Mark Wellman and friends conquer another challenge
Shortly after Bob Vogel introduced his new One-Off handcycle to friends Mark Wellman and Steve Ackerman, the prospect of conquering Utah’s White Rim Trail became more realistic.
That was five years ago.
The One-Off, a three-wheeled, 20-speed, all-terrain handcycle created by Mike Augspurger for paraplegic, had just been introduced to the public. Previously, disabled handcycling had been severely limited to paved roads and other smooth surfaces.
Wellman and Ackerman decided to rent a Jeep and scout the White Rim Trail, a 103-mile loop that circumnavigates the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park near Moab, Utah. On this particular foray, the men didn’t even make it 30 miles, but they vowed to conquer the trail with their hands rather than their tires at a later date.
“We were covered with red dirt,” said Ackerman, who resides in Fort Collins, Colo. “It was windy. It was cold. It was pretty miserable.”
Even though the experience put doubt in their minds, they made a pact to not give up on the White Rim Trail.
On Nov. 1, after five years of planning, convincing and training, Wellman, a Truckee resident, along with Ackerman and Vogel, became the first paraplegic to scale the terrain, using their arms and chests to pedal and steer through deep sand, steep hills and descents and hard, rocky surfaces.
Working together was the key in the six-day voyage.
“This has never been done by a paraplegic independently,” Wellman said. “I think it would be impossible.”
Wellman, Ackerman and Vogel, all in their 40s, refused any able-bodied assistance, determined to do it on their own. Using brute physical and emotional strength and cunning ingenuity, they achieved their goal.
“Teamwork was of the essence,” Ackerman said. “We came into it with a certain attitude. If three guys are dedicated, it’s gonna get done.”
Vogel, who lives in Auburn, said that camaraderie, respect and trust allowed them to work things out.
“We checked our egos at the trailhead,” he said. “We were all in it together, and there were no personality conflicts between us. Our friendship made us stronger.”
Quite easily, the crew of 10, consisting of two vehicles, one filming and one setting up camp and food ahead of the cyclists, made it 27 miles on day one. But day two would prove the most rigorous.
“We thought we were pretty cool, but about a mile into day two we came across a washout filled with really deep sand,” Ackerman said. “We all tried to pedal through it but couldn’t.”
Wellman – an avid mountain climber who is the first paraplegic to scale the face of El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park – had brought some of his climbing equipment. This included a 50-foot rope and his “rock chaps” – a personal invention of Wellman’s to protect his legs on coarse surfaces.
Using the chaps, Wellman exited his One-Off and tied himself to it, crawling ahead of Ackerman and Vogel while pulling his handcycle. Once out of the washout, Wellman tied the rope to Vogel’s One-Off and provided the tension needed to give Vogel what the men refer to as a “power assist.”
Two more times during the trip the men used this method, one instance coming one mile after the first washout. In an area of steep elevation gain of 600 feet, they used the climbing ropes to assist each other. The day two troubles forced the men to go five extra miles on day three to keep up with their projected mileage.
The culmination of day three, an intense incline known as Murphy Hogback, brought an innovative contribution on Vogel’s part. With a special valve stem in the tube of his tire, Vogel was able to deflate enough air to provide more traction to get through a small crux.
“My particular tube has reinforcements around a metal valve system,” Vogel said. “It’s really, really thick where you put the air in. Usually, the valve stems are rubber and not as durable.”
Vogel was the first of the three to obtain the One-Off after Augspurger, whose business is located in Cummington, Mass., called him and asked him to test out his new creation.
“He kept pestering me to give it a test ride,” Vogel said. “I was thinking, ‘Oh God, another engineer that’s gonna save the world.'”
A freelance journalist, Vogel said he would write a review if Augspurger sent him one for free.
“I almost had a negative article pre-written when I first saw it,” Vogel said. “But after 10 minutes of riding it, I was really impressed. All of a sudden, I was pretty much begging him to be a representative of his company.”
The next step for Vogel was to convince Wellman and Ackerman that the machine was going to change the landscape of off-road disabled sports. At an annual Disabled Veterans Sports Clinic in Crested Butte, Colo., Vogel demonstrated the One-Off to his two disabled friends.
The rest is history. Today there are approximately 30 One-Offs in existence, and the market is sure to grow with more awareness.
Wellman is attempting to get more attention for the One-Off through film. He has co-produced three films documenting disabled adventure sports. He made sure to capture the conquest of the White Rim Trail.
“It was about us doing it and the cameras documenting it,” Wellman said.
The man behind the camera was Squaw Valley’s Tom Day, a freelance cinematographer and avid skier. Along with Doug Hayduk, Day documented six days of shear determination.
“There’s been (able-bodied) mountain bikers that have done this in one day,” Day said. “There was places on the trail where it was too rough for them (Wellman, Ackerman and Vogel), but they didn’t say, ‘We can’t do this.’ They just don’t give up. I was blown away by their determination and willingness to do what it takes.”
The footage will run in Wellman’s upcoming movie called “Crank It Up,” an independent film showcasing disabled athletes and their many accomplishments.
The movie also shows footage shot by Day of another group involving Wellman climbing Mount Shasta, a story about which ran in the Sierra Sun on June 6, 2002. Wellman is planning a May release for “Crank It Up.”
Sitting proudly in his wheelchair in the garage of his Truckee home, staring at equipment from the trip still laying on the floor, Wellman is not about to feel sorry for himself or regret the terrible accident in 1982 that left him paralyzed.
“I’ve spent half my life in a wheelchair now,” he said. “This is who I am. It’s taken 21 years, but I’ve turned something really unfortunate into a positive situation.”
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