To be honest, I can’t imagine hiking with a severe condition or handicap of any sort, whether that’s blindness, hemophilia, multiple sclerosis, an amputation or countless others. Hiking is by far one of my favorite summertime activities, and it’s partly due to the fact I have no qualms hiking, well, just about anywhere and anything I want. I can wake up, pack a bag, grab the dog and choose a trail at will. Few day hikes in Summit require special equipment or skills — even Quandary Peak is one of the shortest, punchiest 14ers in Colorado — and I have faith in my body to pull through anything Mother Nature throws my way. Part of it is preparedness, sure, but it also comes back to ability: I know my limbs and muscles and guts are going to work.
With that in mind, I’m humbled by nonprofits like No Barriers USA, Colorado Hike MS, the National Hemophilia Foundation and literally dozens of other, smaller groups that have visited Summit County this summer to support a cause. And, what sets them apart from other outdoorsy style benefits — say, a golf tournament fundraiser, or a massive event like Denver’s Race for the Cure on Sept. 27 — is that the majority of participants are the primary benefactors.
Take No Barriers as an example. In early August, the Fort Collins-based nonprofit brought nearly 100 people from across Colorado and the nation to Breckenridge for a benefit dinner, followed by a trip up three of the state’s most approachable 14ers: Lincoln, Democrat and Bross in the Fairplay area. The nonprofit was founded by a small collection of disabled adventurers, including blind mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer, who was the keynote speaker and lead guide for the 14er climb. Over the years, the group’s target audience has grown from folks with physical disabilities to just about anyone imaginable: Stroke survivors, transplant patients, even corporate groups.
When I interviewed Weihenmayer — one of the most thoughtful and insatiable athletes I’ve ever encountered — he told me the story of a woman who attended last year’s 14er hike. She was afraid of heights, as in deathly afraid, and so, when her small group of hikers reached the crest of the peak, she felt a moment of sheer, chest-pounding terror. She was even tempted to turn around with less than 100 vertical feet remaining.
But she didn’t, and after crawling a few feet on her hands and knees, she slowly, slowly rose to a crouch, then bent over, and finally stood upright for the final push to the summit. She left soon after the mandatory group photo, Weihenmayer said, but she left feeling the sort of high no one — not even someone with crippling vertigo — can fear.
And so did everyone else in the group. For Weihenmayer, a small, shared victory like hers proved that No Barriers has always been more than a few hikes and excursions for the blind and disabled.
“We started realizing quickly that this theme, this message, applies to everyone on the face of the Earth,” he told me.
Now, hikes like the 14er trip earlier this month are signature events for No Barriers, just as Race for the Cure is a signature event for Susan G. Komen Foundation. That event also attracts hundreds of runners who have survived or been affected by breast cancer, but these outdoor-themed events — the ones that truly take people out of their comfort zones — seem to find a home in mountain communities like Summit County.
Why is that? I understand why fundraisers are tied to an event or activity. It gives everyone — benefactors and participants alike — a reason to rally, something to cheer for. (Imagine if the NFL’s Pink October campaign was spread across an entire season and, more importantly, an entire season’s worth of revenue.) And, when the cause is already tied to high-level athletes like Weihenmayer with No Barriers, it simply makes sense.
But what about something like hemophilia, the disease that severely hampers a person’s ability to recover from otherwise innocuous cuts or scratches? Just like hiking blind, I can’t imagine the process of preparing for and then following through with a long, potentially arduous hike through the wilderness. I’m something of a klutz around sharp rocks and branches, with the mutilated ankles and forearms to show it.
So, when the Colorado chapter of the National Hemophilia Foundation hosted a supported hike up Quandary on July 28, I couldn’t help but wonder how participants mentally prepare for a dangerous activity, even if the true danger comes from a condition. Humor helps — the event was part the foundation’s “Backpacks and Bleeders” series — and when the afternoon was finished, all six “bleeders” and their counterparts reached the summit with no major complications.
Truth is, I won’t ever be able to fully imagine what a blind mountaineer or adventurer with hemophilia experiences on a hike. But, if group photos on the summit are any indication, we all feel the same rush of adrenaline mixed with sublime calm. It’s a feeling these hikes foster, whether or not they’re tied to a purpose.