Have you ever complained that it’s too hot to go for a hike, or that the trail is too tough, or that your feet are too sore with blisters? Well, if you’re lucky enough to meet Bob Coomber, you’ll stop all that whining.
Bob, who lives in the Bay Area of Northern California, is 59 years old and an avid hiker. What sets him apart from other hikers, however, is that Bob is in a wheelchair.
In December of 2013, I saw a story about Bob in the San Francisco Chronicle. I remember reading it and thinking that this guy must be crazy. It explained how, earlier that year, Bob had attempted to become the first wheelchair hiker to cross the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Unfortunately, he had to turn back because of problems with his insulin pump for his diabetes. The article went on to say that Bob was going to try the hike again this year. That’s when my mind started racing. I wanted to meet him. And, if he was willing, I wanted to go with him.
After reaching out to Bob, he and I met in March at a coffee shop near his home in Livermore, CA. It turned out that he wasn’t crazy at all; he just really loves being out in the fresh air. We talked about his previous unsuccessful attempt, and how it made him even more determined to try again.
Over the next six months, Bob and I would occasionally meet up for a hike through the hills around Livermore. I was amazed at how he didn’t let being in a wheelchair deter him from difficult terrain. He just took the trails slow and steady and eventually got to where he wanted to be. Bob planned on making his next attempt in September, and I planned to join him.
The hike was to begin at the Onion Valley Campground near Independence, CA, then over the Kearsarge Pass and finish at Roads End in Kings Canyon National Park. The total distance would be roughly 22 miles and Bob hoped to make the journey in seven or eight days.
I met Bob at the Onion Valley campground on Monday, September 15th. The drive up to the campground was stunning. The road slowly winds up the base of a massive mountain range with a view of Mount Whitney in the distance. The elevation at the campground is 9,185 feet, so we planned to spend a day there to get acclimated before eventually setting out on Wednesday morning.
On Tuesday we did a short hike up the trail, and I started to wonder how Bob was going to complete the hike. This wasn’t the rolling hills we’d hiked in Livermore. This trail was extremely rocky and extremely steep. At 11,845 feet, the elevation at Kearsarge Pass was over 2500 feet above our campground. Like always, Bob just took the trail slow and steady. At each rock that was too big to roll over, he would get out of his wheelchair, slide across the ground, pull his chair behind him, and then get back into his chair. This happened time and time again.
When Wednesday morning arrived, we packed up our tents and hit the trail. A few of Bob’s friends showed up to hike with him on the first day, along with two documentary filmmakers. Unfortunately, Bob wasn’t feeling nearly as well as he had the day before – his blood sugar level was a little high and we needed to wait until it leveled out before starting the hike. He didn’t want to have to turn around again because of problems with his insulin pump. Bob was determined so, after a short delay, we set out on the trail.
The scenery was truly amazing. Huge granite mountains loomed on both sides of us. Bob slowly wheeled up the side of the mountain. He would stop and talk with all the hikers along the trail. A lot of people had heard about his story and wanted to shake his hand or have their picture taken with him. The goal for the day was to make it about two miles. However, the trail was tougher than Bob had imagined. When he decided to stop for the day and set up camp, we had only traveled about three-quarters of a mile. The sun was glowing off the top of the mountains as we put up our tents for the night. As I sat on a rock, eating my freeze-dried dinner, I watched the shadows from the mountains move across the valley below.
In the morning we packed up and got back on the trail again. Bob was a little sore but he was in high spirits and wanted to make it further than the day before. But day two on the trail was not any easier. The rocks were relentless. I could never have imagined how many times Bob would have to get out of his chair to pull himself, and then the chair, along the ground. We hiked for about eight hours and made it to Pothole Lake, a beautiful spot with incredible waterfalls. Bob was so tired that after setting up his tent around 5:00 PM in the evening, he went straight to bed.
After day two we were only about 1.5 miles into the hike. Bob was starting to realize that he might not be able to make it across the entire mountain range. But he was still hoping to make it to the Kearsarge Pass, which is 4.7 miles into the hike.
I woke up early on day three to the sight of red clouds in the sky. A weather system moved in during the night and we heard that even some snow had fallen on the highest peaks. When Bob came out of his tent, he wasn’t sure if he could continue. He had a bad blister on one of his hands and he was concerned about the weather. However, after a cup of coffee, he decided to keep pressing on. The goal for the day was to make it to Gilbert Lake, which was about three-quarters of a mile up the mountain.
Even with the blister, Bob rolled along the trail with the determination to make it to the next lake. He zigzagged up the mountain. The view was stunning. We were able to look down onto Pothole Lake where we had just camped. We were about 250 yards from making it to the next lake when we arrived at a daunting the field of rocks and boulders.
I couldn’t see how Bob was going to make it over them. However, he seemed ready. He had a rope in his bag that he attached to each side of his wheelchair and then looped the rope around his back. Then he slowly started pulling himself across the rocks with his chair bumping along behind him.
Unfortunately, the rock field was too much for Bob to handle. The blister on his hand was getting worse and a new one was forming on his other hand. After sitting on the rocks for a few minutes, Bob made the decision that it was time to turn around. Although disappointed, he was still happy with how far he had made it. “The reward is being out and in it all,” says Bob. “Seeing the deer go by and hearing the squirrels, and seeing the waterfalls, and knowing I can still do it.”
I was amazed at how far Bob got. I know he wishes that he made it all the way through to Kings Canyon, but what he did accomplish is still beyond remarkable. He said that he hopes it will inspire people that aren’t that active to get out and go for a hike. I know that it has inspired me.
The next time I’m out on a hike, I’ll be thinking of Bob. And I know I won’t be whining.
See more photos from Bob’s hike here.