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Hiking Wheelchair Opens Up Outdoor Lifestyle To People With Disabilities

Dec 6, 2019
Originally published on December 11, 2019 8:07 am

Five people moved in tandem down a trail, connected by a wheelchair unlike any other.

This hiking trail, popular with Bend, Ore., families, is a testing ground for inventor Geoff Babb. One miscalculation about how to navigate a tight squeeze of boulders, and he could topple over the edge toward an ice-cold river below. But that's not what worried Babb, who hasn't walked since a stroke 14 years ago.

"I don't feel scared on the trail. I trust these guys to figure it out," Babb said, adding that he feels more vulnerable crossing a city street.

Driven by a love of the outdoors, he's invested countless hours in this prototype for an all-terrain wheelchair, creating a new team sport in the process. His AdvenChair resembles a mountain bike. It has handlebars, disc brakes, and a bright orange frame. Its purpose is to help people with serious disabilities access trail systems, because as Babb put it, "we need to celebrate that we're alive."

Even though stroke is the leading cause of serious disability in the nation, he found existing all-terrain wheelchairs didn't suit his needs. A single rider can power the AdvenChair, but like many stroke survivors, Babb's arms won't propel him. Instead, he relies on teammates pushing, pulling and steering.

Babb's arms won't propel him, so he relies on teammates pushing, pulling and steering.
Emily Cureton / Oregon Public Broadcasting

"Even though we have a planned route, you don't always know what you are going to encounter along the route," said Amy Kazmier, a friend and "mule."

The nickname for people who power the chair came after a fateful trip to the Grand Canyon in 2016. An axle broke in the steep terrain, and "we had to take his chair apart and carry it up the hill," Kazmier recalled.

After that, product development engineer Jack Arnold looked to the mountain bike industry to overhaul the design.

"The AdvenChair is not based on wheelchair parts. It's based on mountain bike components, which are more durable than wheelchair parts and less expensive," Arnold said.

Still, building a prototype has been costly — totaling around $10,000. They're pitching the idea to tourism companies that lead adventure trips for people with disabilities. This fall the team entered into a "Shark Tank" style competition in Bend, Ore., to attract investors from the outdoor industry.

There was a $5,000 prize on the line, to be decided by an audience vote. Babb had seven minutes to pitch. In the crowd sat one of just a handful of people to ride in the AdvenChair, so far.

Michelle Pearson's trip last year was her first time on a trail since she became disabled by a stroke in 2015.

"It was just a great day. It felt really good to get out there. And not just your yard, and not just your street, not just driving around your car looking out the windows," Pearson said.

She hasn't been on a hike since. She said her own wheelchair broke just going out the front door.

When the results of the competition came in, Pearson erupted with cheers. Babb's team pulled him up the stairs in the AdvenChair to collect the $5,000 check.

The win was a boost for a project inspired by extreme setbacks. This spring the team has plans to go back to the Grand Canyon, and test the mettle of their latest design.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

NOEL KING, HOST:

This country's leading cause of serious long-term disability is strokes. After having one, many people use wheelchairs. A man in Oregon wanted to go hiking, but his chair couldn't hack it. So he invented a new way. Emily Cureton from Oregon Public Broadcasting has the story.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK, big rock on the right.

EMILY CURETON, BYLINE: Five people move in tandem down a trail. It's steep and, at times, narrower than the frame of a wheelchair connecting them.

GEOFF BABB: I trust these guys to figure it out, how we'll get through it, how to get those narrow spots without tipping me over to one side or the other.

CURETON: For Geoff Babb, one miscalculation and he could go over the edge, toward an ice-cold river below. And even though this hike is challenging, Babb says he feels more vulnerable crossing a city street.

BABB: I've survived two brainstem strokes. And after my first one, I was not able to walk.

CURETON: That was 14 years ago. He's spent much of the time since then working on a project called Advenchair, supported by his wife Yvonne. The goal is to help people with physical limitations access trail systems and an outdoor lifestyle.

BABB: We need to celebrate that we're alive.

CURETON: The Advenchair resembles a mountain bike - imagine handlebars, disc brakes and a bright orange frame. Unlike existing off-road wheelchair designs, the Advenchair can be used by a single rider or as a team sport. Since Babb can't use his arms to propel himself, he relies on having anywhere from one to six teammates to meet the demands of the terrain.

AMY KAZMIER: On your left.

CURETON: Amy Kazmier is one of these so-called mules.

KAZMIER: Even though we have a planned route, you don't always know what you're going to encounter along the route.

CURETON: Like that time they went to the Grand Canyon.

KAZMIER: When his chair broke, and we had to take his chair apart and carry it back up the hill.

CURETON: The failure sent them back to the drawing board. Jack Arnold is a product development engineer.

JACK ARNOLD: We had to do a completely different design.

CURETON: Motorizing the chair wasn't an option since many trails don't allow motors. Instead, they looked to another kind of sport.

ARNOLD: The Advenchair is not based on wheelchair parts; it's based on mountain bike components. So mountain bike components are more durable than wheelchair parts, and they're less expensive. And, you know, there's bike mechanics all over the place.

CURETON: But the first prototype cost about $10,000 to build. They're pitching the idea to tourism companies that lead adventure trips for people with disabilities. This fall, the Advenchair team entered into a "Shark Tank" style competition in Bend, Ore.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So the very first company that will be out here tonight - I'd love to introduce you to Advenchair.

(CHEERING)

CURETON: Bend Outdoor Worx is a contest for entrepreneurs in the outdoor industry. There's a $5,000 prize on the line to be decided by an audience vote. Babb has seven minutes to pitch.

BABB: The Advenchair is for Isaac.

CURETON: He closes with a list of people he's been able to share the chair with so far. One of them is in the audience.

BABB: And for Michelle to enjoy Smith Rock.

CURETON: Michelle Pearson had a stroke four years ago.

MICHELLE PEARSON: The regular wheelchairs you get are not designed to be outdoors. Like, we broke this one three months after we got home with it.

CURETON: She says it broke going out the front door. And a hiking trip in the Advenchair was her first time on a trail since she became disabled.

PEARSON: Blue sky, clouds - it was just a great day. It felt really good to get out there - not just your yard and not just your seat and not just driving around in the car looking out the windows.

CURETON: Have you been able to go on a hike like that since?

PEARSON: No.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: So this is the $5,000 - Advenchair, come on up.

(CHEERING)

CURETON: Babb's team pulls him up the stairs on his Advenchair to collect their check. It's a boost for a project inspired by extreme setbacks. The team returns to the Grand Canyon this spring to test the mettle of their latest design.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Cureton in Bend, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLORA MIS' "ALL THE LEAVES ARE GONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.