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Alexis Chicoine's team crosses the snow in Garibaldi Park


Access Challenge launches out again:
Three-day hiking event a triumph of spirit, teamwork and ability

By Paul Gowan

A feat of mountaineering, backcountry camping and teamwork; mighty rivers, imposing peaks and rugged, narrow trails; small teams of human beings thrown against the primal forces of the wilderness, and one human on each team has a significant physical disability. Does this seem like a challenge?

It should. In a three-day test of will, determination and effort, Access Challenge, a wilderness hiking event modelled after the world-famous Eco-Challenge, features friendly competition between teams of intrepid individuals.

Able-bodied "sherpas" guided their disabled teammates up the mountain, across the meadows and over the water with the help of the TrailRider, a uniquely designed wilderness vehicle affording people with disabilities a previously unheard of level of access to the great outdoors. 

This was the fifth Access Challenge, organized by the Vancouver-based BC Mobility Opportunities Society. The event took place for the second straight year in Garibaldi Provincial Park, near Whistler, over three days and two nights, Aug. 19-21, and included six teams of five participants each. One team member on each team had a physical disability.

The event brought the participants from as far away as Ontario and New Hampshire. The teams covered 36 kilometres of trails, reaching the snow line and eventually ending their journey by crossing the Cheakamus River via a "zipline" strung over a canyon, 20 metres above the water.
The stories and shared experiences of participants last a lifetime, long past the sore, weary muscles accompanying the end of the journey.

This was Alexis Chicoine's third Access Challenge, and the second on the same trail, so the North Vancouver resident knew what to expect. Her team, Team Kermode Express, included two family members, was intact from previous outings, and her team was "gear savvy."

"The hike is fantastic, I love the whole thing, I completely trust my team. It's just amazing to be able to get back to the mountain," said Chicoine, an outdoor enthusiast until an accident in Venezuela, when a tour bus carrying her and her husband drove off the side of a mountain and rendered her quadriplegic.

"It's fantastic and eye-opening, and a great experience for anyone who has been out in the bush, and for somebody who hasn't. It's freeing, somehow, even though you're not independent - your stuck in this TrailRider. The fresh air, [even] the fighting of the bugs, it's fantastic." 

"It is an intense workout for your team. Brutal - brutal on the body."

Chicoine had learned from previous experiences to bring two sleeping bags with her: one for daytime and one for night. The daytime bag was a "Mummy Bag" specially designed and fitted for the TrailRider. The second bag was for added warmth at night.

Volunteer sherpa Shawna Armitrage had been on previous Access Challenge events and knew about the demands of the hike. This year, she was a judge, and she also helped organize the event, doing paperwork, working with forms, checking on trails and ensuring safety.

The most difficult experience about the competition is people getting tired and "finding new muscles in their body that get sore," she said. 

On one team, she said, "A couple of people had muscle cramps and things like that. We had a volunteer help them out and we made sure somebody stuck with them just in case. It's pretty amazing by the end how someone can pull together and find the strength again to keep going, which they did."

Armitrage said, "I love the hike, and just being with people, as much as helping them get there." 

"They're (the participants with a disability are) the motivation, though, I mean, they do a lot of talking when you get tired, or you're on hills, and letting you know how they're doing and making sure you're okay as well. It's a whole team thing."

Just sitting in the TrailRider for long periods can be hard work. Armitrage recalls a participant in two previous events with multiple sclerosis whose wrists were so tired from holding on that afterwards, she wasn't able to push her manual wheelchair.

"Everybody checking in with each other and talking with each other is important. And just to see how everybody's doing. You know, you have the muscle aches, you have the blisters, the person in the TrailRider might be getting bumped around too much or might be getting tired."

The spectacular hike through Garibaldi Provincial Park, where Access Challenge has been staged the last two years, is one of her favourite hikes ever. The trek takes teams up Black Tusk the first day from Rubble Creek, then along Taylor Meadows on day two to Helm Creek overnight, then down to the Cheakamus River on day three and the finish line. Traversing narrow trails and crossing high ledges demands coordination and integrated teamwork.

"There are no fences, so there's nothing to stop you from toppling over," said sherpa Vanessa Esteves, a participant in 2003 on Sam Sullivan's Sam's Beast of Burden team.

Before last year's event, Esteves had not met any of her team except for disabled participant Sam Sullivan. Nonetheless, she said they passed the teamwork test "with flying colours." 

"How a team can so quickly come together and work so amazingly together - that was a huge thing for me. Most teams had not met each other or other participants previously - so just to get together like that and all of a sudden build such a strong bond as close friends and you're taking care of each other [was quite significant].

"Every team has the same challenge - you know how to work together, now how do you put it together and go up these mountains. There's the challenge of communication, the challenge of teamwork, and of getting used to new people. It's such an accomplishment when you really know you've done that, and you can feel it. It's a great feeling."

At night, teams find designated camping spots, fall asleep at about 10:30 or 11 pm and wake up around 7:00 am. They have coffee, do maintenance on the TrailRiders, and generally prepare for the day. She said sometimes you don't get much sleep: "You don't really need it - you're kind of running on adrenaline."

Esteves also enjoyed the exploration. "Where you are - It's quite surreal when you think about where you've taken someone," she said.

When going through alpine meadows they encountered snow, even in August. The terrain features streams, mud, dirt, sand, rocks - "anything you can imagine. In three days you see almost everything," said Esteves.

Ensuring safety is always a challenge. Esteves said you are always concerned about the person in the TrailRider. Are they comfortable, are they falling down, or is everyone going to fall over? As a sherpa, if you fall, they fall as well.

On a scale of one to ten, Esteves rates Access Challenge a 15.

On the first day, all six teams remained quite close together as they pushed up the mountain over rocky ground. The true spirit of the event was exhibited in the cries of exhortation and encouragement heard along the trail between supposedly rival teams. At camp, teams hailed one another as they arrived, shared stories and ate supper. Then they set out to help each other with things like TrailRider repairs.

On day two, the teams spread out as they took their time and enjoyed the amazing scenery. Despite the relative serenity of meadow flowers and a more relaxed pace, it's still a "long, long, long, long" trip, said Esteves. The teams finally made camp about 8 p.m. 

The last day featured a steep descent down the mountain. Organizers were worried it might get slippery so they organized a backup plan where volunteer firefighters from North Shore hiked up and met teams in the morning and helped carry out some of the camping gear, making the remainder the trip lighter and safer.

As part of the competition, teams were required to answer questions about the park, safety issues, and team members. Each team had a camera with a 10-picture mandate and wrote a poem about no-trace camping. 

"Everyone has a different story and you get to experience that and talk about it," Esteves said. 

"You become really good friends, and everything kind of mingles itself together. That's on top of where you are, and the whole atmosphere and the landscape that's around you. It kind of works together to make it the most perfect kind of place." 

The three-day quest is capped by a zipline ride - a highlight-reel trip across the Cheakamus River. The zipline, which carried all participants over the Cheakamus River to the finish line, was installed and manned by members of the North Shore and Coquitlam Search and Rescue teams.

Scott Flavelle, a technical advisor for Access Challenge, helped with route planning and course logistics design, route testing, and in rigging the zipline across the river.

Flavelle, a native of Vancouver, is a master climber, guide, avalanche consultant, wilderness filmmaker, stunt-rigger, technical director with the made-for-television Eco-Challenge race, and consultant for the TV series Survivor.

He said the zipline requires a significant safety margin - a greater than 10 to one safety factor. This means being able to stress the line with 10 times the weight you will actually use it for to carry people across. The ends of the line are pinned to big trees, which may be tied back to other trees. It stretches across river like a "guitar string."

"There's always satisfaction in designing a race course and then having it work out to everybody's joy," said Flavelle, "and then ultimately, it was fantastic to see the teams come through and do this final stage into the finish.

"It was very satisfying. Everybody was so happy. Happy to have done the three-day journey, and so happy to finish like that and all be together again in the parking lot. So, it was an absolutely ideal finish that gives everybody something to watch." 

The first year she entered Access Challenge, Alexis Chicoine felt she was a burden to her team, and constantly apologized for it. But her team eventually made her realize that they wanted to be there - no apology was necessary. So this year she didn't make any.

"They thanked me at the end of the hike. They had carried [me] up and down the mountain, and they thanked me!" she said.

"My team, they were there at the drop of a hat. They say, 'Yeah, Access Challenge, I'll book the week off.' I have more people each year wanting to do it, to be part of the team, than I can fit.
"It's not only an amazing, eye-opening experience for the person who's got the disability, but it seems to be an amazing experience for the able-bodied person. With the teamwork, your helping somebody, but at the same time it helps you. That's what I see."

The spirit of the event stretches beyond even the finish-line celebration, the food, and the donated massages from volunteer registered massage therapists.

"I mean I know we'll never lose touch," said Armitrage about friends she made. "Some people from this past summer's event, I've gone out with them since … they even came to my 30th birthday party," she laughs. "So we're still in touch. Over three days, you get quite a bond with people, going through something like that." 

If a team lacks enough members, the BC Mobility Opportunities Society finds some for them, although teams are encouraged to fill out their roster themselves. The event fills up fast, but sometimes a team drops out due to things like health problems or being unable to organize holiday schedules. When one team has to drop out another team is standing by to fill its place, noted Esteves.

Other disabled participants and their teams included Lorraine Maier from Vancouver with Team Collective Souls, Hazel Self of Toronto and Team Greenhorns, Kelowna's Jeffrey Gartrell with Team No Limits, and Ross Newton with Team Queste from New Hampshire.

Access Challenge is different from other events, not only because of the intense teamwork required, but also because of its unique, strenuous, exhilarating and transforming effect on both able and disabled bodied individuals, and its capacity to bring the two together.

Chicoine realizes that sometime she may have to let someone else take a turn. Still, she's not quite ready to just let go, partly because it's so much more than a three-day hike. "The camaraderie, it's so different an experience - and intense and brutal - but it's just great," she said.

What about the competition? "There's definitely some competition. There are the friendly rivalries between teams," said Armitrage. But no first, second or third place. Crossing the finish line, everybody feels a sense of victory.

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