The Galehead Trek: Trailblazing to New Peaks

By Matthew J. Belson

A "sherpa" helps Geoff Krill cross a bridge on the Galehead trail. Nestled deep within New Hampshire's White Mountains at an elevation of 3,800 feet sits the Appalachian Mountain Club's (AMC) newly rebuilt outpost of warmth and comfort, the Galehead hut. A way station for both day hikers and hardier souls traversing the 2,000-mile-long Appalachian Trail that begins in Georgia and ends in Maine, the wood-shingled hut has been a welcome refuge for weary climbers for decades.

When the AMC began rebuilding the Galehead hut in 1999, few, if any, expected to hear the rumble of discord over some of the proposed changes that would echo deep within the organization's membership and eventually surface on the op-ed page of regional newspapers. As required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (the AMC leases the land from the U.S. Forest Service), the 38-bed lodge had to be made accessible to people with disabilities.

"Why build a wheelchair ramp on a hut in the mountains?" asked critics of the proposed changes. "People with disabilities would never use the hut -- they could never reach it."

Weathering the harsh words, the AMC went ahead with the changes and the new, improved and accessible Galehead hut opened for business this summer. All that remained was for a hardy band of hikers with disabilities to prove the naysayers wrong and get there.

On the morning of Aug. 15, three hikers in wheelchairs, two on crutches, and their support crew gathered at the trailhead to take up the Herculean challenge that would last three days -- and get front-page coverage in The New York Times. The team had one day to climb to the hut, one day to relax and enjoy the view that critics would deny them, and one day to get back down.

spearheaded by Northeast Passage, a University of New Hampshire-based outdoor recreation program for people with disabilities, and its energetic director, Jill Gravink, the Galehead trek required almost a year of planning.

"It really just started out as a hike," said Gravink at outset of the trek. "Then we started to hear about the controversy and about how it [making the lodge accessible to people with disabilities] was a waste of money and no one in a wheelchair would ever get there. It became something like, 'Okay, now we have to go.' "

But the Galehead trek was more than a groundbreaking effort to reach the hut in order to validate its accessibility features, which include a ramp and grab bars in larger toilet stalls. It was also a statement for the rights of people with disabilities to have access to the outdoors.

Unfortunately, the belief that wheelchairs can degrade the woods or that trails will have to be paved is perpetuated within the hiking community and even so-called wilderness advocacy groups. During the trek, the team was subjected to an able-bodied hiker's tirade against their presence on the trail.

The 4.6 miles from the parking lot to the hut are, for the most part, steep and rugged, with several bridge crossings. In some cases, an extra six inches in width or an additional log would make it easier for a wheelchair to get across. To negotiate these obstacles, Gravink and her team developed a "bag of tricks" they put to good use during the climb.

Nicole Haley The three wheelchair users -- Nicole Haley, 23, from Hillsboro, N.H.; Geoff Krill, 29, from Lincoln, N.H.; and Craig Gray, 45, from Hartland, Maine; all of them paraplegics -- were outfitted with super-rugged wheelchairs manufactured by Terra Trek in Ontario, Canada. With beefy tires, extra-large front casters and a rear grab bar, the Terra Treks are designed with higher clearance to wheel over larger obstacles and extra durability to withstand a good pounding.

Divided into teams, each hiker -- the other two being Soulemane Marzouk, 25, originally from Mali and now from Wilder, Vt., who has limited use of his legs as a result of polio, and Susan Murray, 35, from Cape Neddick, Maine, a single above-knee amputee -- was paired with a group of highly motivated volunteers to help on the steeper and rockier terrain.

With packs heavily laden with three days of supplies and a potpourri of assorted ropes, wooden planks, spare wheels, nylon slings, padded seat harnesses, and an abundance of gumption and imagination, the team headed up to the hut. The packs also contained combination portable tents and sleeping bags called "cocoons," to be used should the team need to bivouac on the trail. Volunteers dubbed "sherpas," including a roving medical team, were tasked with hauling most of the gear and lending a hand wherever needed.

When asked why she was participating in the climb, Haley replied in true mountaineering spirit, "Because it's there and because we can -- the same reasons that everyone else goes hiking."

To the trek's detractors it might appear that Haley, Gray and Krill were "carried up the mountain." Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Galehead trek was not about individuals, but about teamwork and discovery. No one believed this to be a solitary endeavor. While a trio or more of people would help Haley, Gray and Krill over some of the more difficult sections, they were still very much in control, deciding which was the best path to take through a rocky section.

"Craig really was really directing us, telling us what he thought was going to work," explained teammate Thomas Carr, 25, from Durham, N.H. "If we had to stop at a section and play through a couple of different scenarios, we did that. Just the communication kept us going and making sure that everyone was a big part of the team."

One of the innovative adaptations developed for the climb was the addition of two metal "rickshaw poles" to the front of the chairs that enabled two people to lift the front casters over a rock or boulder while a third pushed from behind.

"I am just obsessed with mountains. They are pretty much everything to me," said Krill, an avid downhill skier and mountain biker, before heading up the trail. "Just looking at them, living in them, and all of the things you can do in them --it's a playground, like your own country club."

Simple wooden planks proved useful in crossing broken-up sections of the trail, but a rope pulley system failed to live up to expectations. Sometimes pure grit and muscle from the entire team were still needed to power through some of the trail's steeper sections like Jacob's Ladder, a challenging bit of trail with large boulders and slick facing rocks two-thirds of the way up.

At one point, Gray abandoned his chair, literally hopped onto the trail and climbed the mountain backwards -- using his arms, shoulders and hands to push up each stone step, while a teammate held his legs in a fabric sling.

New Galehead Hut Twelve hours later -- some eight and a half hours more than it takes most able-bodied climbers -- Krill and his crew arrived at the Galehead hut in the glow of the setting sun, followed by Murray, Gray, Haley and Marzouk. Cruising up the ramp, the group headed inside for Philly cheese steaks and champagne. After a day of resting sore muscles and repairing equipment, the group would head back down with the same grit and grace they exhibited on the ascent.

Looking back on his bone-jarring ascent to the Galehead hut on crutches, Marzouk said: "It was tiring and it wasn't easy. But I guess we figured it wasn't going to be -- so that's why we did it."

September 2000, Copyright © 2000 WeMedia Inc.

Reprinted with permission