Today was the first day of two days of inspirational and educational speakers at our interagency wilderness academy, cosponsored by the U.S. Forest Service, the Society of Wilderness Stewardship, and Bureau of Land Management and held at the beautiful Tallac Historic Site on Lake Tahoe.
Part of the day was given over to discussions of accessibility to wilderness areas, first with the keynote address of the session by athlete Mark Wellman and in the afternoon with a talk by Janet Zeller, USFS national accessibility program manager. Both have been in wheelchairs for most of their lives: Mark fell in a climbing accident in 1982 at age 21; Janet fell down a flight of stairs with a bad handrail in 1980 while working as a librarian. Neither accepted that their disability meant that they had to give up what they loved: getting outdoors and being active.
Mark is best known for his 1989 ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite, followed two years later by a thirteen-day ascent of Half Dome—a more difficult climb in some ways because the approach is so gnarly, even for an able-bodied person. He completed both with the partnership of veteran climber Mike Corbett, and they both returned to El Cap for a tenth-anniversary ascent of the more challenging Nose route. Mark worked for many years as a Park Service ranger in Yosemite before starting his own company, No Limits, which helps other para- and quadriplegic individuals gain confidence in adaptive climbing. In 1996 he ascended a 120-foot rope with a flaming torch to light the cauldron at the Atlanta Paralympics.
His tale reminded me that I should be more careful about complaining about such nuisances as hard ground to sleep on, biting face flies, blisters, and having to eat granola yet another day in a row. I honestly don't know if I'd have the strength and determination to come back if I were to suffer an accident that left me any kind of -plegic. I hope I would—and I sure hope I never get tested on that front.
Janet, a sunny lovely woman whose sport of choice is paddling, spoke about the various ways wilderness areas can be made accessible to people with disabilities. She focused on wheelchairs, since mechanical transport (including bicycles) is otherwise prohibited in designated wilderness areas. Her main point was that so much is possible for a person with disabilities, though it's imperative that they have a good support network.