventuring, with a sturdy, lightweight frame and a shock-absorbing suspension system. He joined a gym for the first time. By the year 2000, he had worked his way back to the Sierra, where he mastered the 4-mile St. Mary’s Pass Trail, rising to more than 10,000 feet.

Coomber’s progress excited him–and put him into a category by himself. Since he has the use of his feet, he can tackle grades that a paraplegic couldn’t handle. But his pace over rough terrain is painfully slow for even the mellowest bipedal hiker. His wife sometimes joined him, until she injured her back 3 years ago. Now Coomber mostly travels solo. But he takes a certain pride in his independence, and thrills at being spied out in places where wheelchairs are not supposed to go. “You don’t see wheelchair hikers, period,” Coomber says. “So I meet incredulous people all over the place.”

For most people, adventuring entails traveling as far from home as possible. I know San Franciscans who dream of trekking the Patagonian Andes who have never dayhiked the Sierra. That’s not Coomber. “I don’t ever have to see Greece or Italy,” he says. “I could spend the rest of my life exploring here, and still not see everything I want to see.”

So when Coomber started dreaming about mountaintops, it was a California peak that became the object of his obsession. In 1999, while thumbing through a book titled California County High Points, he read about White Mountain Peak. He had never heard of the mountain and was surprised to learn that a four-wheel-drive track led all the way to the summit.

Additional research revealed the geological underpinnings of this fact. The White Mountains are just west of the Nevada border, but they have more in common with the mountains of the Great Basin, to the east. The granite of the Sierra is relatively young and hasn’t yet been extensively weathered, so it has the craggy sawtoothed appearance for which the range is named. The Whites, by contrast, are covered with a thick sedimentary layer, the bed of an ancient sea, which has eroded into a lunar landscape of gentle lumps. Gentle enough to drive a jeep to the top.

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