Chris Waddell: Upwardly Mobile
PARK CITY, Utah – Dawn had just broken over Utah’s Wasatch Mountains in late July when Chris Waddell began his ascent up Deer Valley ski area. Face down, with a pad supporting his chest and a custom-made seat holding his legs squarely beneath his torso, Waddell’s upper body plied the hand crank of an orange, four-wheeled vehicle as it moved like a lunar rover over rocks and scree. Despite the intensity of the high-altitude workout and the unnatural neck position required to look up, Waddell made eye contact and conversation as he maneuvered up a gravelly path and frequently ventured off-road to the steepest, loosest routes he could find.
He called his vehicle “Bomba,” which he said was Swahili slang for “cooler than cool.” It weighed 48 pounds – 35 less than its predecessor – and its relative lightness helped Waddell reach the 9,400-foot summit in about 2 hours 16 minutes, his fastest time up the local mountain.
Yet this was nothing.
On September 20, Waddell, who is paralyzed from the waist down, will travel to Africa to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. To complete his 29.2-mile route to the summit without the use of his legs, Waddell will use every sinew in his back, chest, and arms all the way down to his gloved hands to turn Bomba’s hand-crank approximately 528,000 revolutions over five days.
Waddell will have an intensely intimate experience with the terrain up the Marangu route. He will spend hours staring at the rocks at close-range (his face elevated only a foot or two above them) and will feel every lump because even though his vehicle is tricked out with disc brakes, rear-wheel drive, and 36 gears, Bomba has no shock absorbers.
And unlike the Deer Valley obstacles, which ranged from sprinkler heads to low-slung spider webs, in Tanzania, Waddell will have to navigate two-foot deep “water bars” (man-made ruts to divert water) that can also be two feet wide. He will face 45-degree pitches of scree that would cause an average man, if running down it, to sink about a foot with each step. He will also, in a sense, be trying to out-perform other disabled athletes who have made similar quests. In 2005 and 2007, Bern Goosen, a quadriplegic from South Africa, twice made it to the top in a wheelchair, but he was carried part of the way. In 2008, Darol Kubacz of Arizona reached 18,400 feet on a handcycle.
Waddell is aiming higher. He wants to reach the 19,340 feet summit – the highest point in Africa – under his own power.
But he won’t be alone. His team will include 50 to 55 porters, mountain guide Dave Penney (an avid runner who has run up Kilimanjaro in 20 hours), a four-person film crew, and two college friends from Middlebury – an orthopedic surgeon and a venture capitalist in biotechnology. The group will carry extra wheels, tires, and components; a few pairs of wooden planks to lay across the water troughs; and a winch that Waddell will power with his handcycle to work his way up slopes greater than 40-degrees where sufficient traction would otherwise be impossible.
Waddell has traveled to Tanzania twice before – in June 2008 to scout terrain with Penney, and in November 2008 to test the current incarnation of his vehicle on the lower part of the mountain.
He has an idea of what to expect.
On day one, he will set out on a porter’s road and cover 2,000 feet of vertical in about three hours. The last 1,000-foot climb that day, however, could take just as long as the first part as it grows rockier and perhaps slippery. The second day, he will leave the forest and face big steps and rough rock through the mist and fog – a day that could rival the summit as the most challenging.
On day three, he will ascend into the desert with its wild temperature extremes. After leaving Horombo Hut, the day will begin technically and culminate with a smooth-ish ride to Kibo Hut. At Kibo, the group will camp for two nights to acclimate to the 15,430-foot altitude. If all goes well, day five will be summit day. With oxygen scarce, a scree blanket enveloping the steep volcano, and boulders lining the edge of the cone, Waddell anticipates spending most of that day on a winch that will allow him climb a fixed rope.
Once he arrives at the top, Wadell still has to come down on the hand-cycle and gravity complicates the equation. The only real adjustment to Bomba for the two-day descent will be slightly larger and heavier tires which, Penney said, “will give him one more inch of suspension and a little bounce.”
And the mind boggle doesn’t end there.
Waddell’s climb is also laden with side projects. He has partnered with a Tanzanian wheelchair company that will allow him to donate a special handcycle designed to suit the rocky, sandy roads in Africa. The first recipient will be a 22-year-old Kilimanjaro porter who lost his leg in a rock slide, and Waddell hopes it will enable him to reach the summit again. A documentary is underway. And Waddell has also woven his quest into a school program called Nametags which tries to show kids that one’s differences need not define or separate them from other people.
“Strategically,” Waddell admitted, “it probably would have made sense just to focus on making it to the top of the mountain. But that’s what I did as an athlete and hoped people would take notice – and they didn’t.”
After Waddell broke his T-10 and T-11 vertebrae at age 20 when one of his ski bindings released unexpectedly on a wide-open slope, the Massachusetts native competed in seven Paralympics (four winter, three summer). In alpine skiing, he captured 12 medals (including a gold-medal sweep of all four monoski disciplines at the Lillehammer 1994 Paralympic Winter Games), and in track he earned one silver medal in the 200-meter push-rim wheelchair event in the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games.
Despite Waddell’s 13-medal haul, he said, “I never transcended the sport.”
In 2004, when he was 36, he retired from world class competition.
"I lacked a sense of a breakthrough,’’ he said. “I had been ski racing for 30 years. I wanted to do something else, but I didn’t have a firm plan.’’
As a result, he said “that transition was much harder than the transition after my accident.”
After being paralyzed, he explained, “One of the biggest wonders is whether your life is over. Competition was demonstrating that I could do whatever I wanted to do.
“After retirement, I questioned my identity. Who was I? It was so far beyond me. I was petrified to consider that identity thing. And I didn’t know if I’d be as passionate about something as I was about competition.”
Waddell began an MBA program at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. He started to work on a memoir. He sold contemporary western art in Park City for a while.
He enjoyed sales but he wanted to make a societal difference. He wanted to find a way to make people think.
“There are a variety of ways you can effect change,” he said. “The favorite American way is litigation. There’s also legislation. But I’ve always been a big fan of demonstration.”
What can Kilimanjaro demonstrate?
“I’m climbing this mountain and making this film because the world doesn’t see me and other people like me,” he wrote on kickstarter.com. “It doesn’t see our potential – only our limitations…I will climb to the top of the highest mountain in Africa to metaphorically shout out, “Notice me. Notice us!”
It will be an expensive demonstration, however, costing more than a half million dollars to create the film and support all but two of his eight-member climbing team – not to mention dozens of porters.
Fundraising through a recession, he said, has been as brutal as the physical preparation.
“There have been many times when I wanted to stop,” he said, referring the financial strain and not – he pointed out – the January 2009 illness that put him in the hospital for 23 days.
During that month he said, “I lost everything,” meaning the physical strength and stamina he had built for the original Kilimanjaro summit date, in March. “They think my bladder was perforated and I blew up like a tick. They’re still trying to figure [it] out.
“But that was easier for me to deal with,” he said, “than how do we make it through this week without [more] sponsorship and support? When people start doubting, then we’re in an untenable situation.”
With the trip just days away now, Waddell has no time for doubting.
What lies ahead is physical, the part a champion relishes.
And when he's through, the locals will look at Waddell and repeat the name of his vehicle.
“Bomba, Bomba,” they will say.
And all who follow him will agree.