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Paralympians make their first wheelchair ascent of Mount Washington Auto Road

Union Leader Correspondent

August 03. 2014 9:18PM
With the stunning scenery of Mount Washington as a backdrop, Franconia native Tyler Walker, closely followed by Laurie Stephens of Wenham, Mass., travel up the Mount Washington Auto Road on Sunday morning on their way to completing two of the first unassisted wheelchair ascents of the Northeast's tallest peak. (John Koziol/Union Leader Correspondent)

GREEN’S GRANT — On Sunday morning, two paralympian skiers, including Franconia's Tyler Walker, made unassisted wheelchair ascents of the Northeast's highest mountain, joining a select few who have made such a trek up the Mount Washington Auto Road.

Starting a little after 3:30 a.m., Walker — a graduate of Profile High School and the University of New Hampshire who earlier this year became the first American man to win the International Paralympic Committee’s Overall Alpine World Cup Championship in sit skiing — began heading up the 7.4-mile Auto Road.

Walker was joined by Laurie Stephens of Wenham, Mass., a multiple IPC world sit-ski champion as well as the winner of six Paralympics medals: two golds, two silvers and two bronzes, winning the most recent pair in March at the Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.

Despite several stops along the way, Walker crossed the finish of the Auto Road just below the summit of the 6,288-foot tall Mount Washington with a time of 6 hours, 45 minutes, and 57 seconds. Stephens followed exactly one minute later.

“It feels great to be done with it,” said Walker, adding that while the conditions for the ascent were perfect — not too warm, not too cold and with no rain — the effort was a seriously taxing one. Born with lumbar sacral agenesis, a condition that left him without a spine below the first vertebra, Walker observed that the Auto Road is one, continual challenge.

As to a flat spot anywhere on the Auto Road, “It doesn’t exist,” joked Walker, “It’s just up all the way.”

Stephens, whose ascent coincided with her first visit to the Auto Road, said it was “pretty cool.” Asked whether she’ll come back for the 2015 Sunrise Ascent, Stephens said if Walker does, “I’ll probably do it, too.”

The two were colleagues on the New England Disabled Ski Team at Loon Mountain, where their coach was Bethlehem’s Chris Devlin-Young. Stephens, who has spina bifida, recalled being asked by Devlin-Young’s wife Donna — a director of Franconia-based Adaptive Sports Partners of the North Country — whether she’d consider participating in an ASPNC fundraiser: the annual Sunrise Ascent of the Auto Road.

Stephens said she’d do the event, if Walker did. While Walker agreed to be in the inaugural “Elite Athlete” endurance challenge, he changed the mode of travel from hand-powered bicycles to wheelchairs.

Stephens said the Auto Road had her scratching her head several times on Sunday, including on the final, quarter-mile push to the summit where she and Walker stopped, looked at the steep incline, and she thought to herself, “Wow ... really?”

The pause was a brief one; Walker broke for the top with Stephens in pursuit.

Devlin-Young, who was disabled in a plane crash while serving in the U.S. Coast Guard, has gone on to be one of the winning-est sit-skiers in the sport.

Like Walker, he is nursing some injuries he brought back from Sochi. He said Sunday he was “monumentally proud” of both Stephens and Walker.

He also admitted to being jealous; “I wish I could have done this,” said Devlin-Young. He called the Sunrise Ascent “the ultimate endurance event for people with disabilities because this is all uphill. There’s no relaxing here.”

The inspiration

Devlin-Young — a co-grand marshal of the Sunrise Ascent with Stephanie Jallen, who at Sochi won bronze medals in the Super G and Super Combined events — said he was also proud of ASPNC which “makes no distinction and doesn’t draw the line with athletes. If you’re willing to try, they’re willing to try it with you.”

ASPNC, Devlin-Young noted, even works with athletes who are on respirators, including Martin Willem of Epping, who was the inspiration for the Sunrise Ascent.

A husband, father and a former landscaper, Willem contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), about a decade ago, said Sandy Olney of Easton, who is the ASPNC’s executive director, and who has known him for eight years.

Willem is now on life support and the disease has robbed him of many things, but he still responds enthusiastically to the call of the wild, said Olney.

“He can blink his eyes and grind his teeth, but inside he’s all there and he’s an avid outdoorsman and he’s a thrill-seeker,” Olney said, adding “that for him the opportunity to get outside is few and far in between.” In the past, Willem has gone hiking, snowshoeing and alpine skiing with the ASPNC.

The “least abled” of the six athletes with disabilities who were assisted by teams during Sunday’s ascent – the other athletes were Bella Hibberd of Bethlehem, Chester Eastwood from Conway, Concord’s Abby Duffy, Jeff Cleveland from Lyndonville, Vt., and Marsha Gray from St. Johnsbury — Willem and persons like him are the raison d’être for the ASPNC, Olney said.

“One of the core concepts of our organizations is that people of any ability should be able to participate in as many recreational opportunities as possible. Five years ago, Martin had this dream to summit Mount Washington again and this is how it (the Sunrise Ascent) came to be.”

$67,000 raised

The Mount Washington Auto Road and Howie Wemyss, its general manager, “jumped on board” immediately, Olney said. In its first year, “There were just 18 of us who went up to the summit with Martin and each year it’s grown and with the addition of the endurance challenge for elite athletes, it brings a whole new dimension to the event.”

Sunday’s ascent, which raised $67,000 for ASPNC programs, represented a successful mix of people united for a common goal, Olney pointed out, “because you have people with disabilities with the most ability (Walker and Stephens) and people with disabilities with the least ability all working together to conquer a mountain.” Fittingly, the latter group went up the Auto Road and summited first.

Olney thanked the Bank of New Hampshire for sponsoring the 2014 Sunrise Ascent and the Mount Washington Auto Road “who have always supported us and made it so easy for us to grow this event.”

The ASPNC is already looking forward to 2015. Olney said she expects the endurance challenge to attract more entrants, now that Stephens and Tyler have shown how it’s done.

“Tyler and Laurie set the bar,” said Olney, “So now there’s a time to beat.”

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