In the summer of 2013 I got my electric wheelchair. What would you do if you just got a brand new electric wheelchair? Well I left for the mountainbike trails in Austria, to see what it can do.
That was more of a coincidence though – a friend of mine stayed at my place for a night while he was on his way to go camping in Austria. Here’s the conversation that ensued during breakfast:
Friend: (sips coffee) “Why don’t you just come along?”
Michael: (sends bread crumbs flying) “If my wheelchair fits in your car, I’m in.”
Fifteen minutes later, through the kitchen window:
Friend: “It’s in!”
Michael: “Alright, let me get my toothbrush.”
And that’s how it was decided.
An hour later we were on the road, the car packed to the top with a disassembled wheelchair, a mountainbike and clothes. All the wrong ones, as I’d soon find out. (There’s a thing you can say about packing on a warm summer morning in Germany, when your destination is 1500 meters higher up in a mountain village where you see snow in August. That thing you say is: “Well, I brought five T-Shirts and one sweater, so why don’t I wear them all at once.”)
There wasn’t really a plan of where to stay, except that the initial idea of a camping site was out of question now. In order for my ride to fit in the car, the camping gear had to go. Something I was happy about – call me a shower and warm bed kinda guy.
As we climbed the winding mountain roads of Tyrol a few hours later, we got a sense of the landscape that awaited us. This was going to be fun. Our minds were set on the Paznaun area, with three towns in it: Galtür, the internationally acclaimed Ischgl, and Kappl. We arrived in Galtür that afternoon, and started looking for a place to stay. The strategy was this: park in front of one of the many hotels, my friend would then hop out of the car and check if the place was wheelchair accessible, while I stayed in the car and munched down the gummybears we’d brought for the long drive. After a while and two bags of gummybears later, we had found a quaint hotel at the edge of town, high up on a hill.
There was just one step in front the entrance, and that step was very low on one side. It was, however, blocked by a a huge and ugly potted plant. After a bit of redecorating (taking the plant off the step and putting it on the sidewalk) we had made the entrance accessible and had found our place for the next eight days. Never mind that the elevator was too narrow for my wheelchair to fit in. It could stay in the foyer, right next to an electric outlet for the charger. We had a nice apartment in the Pension Hochgaltür with two bathrooms, a kitchen and a balcony for less than 20€/night, including an amazing breakfast. That’s the off season in Austria for you.
What the off season also seemed to be was very enthusiastic about rain. The first mission of the next day therefore was to buy a raincoat that would fit over the wheelchair as well as me. I had no clue how watertight that wheelchair was, and did not want to end up sitting in a very expensive smoking, steaming and sparking chair that’d slowly electrocute me with 12V (non-spillable) batteries. So first stop: Sports Equipment Shop. And did I make a sporty entrance, if I say so myself. They had a couple of stairs in the front, but there was also a steep wooden ramp next to them. It had that self-made look to it. It was quite steep and the wood gave it not too much grip, so I figured I’d better go up there with a bit of momentum working in my favour. I backed up a few meters, aimed, and pushed the stick forward.
The glas doors slid apart just fast enough to see my fly into the shop on the rear wheels, and then come to a screeching stop with looked wheels between towering racks of skies and snowboards. In a moment like that, when I had probably made every insurance salesman’s eyes gleam, it is important to ignore the urge to pass out and to play it cool instead. “I need a rain coat, and I need it fast!” That should justify my ballistic entry.
I ended up buying the only model they had, at a whooping 50€. That thing was probably suited for deep water diving, space travel and could serve as a wing suit when one felt the need to glide down a cliff. But hey, I had to stay dry for the next few days and despite the high price tag, this would do the trick. Draped over the wheelchair, it made me look like a hovering silver UFO with a head screwed on top, but what can you do.
Just as we came out of the sports shop the clouds opened and a hot sun was shining down on us. The only thing missing here was a choir going “Ooouuuuaaaaah!” Great. The raincoat came off again, and went behind me on the seat.
Maiden Voyage on the MS Wheelchair
The first day saw us on a trip to a nearby mountain lake, the Zeinisbach. A close enough target to get used to this new extreme sport of wheelchair hiking (you read it first here!), and for my friend to get warmed up on his Mountainbike. We were going uphill on a hiking trail that was winding past meadows on a road that was at first paved nicely. With the warm sunshine of that morning this promised to become a very pleasant trip. However, I do have to admit at this point that going a maximum of 12km/h on a straight road does get boring at times, especially when all there is to look at are mountains, meadows, a river, cows, goats, foxes, wild flowers, a waterfall, cow droppings in the middle of the road, more cows (looking both guilty and relieved), and the occasional hiker.
It got more interesting as the paved roads turned into dirt tracks with gravel and boulders thrown in for the look of it. That’s when I stopped looking at the scenery, and started really paying attention to where I was driving. The uneven ground made the wheelchair shake enough to make me realise how my cellphone must feel when it’s ringing.
At the lake’s restaurant and supplied with a coffee that was still shaking furiously in my still vibrating hand, it was time to face the status quo (or better, the status wheelchair): “Dude, my battery display is down to a little more than half full. I think if I want to make it back to the hotel I better call it quits here.”
I had seen this coming in the hour that it took to make our way up here – the battery bars just kept dropping like cows during the school holidays. That was a real bummer. We had planned to be out all day during our vacation and wanted to cover a lot of ground. It seemed like this would not be possible, since i had to raise the white flag after only seven kilometres. Oh well, no need to be a fun kill though. I sent my friend on with his bike, and would hang around the restaurant, enjoy the lake and maybe one or three more coffees. He pedalled off, and we would meet here again later to drive back to the hotel together.
Which was exactly when it started to rain. “Aha!”, I think, “time to deploy my deliriously expensive space-suit/rain-coat/wing-suit! Maybe I can have some fun by driving around the restaurant’s parking lot and telling people that I come in peace.” I reach behind me… and it was gone. I must have lost it during one of the shakier patches on the way up here. How’s that for irony. Somewhere down the path, a cow is probably happily chewing on it by now. Then it began to rain even harder.
So, instead of scaring tourists by the busload, I waited under the cover of a balcony for my friend to return. I don’t know what was worse – driving home getting drenched by the cold rain, or knowing that I had spend 50€ to feed a cow. I made sure I frowned at all of them accusingly when driving past.
The high note of the day however, was to realise how good my wheelchair was at recuperating (recharging the batteries). Back at the hotel, although I was drenched, cold and miserable, the batteries were fuller than they were when we departed from the lake. That put a whole new spin on the possibilities. I shouldn’t think only in distance, but also in elevation, because going downhill not only meant that no battery power was used up, but that they were actually getting charged! How’s that for long distance travel.
Cloud Covers and escaping bars
The next morning someone complained about sore muscles (not yours truly, since mine had gotten a good vibration treatment the day before), so we took it easy and explored the town of Galtür – it has a population of less than 800, so you can guess how long that took. It also became freezing cold, and I was wearing half my wardrobe all at once. We collected some maps at the tourist office and then went to the hotel to plan the next day. After so much calm, we were itching to push ourselves to the limit the next day. And boy, did we.
The next day, we set out to a hut far beyond the lake we went to on the first day, high up on some mountain. This was going to push it for both of us, but that’s why we came to Austria. I just hoped that my estimates regarding the downhill charging where correct. The Heilbronner Hütte, a sort of mountain top restaurant, was 20km away – all up hill, and all of it rough terrain. I’ll leave it to the photos to describe the landscape. The peace and quiet on that trail was otherworldly. When I stopped my wheelchair and it’s constant humming of the electric motors, there was nothing to be heard but the ringing of dozens of cow bells in the distance and a little wind rustling the trees around me. The air was biting cold and smelled of wet grass and snow. And that in August. The mountains around me where white on their tips.
Every couple of kilometres there was a wire fence going across the street – probably to keep the cows from running away. But how that kept them from going around it eluded my logic. It was at those fences that I always met back up with my friend, who waited there to open them for me so I could drive through. Occasionally they were electric fences, and that was nothing I wanted to handle on my own. Going uphill I always put up a decent fight speed wise, and he had a hard time getting far ahead of me anyway. Besides, I soon became his pit crew and portable wardrobe, stowing away superfluous beanies, jackets and sweaters only to hand them back out again five minutes later after “it’s gotten a bit chilly, oh and can you hand me an energy bar too”.
At one point I must have scared one of the cows standing on the side of the trail, who then attempted to run away from me. Except that she wasn’t any faster than I was, and so we proceeded along the path next to each other for a while, cow bell jingling wildly, electric motors humming, until she bumped into another cow and decided she had run enough. I got a reproachful stare as I went by, and so I waved goodbye and drove on.
After two hours, just at the foot of the next big climb up a winding dirt road, we found an Hut. Calling it a restaurant would push it – a family with their house in the middle of no-where (but at the meeting point of two hiking trails) had put a table and a bench in their hallway, and sold buttermilk, cheese and meat that’s been made by the cows and goats we had just passed (not the meat of course – it must have come from somewhere higher up the cow/goat family tree). We turned in for a break to thaw. With such a small but precious menu, it’s a bit of a shame to order only a hot black coffee. But my main intention at that point was to stop shaking and get rid of the blue colours I was seeing on myself.
When we set out on the last part of the trail, going up a steep and muddy winding road, I was changing the batteries in the GoPro camera attached to the side of my chair. This got the attention of a farmer working the field nearby, and he came over to investigate my driving apparatus. “How much gas does this thing need?” It took some vigorous pointing at the battery packs in the back to convince him of its electric nature. “Are you trying to get up there?”, he pointed to the top of the path, covered in clouds. “Not a chance you know, that’s for four wheel drives.” I could see my friend making it through the first turn higher up already. “Thanks, but I’ll take my chances.” And off I went. I would soon find out that he was right with what he had said.
I was actually glad for the muddy dirt path. And while I had to circle around ditches that where filled with water and so deep I’d get stuck, it was nice to be rid of the gravel and boulders that had shook me from toe to earlobe in the past two hours. As I reached the cloud cover, the green landscape turned into a dull mix of dirty brown and foggy white. That wasn’t too bad, I couldn’t see that far ahead anyway. It was also damp, and even colder than before. The battery display had dropped bars at a constant rate on the way here. With the strained moaning that my wheels now uttered as I was circling around potholes on that steep climb, I began to think that I might not make it to the Heilbronner Hütte with what was left.
At the first plateau on the climb I met back up with my friend who needed to put on all the layers of clothes that I was carrying for him. It was also time to wave the white flag once more. Just with reaching that plateau, the battery display originally holding five bars had dropped down to the last one. I had never emptied the batteries that much before – and I was 13km away from the hotel, at 2100 meters. We had around 5 centigrade up here and it was beginning to rain. “Sorry man, I’m calling it quits. I don’t think I’ll make it home as it is.” This recharging thing better worked as I hoped it would. Otherwise I’d be stranded out here while my friend would make his way home, get the car, and somehow drive that little Ford Ka along the hiking trails to get to me and pick me up. That’d be fun for both of us.
Going downhill, the previously strained noise that came from the motors first turned to a high pitched humming and a second later switched to a tamer version of it as the brakes set in, curbed the speed and set out to charge batteries. We went back on the same way we came except that this time it rained, and I wasn’t challenged to race any more cows. Not all of the way was strictly downhill though. On the few short patches that climbed up or where level, my eyes didn’t leave the battery display. Not that that would help – but maybe the last bar would be ashamed of itself to leave while I was watching. Better go when no-one’s looking. But so far it was all going according to plan – until we were half way home.
Seven kilometres still to go, my wheelchair started beeping wildly. The battery display was blinking an empty battery shape. It was still driving, so that was a surprise. But I had no clue how far I would still get on a blinking, beeping alarm. I asked my pedalling friend to not drive ahead and stay close, sure that I’d stop pretty much any second now. I also explained that I would not slow down or stop for any reason short of a busy main road, in the fear that accelerating all those 160kg up again would cost too much energy. And so the race to the hotel began (if you can call 12km/h racing). Even cruel hilarity ensued.
At one point my friend was waiting a few meters ahead, and just as I was driving passed he misstepped, slowly fell of his bike and began to roll down the side of the road. No time to stop, I had to cut my losses: “Hey man, are you alright?” I yelled after him as I passed. “Yes I’m fine, keep driving”, it came from the bushes. A minute later he had caught back up with me laughing and dirty.
We made it into the town after all, and while I was still beeping and blinking wildly, I considered this save. No problem to pick me up with the car here. The final stretch to the hotel was a very steep road of half a kilometre. I had no doubt in my mind that my batteries would die from under me on the way up. I stayed at the very side of the road so the dead wheelchair wouldn’t be an obstacle for the cars passing when it’s time came. But it didn’t. As we reached the door of the hotel, we were both cheering wildly (a third one peeping) and slapping the wheelchair on the back of the seat. What an ordeal.
Of Ironbike Marathons, races and good food
Over the shorter and less eventful trips of the next few days my mind kept coming back to a trail that I had seen on one of the many maps and brochures that we had gathered. There was a 90km long mountain bike trail going through our valley that was used for the “Ironbike Marathon”. A part of it wasn’t too far away from us, and the brochures described it as tame enough (read: no jumps, carry-your-bike stretches or river-crossings) so that I decided I should be able to manage it. The day before the last we headed out to give it a go.
It started with a winding track through dense forrest, culminating in a magnificent view high over the valley stretching out in front of us. It was also a rare day of sunshine, and a very good time to be out and about. After ten kilometres we got to a fork in the road, with the ironbike trail going uphill, and a signpost promising an Alm restaurant a few kilometres further along the other path. We decided to enjoy a proper lunch and headed towards the Lareinalm.
It turned out to be a big farm with goats running around, a playground for kids, and the restaurant terrace up a steep hill covered with loose gravel. Not a chance with the wheelchair, I’d slip and slide on those stones and just dig my wheels in. We stayed down at the road, and someone soon came to the rescue. A little girl of maybe nine years, wearing a waitresses’s apron came bounding down the steep slope and after curiously inspecting us for a bit, asked if we wanted to order anything. She’d just carry it down for us, if we couldn’t make it up. So, we ordered buttermilk and a mixed platter of cheese, meat and bread. As we ate under the investigative eyes of our little waitress – who was given leave by her parents to abandon the other guests and instead pummel us with questions – she was joined by her brother who was just a little older than her. They were telling us how they came to this second home of their family every summer, and stayed here during the long holidays taking care of cows and helping with the restaurant. Our question which of the food that we ate they had made themselves, we were met with uncomprehending looks: “Uhm, all of it? Except the green pepper – that came out of a glass.”
Further discussions ensued, and soon I was obliging them in showing how my wheelchair worked and what all the buttons where for. I on the other hand received in depth explanations about their own bicycles and carts. It soon became clear that we had to settle this in a race. We took positions at the entrance to the farm, and to the count of my friend raced up the length of the premise, turned around, raced back and crossed the finish. This led to re-match after re-match, and I lost all of them. After a good half a dozen races I gave up and praised their hand-me down bicycles that were clearly superiour. Only then did we realise that the entire restaurant had left their tables and was leaning on the balcony, watching. Before we could leave (supplied with ample information by our two guides about the path ahead and which cows where theirs), we were brought two glasses of self-made schnaps, courtesy of two parents that could rest assured that their kids would sleep like babies that night.
As we left my friend noted “You know, these two kids will never be shy around people using wheelchairs for the rest of their life.” I agreed. This might also be the right time to apologise to any wheelchair users that meet those children later in life and their persistence to challenge them to a race.
We continued to make our way along a rough road alongside a river. The warm weather (and gloriously full belly) was a pleasant change to our previous trips. Again I must leave it to the pictures to describe the landscape, although even they pale in capturing it adequately.As we got home that day, we had almost reached the end of our vacation. One more day and we would be heading back home.
On the last day we headed out to a dam. Quite tricky to get there in a wheelchair. It’s not a problem to get past the barriers if you are on foot – they are just there to keep anything off the dam that’s not a pedestrian. Somehow that included me. Navigating around them in a wheelchair was quite a feat, but nothing compared to the narrow trail we were on later – on the photo it’s still pretty wide. Later it became so narrow that I wouldn’t even have been able to turn around anymore.
At the end of the vacation we had covered over 140km (88 miles). I’m glad I came along in that spur of the moment decision. It’s been a great time. And my wheelchair had passed it’s maiden voyage with flying colours.
Here are all the video diaries: