If you’ve spent much time hiking in the high country of Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park, you know its awesome beauty and rugged, rocky trails. Some of the Sierra’s highest passes are in that region, including 11,845-foot Kearsarge Pass, which connects a wonderland of backcountry opportunities from Rae Lakes and the Kearsarge Pinnacles to Onion Valley and the John Muir Wilderness. Traveling from east to west over the Sierra Crest from Onion Valley to the Bubbs Creek trailhead at Road’s End is roughly 27 or so miles, depending on route, of serious elevation gain and sometimes brutally strenuous hiking at a high enough altitude to suck the breath from even the fittest hiker’s lungs.
Bob Coomber, aka 4WheelBob, wants to make the trip in a wheelchair.
Coomber, a Bay Area native, and member of the Livermore City Council, has been in a chair for more than 30 years. An avid hiker and backcountry explorer, comfortable testing his limits off-trail and climbing any peaks he could, Coomber was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in his early 20s, which put a temporary damper on his wilderness exploits. Complications from diabetes led to osteoporosis and broken bones in his lower body, eventually requiring the use of a wheelchair.
He’ll even drag his chair and his body over routes that present no other option.
But Coomber pressed on, learning to tackle trails by rolling himself along in wheelchairs, some modified for trail use, and pioneering all sorts of methods and techniques to make it over and around obstacles like rocks and roots in his way. He’ll sometimes lift himself out of his chair, then pick the chair up and move it over rocks, before settling back into the seat to roll on. He’ll even drag his chair and his body over routes that present no other option. Coomber is not a man easily dissuaded.
In the mid-2000s, after years of perfecting his techniques on the most rugged trails the Bay Area had to offer, Coomber started making attempts to ascend to the peak of 14,246-foot White Mountain, California’s third-highest peak. Altitude sickness sent him packing down the mountain during his first four attempts, but finally in August, 2007, Coomber rolled to a stop at the top of White Mountain, the first ever to make it to the summit in a wheelchair.
Later that year, Coomber was inducted into the California Outdoors Hall of Fame.
“I’ve always been a hiker, whether able-bodied or in a chair, and I’ve always been a great fan of summits and views,” Coomber said. “I love high peaks, whether [the Bay Area’s] Mount Diablo or White Mountain, with big views.”
Coomber spent a few more years wheeling up mountains all over central California before setting his sights on Kearsarge Pass, his most difficult test to date.
His diabetes means constant monitoring of blood sugar levels, and attendance to an insulin pump that can present life-threatening moments if it malfunctions deep in the backcountry. Coomber made a first attempt to cross the pass in 2013, but complications from his insulin pump forced him to leave the trail only a half-mile in, and head for the nearest hospital. A second try in 2014 saw Coomber make it to within 1.5 miles of the pass, only to be forced back by a nearly uncrossable boulder field.
Still, he remains undeterred.
Coomber planned a third try at the Kearsarge Pass this fall, but, as he told Adventure Journal this week, “I did not get to make an attempt this year as planned due to some new health issues, revolving around 45 years of being a Type 1 diabetic. Besides, as a Livermore City Councilmember, time seems even quicker to evaporate.”
But, just because this fall didn’t work out, doesn’t mean Coomber is ready to give up anytime soon. He’s planning a trip to Road’s End to hit a few Kings Canyon trails before winter closes the road, before formulating a plan for the big trip over the pass in 2019.
“Next fall will be my target,” Coomber said.
During his 2013 and 2014 tries at Kearsarge, a camera crew followed Coomber filming portions of a biopic about Coomber’s life and outdoor adventures, called, appropriately, 4 Wheel Bob. The film has won a bushel of awards and has screened on PBS, in addition to making the film festival circuit. The trailer can be seen below.
In the meantime, Cooper remains an active member of the Bay Area outdoor community, writing hiking guides for local trails, giving talks on the flora and fauna of the area, and leading trips. He’s been an advisor for regional parks too, helping increase possibilities for the disabled. “Bob has been a huge help at improving access for all the regional parks,” East Bay Regional Parks District’s Robert Doyle said. “Simple changes to entrances and trail designs can make a huge difference for people with different disabilities. Bob is not only an advocate, he is an inspiration.”
Photos: 4WheelBob film