Hell On Wheels

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

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.

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.