CONCORD, N.H. – The adventuresome have raced up New Hampshire’s excruciatingly steep Mount Washington Auto Road on foot and on bicycles, unicycles and roller skates. Few make the 7.6-mile climb in a wheelchair, but a small cadre of disabled athletes — aided by scores of volunteers — plan to do just that.
The fourth-annual Sunrise Ascent on Mount Washington — coordinated by the Adaptive Sports Partners of the North Country — gets under way at 5 a.m. Sunday.
Among the seven athletes making the climb is 43-year-old Martin Wallem of Epping. He was an avid outdoorsman when he was diagnosed 10 years ago with Lou Gehrig’s disease, which attacks cells that control the muscles. He is now on a ventilator and can only blink and grind his teeth.
Wallem’s wife, Cara, said it was his dream to return to the top of Mount Washington, and he’s done the climb all four years.
“It’s life renewing for him,” Cara Wallem said. “It’s the most amazing experience for everyone involved. There are a lot of tears at the top, but they’re good tears.”
Like most of the athletes, Wallem will make the climb in a wheeled hiking chair known as a trail rider. Some 35 volunteers, dubbed mules, will take turns pushing and pulling Wallem’s chair up the highest mountain in the Northeast.
The climb is a fundraiser for ASPNC. By Friday, the organization had nearly $54,000 in pledges.
Jeff Cleveland, 37, of Lyndonville, Vt., has been a paraplegic since a motorcycle accident 21 years ago. He will be making his first ascent Sunday with the help of the mules, but he said he’ll make the climb on his own next year.
Mike Hanson flew from Minnesota to make the climb and help with the fundraiser after meeting ASPNC volunteer and ascent coordinator Dave Smith of Bethlehem, while hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Blind since birth and an avid hunter, the 48-year-old Hanson said adaptive sports programs like Franconia-based ASPNC help him pursue his passions “when I’d otherwise be sitting on a couch wishing I could.”
Smith said that he gets far more out of the adaptive sports program than he puts in and that the disabled athletes are very appreciative.
“It’s no picnic for them being in the trail rider,” Smith said. “They get bounced around and jostled around.”
ASPNC, founded in 2009, has helped more than 220 disabled athletes participate in sports year-round.