Archive for December, 2008
My mental development is that of a five-year-old. It’s a harsh realization, but sometimes when I see children squabble I think that I’m not all that much different, I just hide it a little better.
We all know the scenario: One child steals a toy from another, a fight ensues, a parent removes the obviously offending toy, and both kids go away mad. I might be able to hide my disappointment, and I can suppress the urge to steal someone else’s toy, but how often do I feel like there’s an obvious loser in these situations and why do I keep thinking about the airline ticket desk, where it definitely doesn’t serve to yell the loudest as much as it might feel really good since someone should be responsible?
My friend Donna told me that kids need words. They need a script. They don’t just know these things. “Can I play with that toy?” “Not now, I’m playing with it, but you can have it in 10 minutes.”
You mean everyone stays happy? Talk about revolutionary.
Yes, it sounds simple, but simple is the best kind of revolution. It’s the kind of revolution that succeeds. Those complicated ones never take. But using your words, creating a script – could they work for me? I’m climbing to the top of the tallest mountain in Africa in the hopes that people will see me, that they’ll get the script, but maybe I need to do more.
But why do people need a script? The need became obvious after I had two disappointing, yet far too common, interactions at a recent Christmas party.
First, a woman told me that I should meet her nephew, who is in a wheelchair, too. My immediate thought was that we didn’t choose this situation, and most likely don’t share that much in common. We’re not like my childhood best friend’s father, who drove a BMW and waved at all the other BMW drivers. They’d made a choice we hadn’t. In fact, I probably share more with most of my able-bodied friends than I do with the vast majority of disabled people because we’re all something else first. We’re white, black, Hispanic, Asian, rich, poor, middleclass, educated, uneducated, active, inactive, artistic, inartistic, etc. I shared a lot in common with my former disabled teammates and competitors, but with most disabled people, I only share the fact that we each had an unfortunate moment in time, a greater collection of scars than most and general rejection from health insurance companies.
So this woman thought that her nephew and I would have something in common. That really isn’t a huge stretch. This guy sounded active, but then she compared his wife to Ruth from the Bible’s Old Testament, and talked about the patience of Ruth and how her nephew’s wife had to endure such hardships. The woman dumbfounded me and insulted my friend, who had invited me to the party and stood by during the conversation, but many share the woman’s assumptions.
The next guy approached me as I hoped to leave for the night. My departure seemed to ratchet toward the exit, moving two rooms forward and one back. He found me in the piano room where the kids were playing remarkably well. Without preamble he said, “What happened to you?” I explained that I’d had a freak skiing accident almost 20 years ago. I hoped the “almost 20 years ago part” would set him at ease because he shifted, stammered and couldn’t look me in the eye. It didn’t. He said, “That was really hard for me.” I didn’t know how to respond. Did I need to tell him that it was okay? Did I need to tell him that I was okay?
The script surrounds us, but it might not be the accurate script. And people might continue reading from that same bad script unless provided a new one.
Driving down the highway during a quick trip to Montana last week, I saw a billboard with a policeman standing with his hand on the push handle of a wheelchair and the statement: “Think seatbelts are confining? Try a wheelchair. Buckle up.” Obviously buckling up is a good idea. I support seat belts, but the billboard message perpetuates the existing script that made it so difficult for the guy at the party to approach me: Life in a wheelchair is so confining it’s worse than death, which after all is the biggest worry when you don’t wear your seatbelt.
My challenge lies in replacing the script. The billboard states that the wheelchair is the end. Both people at the party were reading from that same old script. Adopting the new script proves difficult because that obvious question, the one you’re not supposed to ask, rattles around in your head. It’s right there begging for attention and the more you try to ignore it the more you fear it will just slip out.
I know because I’ve been there.
A few years ago, I shared the gym on a quiet Sunday with a woman who walked on two prosthetic legs. I wondered if she lost her legs to frostbite because at the time I was reading a book about Hugh Herr, who lost his legs to frostbite after being trapped on the side of a mountain. But as much as I knew I couldn’t ask that question, it was all I could contemplate. So, I’m stuck in my own head when she walks by, deliberately heel-toe, on her black and grey weave, carbon fiber legs. She looks down at me lying on the bench and says, “That’s a lot of weight.” Ahh, a compliment, that’s a good way to start a conversation, but those thoughts rattled in my head. I could only muster, “Umm, thank you.” Brilliant. I am a heck of a conversationalist.
So what’s the end result? Like many things, adopting a new script is easier for kids, because they don’t need to forget the old one. We should follow their model. They ask whatever questions, and they want answers. Questions are good. They represent interest – as long as we forget the old script.
But what does the new script say? Think like a child. What do you like to do? Who are your friends? Want to play? Maybe having the mental development of a five-year-old isn’t such a bad thing after all.
From the beginning, I’ve said that I want to keep up. Speed. Speed. Speed. During our June scouting trip it took me forever to reach camp. Each day, I slowed more and more on the rocky slopes of Kilimanjaro. If I can’t reach camp, then I can’t make the summit. With our brand new rig, Bomba, which as one of our Tanzanian drivers told me, means cooler than cool, speed is starting to come.
In November, we returned to Tanzania to follow two stories for the film, but Dave Penney, my Expedition Manager, and I managed one day on the mountain. We climbed two thousand vertical feet on the porters’ road in 2:42. Later in the week, there were times that Dave had to run to keep up with me as we climbed from the hotel to the shoulder of My Meru, but we didn’t have direct comparisons and without direct comparisons, we couldn’t know how much faster we were. Two days ago in Moab, we got our direct comparison. In the spring, I rode Schaefer Trail on the White Rim Trail covering the 1500 feet of vertical in three hours. Two days ago that same 1500 feet took me 1:26—less than half the time, and more importantly about a thousand feet of vertical an hour.
The trail on Kili will be far more technical than Schaefer Trail. One thousand feet of vertical an hour will not be realistic for most sections, but it started us thinking. From hut to hut it’s approximately 3000 feet of vertical a day. With a thousand vertical an hour under the most optimal conditions, I could complete most days in three hours. That’s far from realistic. There will be many spots where I will grind to a complete halt, but other sections will allow me to cruise. I’m starting to think that it might be realistic to move from hut to hut, three thousand feet of vertical a day in six or so hours a day, which would allow me hours of daylight per day. As everyone says, “Every day on the mountain is summer and every night winter.” It would be very nice to enjoy some of the summer.
As we drove back from Schaefer trail Dave couldn’t help but think about the new speed. Maybe we could make it from Kibo hut, at 15,500 feet, into the crater at about 18,500 feet in one day. Originally he’d planned to cut that stretch in two relatively equal sections. In order to even contemplate that stretch we need to work on the winch that will help us over the loose and step sections of the upper mountain. If we can make similar time on the winch, it could be a possibility. That’s the cool part, the possibilities that this new rig brings.
A week ago, I climbed a good section of Guardsman’s Pass in three to four inches of snow. I never would have been able to do any of that in the other rigs. Funny how the my mind works, the whole time I climbed up the mountain I thought this would be great on a beach. Dressed in ski pants, Ugs, three layers of fleece, ply-pro and wool, and a hat, and I’m thinking this could get me to the ocean. The last time I went to Hawaii, my girlfriend gave me a piggyback to the water. Bomba would let me do it myself. Obviously, each scenario offers unique benefits, but the independence would be nice.
Exceeding expectations, that’s a part of our mission. This rig has exceeded my expectations. It’s brought me to think about how many other things we might be able to do. I could ride this on the beach. I could ride it uphill in the snow. I could ride it up hill faster. I could ride with my friends. My world opens—my opportunities. When I climbed to the top of the Schaefer trail, Paul Quinlan, a friend who had ridden the White Rim’s 78 plus miles numerous times, said, “You could totally ride with a group of people.” To enjoy recreation with my friends might be my true mission as I saw during my skiing career.
My greatest day in skiing wasn’t a day that I won a medal. Instead, it was a day in Vail 1993. I had graduated the year before, but now my former teammates were in Colorado. Under blue sky and warm spring conditions I became a peer for the first time since my accident. I fit in. No one worried about me keeping up. We just skied. The same as skiing, trail riding uphill has been difficult from the beginning and climbing Kili will remain an incomprehensibly difficult challenge, but there’s a slight shift.
When I first started to ride the three-wheeler, I thought that my heart would jump out of my chest in the first hundred meters. The first climb by my house (on a route that I’ve now done in 34 minutes) took well over an hour. Numerous times I wondered if I could make it to the top, which barely seemed like the top of anything. When I went to Kilimanjaro in June, I couldn’t believe the difficulty. I moved so slowly. We made the first camp the first day, though we finished in the dark after eight hours of climbing. Then it took me three days to get to the second camp and that was only after I had asked for help. I wouldn’t have made it there under my own power. Now, I know it will be far from easy and I haven’t even seen the top yet. It will be hard—incomprehensibly hard, but with this new rig and with the training, I can at least dream.
Building the rig
This rig is the compilation of many ideas that started with Mike Augspurger and One-Off Titanium. In the mid-nineties he developed a vehicle that could climb most anything, traverse rough terrain, and go off-road. I was his first disabled test rider. The idea of getting to the woods intrigued me, especially since life in a wheelchair usually requires paving the rough spots—sidewalks, ramps, and curb cuts.
Dave Penney and I spent a lot of the summer climbing. Hours of moving slowly left ample time to talk about ways to improve the vehicle. Our first thought was to shorten the wheelbase, moving the back wheels almost under my hips to improve traction. Then we’d need to reduce the weight and narrow the wheels. Those were our priorities, but we couldn’t find someone to make the changes (Mike wanted to focus on other projects) until Dave found Rod Miner and Lightfoot Cycles in Darby, Montana. In a short four to five days Rod and Dave created Bomba, a vehicle that makes me dream and believe that we can access the mountains, the beaches and who knows what else.
To see the rig in action go to this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rbh496zgCF43 comments