A story about wheelchair hiker Bob Coomber misspelled Kearsarge Pass and incorrectly said he was an East Bay Regional Park District board member.
LIVERMORE -- Bob Coomber is a man on a roll.
Slurping Gu energy gel and trail mix, arms pumping, heart pounding, Coomber is attempting to be the first person to cross the Sierra Nevada in a wheelchair. He and two companions left Monday to begin the trek. If all goes well, they hope to return this weekend.
He'll climb over Kearsarge Pass, a 12,000-foot elevation, 22-mile trail riddled with boulders. His rigid-frame wheelchair is specially equipped with knobby tires and rear suspension so he won't careen off the trail going downhill. He's taken numerous tumbles.
"No big deal; I come preinjured," he joked.
Coomber scopes out the terrain as much as possible beforehand then prepares himself mentally and physically for the climb.
"It's going to be a rough one," said Coomber, a Livermore resident who grew up in Piedmont.
Rangers have warned Coomber, 58, about his extreme wheelchair hikes, calling them impassable for a man in a chair. Then he goes ahead and does them. In August 2007, he scaled 14,000-foot White Mountain, a day hike for an experienced foot hiker, three days for Coomber. White Mountain in Mono County is the third-highest peak in the state. It took 11 hours the last day to make it to the summit, he said, navigating switchback after switchback.
"I'm one for four with White Mountain," Coomber said of his three other unsuccessful attempts to climb it.
Exertion in high altitude makes Coomber really sick, so he will acclimate for a day at base camp near Kings Canyon National Park. An EMT firefighter friend from Livermore will accompany Coomber, as well as Tal Skloot, who is filming Coomber for a documentary. Skloot also works part-time at Piedmont's community cable station KCOM.
Skloot will lug his video cameras, tripods and hiking equipment up the mountain in a waterproof backpack. A donated camera is also mounted on Coomber's wheelchair to capture the lumps and bumps he will endure as he climbs.
"4WheelBob" as Coomber is known, has for years hiked more than 100 Bay Area parks. He is a member of the East Bay Regional Park District's Park Advisory Committee, an all-volunteer citizens' advisory group, and gives inspirational talks to schools and clubs about how people with disabilities can also get out and enjoy nature.
Skloot, an award-winning independent filmmaker, heard about Coomber and approached him to do a documentary not only about his wheelchair hikes but also about the challenges faced by parks because of budget cuts and dwindling visitors.
"He's amazing, trying to do this (Sierra) hike," Skloot said. "This is a very interesting, charming and complex guy. What he does is important, and there is a larger story about how can we utilize all our state and national parks, using him as an inspiration to get out there."
Coomber, a juvenile diabetic and avid outdoorsman, became disabled in 1990 at age 35. He was hiking around Lake Almanor when his left leg literally crumbled. His diabetes had caused bone degeneration from the hips down, plus he suffers from fibric peripheral neuropathy which causes numbness in the extremities. He also suffered broken ankles. After months of rehabilitation, Coomber knew he would be in a wheelchair from then on.
When he's hiking rugged terrain, he goes at a snail's pace. He has no choice.
"When I get to an impassable boulder or obstacle, I have a method where I stand briefly and use my arms to swing the chair around the obstacle," he said.
He manages his diabetes with an insulin pump, rather than packing syringes and injecting himself. No cellphones work on the mountain, so Coomber will rely on his companions if he gets into trouble. The three will be camping in the wilderness along the way, keeping an eye out for bears. A rogue thunderstorm or heavy snow is one of the few things that would cause Coomber to turn back.
"You adjust your mindset to handle all these things," he said. "You forget about what you used to do and get a new slate."