Access Challenge opens up opportunities 

Thirty people completed a three-day hike from Garibaldi Lake to the Whistler Interpretive Forest Aug. 22, finishing with a spectacular high line crossing of the Cheakamus River.

For 24 of the hikers the adventure was a gruelling physical challenge. For the other six it was a challenge but also an uplifting experience, both literally and spiritually.

The hikers, six teams of four able-bodied persons and one physically disabled person, were taking part in the B.C. Mobility Opportunities Society’s Access Challenge. The able-bodied adventurers pushed and pulled their disabled teammates up and down the mountain, through the Black Tusk Meadows, down the Helm Creek Trail and finally across the Cheakamus River.

The disabled team members travelled in what is essentially a highly modified wheelbarrow called the TrailRider, designed and built specifically for the BCMOS.

Vancouver City Councillor Sam Sullivan, a quadriplegic, founded the BCMOS in 1985 because he wanted to make it possible for disabled people to experience nature while participating in recreational activities. Sullivan designed the TrailRider. He’s also developed an ultralight-flying program and a disabled sailing program.

"This (Access Challenge) was the hardest so far," Sullivan said while resting in the House Rock parking lot, shortly after completing the three-day hike.

"It was scary in some parts."

The final stage of this year’s Access Challenge got everyone’s adrenaline going, as able-bodied and disabled teammates were strapped in harnesses and pulled across the Cheakamus gorge one at a time on the high line. With kayakers playing in the rapids below the suspended hikers, there were whoops of joy, hearty congratulations and embraces after each adventurer made it safely across the river.

Sullivan, who had also participated in the four previous Access Challenges, said last week was the first time he had camped out at night without a tent.

"With the full moon and the stars so bright you could hardly sleep," he said.

Among the disabled participants was Mike Nemesvary, who was a freestyle skier prior to a trampoline accident that left him quadriplegic. Nemesvary did some of the ski stunts in one of the James Bond movies several years ago. Last year, with limited use of his shoulder and tricep muscles, he drove his SUV around the world to raise money and awareness for spinal cord research.

Michelle Amerie travelled with her family from Toronto to take part in the Access Challenge. Together they experienced the picturesque beauty of Garibaldi Lake and the cool forest trail beside Helm Creek.

Some volunteers, like Amerie’s father and brother, knew their disabled team member prior to the Access Challenge, others came from as far away as Washington D.C. to work with strangers. All of them experienced the beauty of the wilderness and a lasting bond that is built through a team effort to overcome physical challenges.

"I loved the volunteers we got this year," Sullivan said. "People get to know disabled people over three days."

The Access Challenge is not supposed to be a race – although a friendly rivalry among teams is inevitable – but a chance for all team members to get to know and understand one another and the environment a little better. Teams practice no-trace camping and are encouraged to study the flora, fauna and geology of the area they are hiking through.

Ultimately, however, the Access Challenge is about opportunities. As one disabled participant in an earlier Access Challenge said, her goal was just to be able to sit in a field of alpine flowers.

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