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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.

The Whites, which lay within 2-million-acre Inyo National Forest, are also home to bristlecone pines, the oldest living organisms on Earth. Beautifully battered and twisted, some of these trees are estimated to be more than 4,000 years old. From his first trip there, Coomber felt a resonance with the landscape. “I’ve also been bent and broken over the years,” he says. “So seeing the tenacity of life out here, I’d rather be up here than at Whitney or some Sierra glamour spot.”

During our long drives, I tried to get Coomber to explain his fixation with this particular mountain. “I think it goes back to when I was a kid,” he said. “When I was climbing in the East Bay parks, I was always disappointed when I’d get to the top of some hill and there would always be another, higher peak beyond that one.” He longed to reach a point where he could see nothing higher, and look east clear over the Great Basin. “On a clear day,” he said, “you can see all the way across Nevada, to the peaks of Utah.”

But I was also becoming attuned to a more complicated range of motives. Behind his genuine love of the outdoors seemed to lurk an identity rehabilitation project. His father, Bob Sr., sees the quest as the latest manifestation of his son’s hard-driving personality. “He played a lot of basketball in his youth, and he was quite competitive at it,” Bob Sr. says. “I guess this is a continuation of that, only now his choices are narrowed. It might seem illogical to some people, and I don’t know that he’s not deluding himself. But it looked like a niche in which he could excel.”

A month later, Bob and I return to the Barcroft Lab for his third summit attempt. We get an early start–out of our bags around 6, on the trail by 7. The wind is howling, and the sun glinting over the endless hills of the Basin and Range can’t take the edge off the 30-degree cold on this early-September morning. I stay back in camp to give Coomber a head start, but as I head up the trail, it soon becomes clear this lead time won’t make much difference.

Coomber has to fight for every inch of progress. It takes him more than an hour to cover the quarter-mile to the top of the first hill, a point from which we can see the summit in the distance. Bob sits hunched over, offering little information as to his condition or his intentions. Eventually, he wheels over to the east side of a circular research bunker to get out of the wind and into the sun. I leave Coomber to rest for a spell under my sleeping bag.

When he stirs 20 minutes later, Bob offers his “no mas.” I’ve seen him in this state before, a combination of fatigue and disappointment that mutes his normal effusiveness and makes him hard to read. I half-heartedly offer to accompany him back, but he’ll have none of it. He sends me on ahead and tells me not to worry.

As I amble along, I try to gauge the feasibility of a wheelchair-based summit assault. It is certainly a worthy hike. I traverse a wide-open bowl of high-desert sage, far above the bristlecones. Across the Owens Valley, to the west, sits the jagged silhouette of the Sierra. The trail meanders over ups and downs before it hits the talus-covered switchbacks that lead to the peak. But between the thin air and the buffeting wind, I find myself putting in a significant effort to reach the top. I would peg the degree of difficulty of the final ascent as at least twice that of the hill Coomber had struggled up earlier in the day.

The question that keeps popping into my head is not even if Bob could propel himself up this hill, but why he would want to go through the agony of the effort. It’s the same “why” they asked of Mallory and Hilary. The comparison isn’t so far-fetched: For Bob to reach this summit will require serious endurance and logistical planning, plus a friend or two to serve as sherpa for a couple of days, maybe longer.

All of which still might make sense, as long as you are clear about why you’re in it, and what you’re willing to sacrifice to get there. Before this last attempt, Bob had me convinced that his love for the outdoors was so elemental that just being up in the mountains was reward enough. But having witnessed the backlash of disappointment that followed the two failed climbs, I’ve come to believe that the idea of the quest has begun to overshadow his actual experience.

Having come face-to-face with the limitations of life in a wheelchair, Coomber veers hard toward adventure in order to find his equilibrium. “It’s too easy to say I can’t do something,” he once told me. “I learned that early on.” Of course, the beauty of the situation is that only Bob can decide for himself what is heroism and what is head-banging. And after all, it is only his contract with himself that matters.

I make it back by late afternoon, and unload my findings. Bob indulges me with good humor. His mood has lightened since the morning. “I’m 95 percent sure I’m done with the mountain,” he tells me as we bump along the road back to the Owens Valley. He talks about getting a hand cycle, about bike touring on a more inviting surface. Each of us is relieved, in our own way, and we relax and enjoy Yosemite’s beauty in the dying light of fall.

Hope festers eternal in the human breast. That 5 percent snowball in hell becomes an outside chance, which mutates into a possibility and then a probability. By the time I check in with Coomber again, a month after we part, he is certain he will make another attempt this coming summer. “Being a diabetic gives you a different perspective on things,” he says. “You take the time that you’ve got and do the most with it. I want to get as much living, doing the things I want to do, regardless of how farfetched or absurd they might seem to some people.”

His family is solidly, if cautiously, behind him. “We think it’s just great,” says Bob Sr. “From a distance, we presume he has taken all care that he possibly can. But when a man’s got an illness that can be shortening his life, well, you want to see him try anything he feels he’s up to.”

Coomber told me he was looking to recruit a few fellow hikers who are not so “destination oriented,” people who could find satisfaction in the great outdoors without having to log some great amount of miles. I decided not to bother reminding him of the epic challenges he faced–the shortage of oxygen, the ferocity of the wind up above 13,000 feet, the grade and difficult surface of the trail–and I officially retired from the business of pointing out the irony of his position.

I told him I thought he was nuts. When he agreed with me, I felt a surge of affection for Bob and his exploits, and a strong desire for him to prove me wrong.

Larry Gallagher usually sticks to hikes on the Bay Area’s mellower trails.

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