Bob “4-Wheel Bob” Coomber has climbed some of California’s tallest peaks, not on foot, but in his wheelchair. The legendary hiker, now 58, has new plans. He’s training for a 30-mile Sierra Nevada crossing later this summer. Coomber took a few minutes to talk about his life and his passion for hiking.
Q; How did you end up in a wheelchair?
Coomber: I was a juvenile diabetic and one of the complications it caused was bone degeneration from the hips down. I was walking around Lake Almanore in 1990. All of a sudden my left leg just blew up, broke into hundreds of fragments. It was kind of Gumby-like, just bent at odd angles that a leg shouldn’t be.
Q: How old were you then?
Coomber: I was 35.
Q: What happened from there?
Coomber: It took seven months to heal before I could get back on it. I was in bed for several months. I had to get through physical therapy. I started out on crutches. The doctor finally gave me the okay that it had healed well enough that I could reduce it to a cane.
When I was walking along with the cane, I looked down at my feet. One of the other things I have is fibric peripheral neuropathy, which means you don’t have a lot of feeling in your extremities. Fortunately, I guess because my foot was at a very odd angle to my leg. It turned out I had broken my ankle just by putting weight on it. Within a couple months of letting that one heal, I broke the other ankle. I got back to walking then I broke each one another time and then my right knee gave out.
We decided it was a good idea to be a roller from then on. It just seemed like the prudent thing to do at that point.
Q: How did that change your life?
Coomber: I’ve always been really athletic, playing team sports and running a lot. I just had to find a new way to do this. I had accepted the fact that I was going to be there. That’s the hardest point for a lot of people when you go from being upright one minute to being in a wheelchair. Everything changes. I didn’t see it quite that way.
I knew this was likely to be permanent. I figured I would adapt myself to the chair. I had to find new ways to look at trails. I used to walk 20-mile days and now I was down to 10 percent of that when I first started off. That was a good day when I was out on the dirt trails.
Q: You’ve always been a hiker?
Coomber: Absolutely. This isn’t something I pulled out of the hat because I thought it would be fun to do. It’s just something I’ve always done. I have a great love for the mountains and for high places in particular. I like being out on trails, being away from civilization.
Q: Was there a pivotal moment when you could’ve stopped hiking or you could go ahead and figure it out?
Coomber: When the injury first happened, I remember laying on the beach at Lake Almanore, waiting for paramedics, and just knowing things were going to change. My tendency to be competitive and to want to stay in shape, I was determined to find a way to get back out in my parks down here in the Bay Area as well as up in the mountains. I didn’t want to let it get me down.
At 35, career-wise and everything else you’re hopefully peaking. This put a real damper on that. I had to really find a way to regroup. I guess I started doing that by taking my folding wheelchairs that break really easy on gentle trails. The more confidence I gained, the easier it was for me to take on more difficult trails and dirt trails.
Q: In addition to the equipment, you must have developed a technique.
Coomber: The technique comes with every yard you travel when you’re new at this. People don’t understand the things that you can simply walk over. You don’t have to take into account rocks that are 6 inches high on the trail.
Taking trails at a certain angle. One of my favorite early stories was trying to follow a story that went up and down the side of a hill. If you didn’t point it straight up and make a sharp “V” and cut down, it put you at a weird angle. I used to just sit there and fall over slowly.
I’ve had several experiences that I’ve learned from, falling out of the chair, hitting rocks, going too fast and the chair just shudders to a halt while you keep going. I didn’t consider them too bad as long as I could get away from them.
I’ve had state park rangers early on try and discourage me from trying to go on trails because they were scared something would happen. I said, “Look at me. It’s already happened. I come pre-injured. Don’t even worry about it.” I had a ranger physically stop me from going into a wilderness area because he hadn’t read the ADA or the Wilderness Act. He was just determined that I wasn’t going to take that thing out on the trail. It’s been an education all the way around.
Even now, I come up with techniques on how I’m going to push. When you’re up in the Sierra, I’ll get places where I actually have to turn around and row the wheelchair uphill because otherwise I’ll tip over backwards. These are all things I’ve learned along the way and techniques I’ve developed over the years.
Q: Can you tell us about climbing 14,000-foot White Mountain?
Coomber: It’s a 15-mile roundtrip. For most experienced hikers it’s a simple day hike. You park at 11,700 feet. It’s a gentle walk some of the way and a little more difficult when you get closer to the summit. For me, it was three days.
I wouldn’t call it grueling, but it was difficult in spots and really nice and comfortable spots. Every trail has its ups and downs. For every uphill, you know there’s going to be a time when you can relax and rest the shoulders and back.
The last day was 1.75 miles from our second campsite. It took me over 11 hours to make it to the summit because it was switchback after steep switchback. I started to panic getting up there. It was after 6 p.m. in late August. I was thinking ‘Boy, am I going to make it today or am I going to have to stop 500 linear feet short of the summit.” We solved that one.
Q: What do you do in those tough sections?
Coomber: There are ways. If it’s a rock that you can’t get around, you get out of the chair, you pull the chair over the rock, you drop it down on the other side and get back in. After doing that on a short section of the John Muir Trail a couple times, you’re kind of wishing that there was a Yosemite Hilton back there for afterwards instead of going back to the tent.
Q: So now you’re planning to cross the Sierra Nevada.
Coomber: We’re going to start from Onion Valley in August. Onion Valley is the staging area for those who want to go into Kings Canyon and Sequoia the hard way, over Kiersarge Pass, which is just short of 12,000 feet. The trail is ultimately sandy and narrow. And then you get to the pass where there are giant boulders. The pass is essentially crossing a boulder field. We’ll probably go up there, pose with the sign and move on.
I don’t know how rocky it is after that. You descend a little to the John Muir Trail. You go south on that until you hit a trail called Bub’s Creek. Bub’s Creek Trail will take you essentially all the way, through some beautiful high altitude meadows and eventually to the Roads End area in Kings Canyon. It’s about 32 or 33 miles.
Q: Are you out to prove a point or do you just love to be out on the trail?
Coomber: Some of the emails I get, I think I am proving a point for people to not limit themselves. There are certainly physical limits depending on the limitations of a disability. So far, I’ve been able to work within mine and do a lot of cool things.
But I don’t think I’m trying to prove a point as much as I really love it out there. I am comfortable, no matter how remote.