UPDATE: Photo slide show posted at Flickr.com

The facts: On Friday, Bob Coomber completed a 5.5-mile hike lasting 20 hours over three days on the rocky, rutted Jeep road to the top of White Mountain, the first known wheelchair summit of a California fourteener.

The support team:

  • Yours truly
  • Cheryl and Greg Norlin of Bishop, CA.
  • Rick McCharles, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Central insights:

Hikers with healthy legs have no mental concept of wheelchair hiking. Everybody Bob spoke to about White Mountain assured him it was easy going after the first rough quarter mile. Turned out hit was a miserable slog through scree, slate, rocks and ruts almost the entire way. The kind of stuff the rest of us just step over slowed Bob to a grinding crawl.

It’s all about altitude and attitude. Bob gave himself five days to get acclimated to the altitude, which allowed the rest of his training to kick in. The last day was 10 hours and 45 minutes up 2 miles and about 1,200 feet of elevation gain with only minor pauses along the way (for comparison: Bob can do Mission Peak — 2,000 feet in 2.8 miles, in under 4 hours). He made up his mind to finish, and finished.

When the weather gods smile, you smile back. We had three days of positively gorgeous weather: sunny, breezy and comfortable. Bob knew that such pleasantness above 12,000 feet is rare enough that it must be exploited. All of his previous attempts had included sub-20-degree mornings, and some included gale-force winds.

It’s not a solo hike. Based on what he’d been told about the White Mountain road, Bob honestly thought he could hike in a couple miles, camp out for the night, and get to the summit and back to camp the next day. We knew within the first couple hours on day two that it wasn’t happening. But Rick, Greg and Cheryl volunteered for sherpa and driving duties that made it possible for Bob to summit without hiking back the whole way. I was mostly useless in these regards — I’m making up for it by documenting the adventure for posterity.

Doubt is for babies. I hiked far ahead of Bob and the team on Thursday and turned back about a half-hour from the summit. The road was uniformly terrible and I became convinced Bob had no chance. When I got back to where Bob was, I learned the team had decided to move camp forward a couple miles and find a way to get him to the top. I came within 10 centimeters of bagging the whole adventure and coming home, but some part of me thought, “how big of an idiot will I be if Bob makes it and I don’t?” So I said screw the doubts and went with the flow — which, improbably and amazingly, carried Bob all the way up.

(Pictures and day-by-day narrative to come. With any luck you’ll pitch flaming axes at the mention of Bob’s name by the time I’m done).