Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Trekking on a Quickie

(pics to come. My USB cable is stuck in the bag with my broken laptop!)

One of the main reasons people come to the Himalayas is to go on long walks through the biggest things on earth. This is my third trip to these behemoth creatures and unfortunately I’ve only been able to go on a few day hikes in Nepal back in 1991. Ever since landing in Dharamsala on this trip, I’ve been sequestered by injury, weather and chair breakdowns so the hilltops I see from my balcony have gone completely unexplored.

Ten years ago when I was here in a much better wheelchair, I managed to climb high above McLeod Ganj on the TIPA Road, a winding neighborhood path, to see a view most travelers take for granted. One of the coolest things about living in Dharamsala is taking in lunch on one of the rooftop cafes. The tourists gaze out on the city, the mountains and the plains miles off in the distance. But seeing as those cafes are three or four stories up with no elevators I’ve never been to one.

Knowing this splendor was just outside my grasp has been eating away at me for five months. On Wednesday I decided to throw caution aside and push my three-wheeled, frame-cracked wheelchair to the citadel hamlet of Dharamkot, three kilometers up a steep, crumbling road from McLeod Ganj. It’s not trekking in the Annapurnas, but in a wheelchair, it’s the next best thing.

The road to Dharmkot starts harmlessly enough rising slowly from the main square in McLeod. After a few hundred meters I was rising above three story buildings and actually looking down at some of the nicer cafes. Whereas most of the crumbling roads around Dharamsala were recently paved, this road remains a semi-paved obstacle course of potholes and chunks of concrete. When I made this assault in 2000, the road was nothing more than a wide path but it was somewhat smooth. For most of the climb I could grab both my wheels and push as hard as I could. It has since been paved, but during the monsoon season this road morphs into a raging wadi. Sometimes it’s dry, other times it’s a flowing creek. This of course has all but destroyed the surface.

Besides the road, my chair is in a sad state of disrepair. I bought this chair in 2004 and it’s been problematic from the beginning. The geniuses at Quickie thought it would be a great idea to put motorcycle shocks in their sport chairs. They thought it would cushion the blow when hopping off curbs. I personally never felt any pain when jumping curbs and when I first tried riding on the shock it felt like I was swimming, not rolling. I also had a justified fear that the extra parts would lead to extra parts breaking. Last year the aluminum bar that holds the shock snapped leaving me sitting six inches above the ground. I had to constantly lean forward or I would tip back. I found an aluminum welder in Eugene, Oregon who pulled the chair apart, fused the broken parts and sent me on my way. That weld lasted a month. When it snapped again, I found another welder, this time in Corvallis who fused a support bar along side the broken seam. That weld lasted two months. The next time it broke, I was in Kayseri Turkey.

This time, when it broke it stayed semi-attached so I didn’t need immediate surgery. I was on my way to France where Jackie Couty, my French substitute father lives. Jackie is a witch with any kind of building materials and he solidified the crack with a strong steel brace. That was in July and that is how the chair sits today. I’m a low rider, but it still functions albeit much less efficiently. Sitting up high and pushing is much easier than sitting down low and pushing. Had this been the only problem with my chair I would have tackled the TIPA road months ago. But as luck would have it, three months ago I cracked the support to my right front caster wheel (the small grocery-cart wheels in the front of wheelchairs). I had the support welded and that weld lasted all of two weeks. The second break was a month ago and I’ve just given up and gone on three wheels. I have to put a brace under my footpad when I transfer into bed or on the toilet, but in regular riding I don’t notice it’s gone.

Unless, of course, I try to do some climbing on a crumbling road. Then it becomes a major pain in the ass. Instead of leaning forward and pushing for all I’m worth, I have to do wheelies over the uneven sections. Leaning back and pushing forward is NOT the way you want to attack a big climb. But the houses of Dharamkot had been taunting me for months. Even if I did crack my third wheel, forcing me to ride in a wheelie until I get back to the States, I was going to attack that hill.

A half a mile into my trip, the road lifted above the buildings and curved around the hill that is the back drop of McLeod Ganj. Outside of the neighborhoods where there is less traffic the TIPA Road is much more consistent. It is also much steeper. But here, I could lean forward and push hard on both wheels. I was making good progress until I came upon a washed out, really steep section. I started attacking it with mini switchbacks, but it was one step forward for two steps back. I had to wait for help, but it came almost immediately. Two Tibetan hikers were on their way to the local peak at Triund and pushed me up the ugly section. Although everyone who walks next to me in Dharamsala offers to help me (even when I’m passing them up!), this was the only assistance I took on the day.

Once back on relatively smooth road I continued chugging up the ever-rising incline until I came upon the TIPA campus. TIPA or, Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, is a school started by the Dalai Lama to preserve Tibetan music, art and dance. Children enter TIPA between the ages of 12 and15 and are rigorously schooled in every aspect of Tibetan culture. The Secretary of the TIPA is a friend of mine Tenzin Lhoksam. I stopped in for a chat with Lhoksam (goes by his last name) and he told me I was crazy for trying to get to Dharamkot on three wheels. Of course, by this time I was a sweaty, filthy mess (it was an 80 degree day) and I told him it couldn’t get any uglier.

Lhoksam sent me on my way and of course it got much uglier. The road past TIPA became so steep that I couldn’t go straight up. My chair was leaning back so far that I simply could not push forward without tipping over. I had to resort to tight switch backs in the middle of the road. This went on for about a hundred yards until the grade lessened enough where I could push forward. Unfortunately at this point the pavement returned to the crumbling mess it was on the lower sections. I was pushing as hard as I could, but there was absolutely no glide whatsoever. If I let go of the wheel, I would slide back ward. I was making it up this hill one stroke at a time. The hardest day I’ve ever had on a bike was a 78 mile romp into gale-force winds on a dead-flat highway in Mississippi. On that ride I was going stroke for stroke, much like this ride and averaging 8 mph. Eventually this ride would take three hours which meant I was going 2 mph – including rest stops.

I kept up this horrid non-pace for an eternity until I could finally see the first structures in the hamlet. The road was heavily wooded and I didn’t like gazing over the edge, because at most sections there was a 300 foot drop off. Between the trees, however, I could see my neighborhood in Bhagsu quietly going about its business. The buildings that mocked me for months were now just a few hundred yards ahead.

But of course, thinking your there and being there are two different things. Just a stone’s throw from the top, the road crumbled completely and even got sandy in spots. I could see the chai stand full of hikers who had passed me up along the way, but I was at a virtual standstill. My only resort was to put one wheel in the ditch alongside me where there was some traction and grunt the final few meters to the finish.

When I finally burst over the summit, I was greeted by two Belgians who were slugging down a victorious cup of chai. I pounded a liter of water then looked down at Bhagsu which was now open before me. The road continued in a rolly-polly fashion for another kilometer along a ridge so I continued until I saw a steep sandy downhill section that I knew I could never conquer.

But my conquest was complete. I was sitting amongst the neatly manicured lawns that I’d been spying from my balcony for more than four months. My chair survived the ordeal and so did I.

For a while at least. On the way back to the chai stand my right hand popped open and a dime-sized blister forced me to put on my gloves. I knew I was going to have to put on gloves for the ride down, but I really didn’t want them on for the climb. The gloves are made of hard leather and it makes holding on to the wheel and rim very slippery. I never would have made it past TIPA had I been wearing them. I was just hoping to get to the top before I ripped some flesh. I should have covered up at the chai stand, but I was too psyched to be done with the climb.

After a few snapshots, I pulled on the gloves and prepared for the descent. As hard as the climb had been, the descent was that much more dangerous. On a bike you can just drop your head and try to hold the line. But with a wheelchair I’ve got no brakes except my ripped up hands and the soft side of my forearm.

I propped into a wheelie so as not to let my lone front wheel dig into a rut and snap off. I held this wheelie for hundreds of yards at a time, only setting it down to give my hands a rest. My hands and wrists were already heavily abused by the time I started the drop so I had to hold on to the rim loosely and let the wheel slide through my fingers. Any time I picked up too much speed I had to squeeze down without burning through the leather. On the super-steep section outside of TIPA, I had to clamp down hard and let the wheel roll a meter at a time. Speed on two wheels front to back is good. Speed on two wheels side by side is a recipe for disaster. One slight turn with speed and I’m 300 ft down the side of a cliff.

The other problem I encountered was that this was an open road with plenty of traffic. Dharamkot is a popular picnic spot so those not wanting the reward of making it on their own simply hop a three-wheeled cab and bust on up without sweating. Every time one of these cabs passed me I had to slow down or even stop. Just a slight nudge from one of them would also send me over the edge. And they surely were not stopping for me.

Finally after two and a half hours of back-crunching climbing and 25 minutes of a harrowing descent, I made it back to McLeod. I felt like I was finished, but I still had to climb the Bhagsu Road hill and do one more drop before I hit the shower. I bust that hill at least ten times a week, but it was never as hard as it was after tackling the TIPA Road.

When I got back to the Akash Deep Hotel, I ordered up some fried rice and woke up two hours later with a plate of cold dinner sitting outside my door.


  1. BC here... while the drop offs/conditions etc. sounded nasty/hard... this is Captain Crip at his very best... the guy I bicycled to the coast with a few years back! And now I know you're starting to get ready for a few bike rides back in Portland this summer! Peace Bro!

  2. You'll be ready to coast into Toehold with a smile on your face and no gravel in your knees this summer.