Hope on the Horizon has granted me two journeys. The obvious journey is, of course, through the White Mountains to achieve the 48 highest summits in a single trip. It was the starting point of the entire project, and the journey that has been anticipated all along.
But the second, unexpected, journey was the furthest thing from what I had ever envisioned when Hope on the Horizon first began surfacing in my imagination. It has at times been a difficult journey to witness, though has proven to be amongst the most inspiring I have ever taken. That journey has been one through the world of ALS, and despite its tragic nature, I have had the privilege of meeting some of the strongest people I have ever seen.
While signing up to promote the project at an event in New Hampshire, I heard about a local man who was formerly an avid outdoorsman before coming down with the disease. He was described as “completely horizontal,” and had been living with ALS for many years.
Yet despite his condition, his friends and family brought him up mountains, even skiing. I was not even sure what “completely horizontal” meant, nor could I imagine how they took him skiing, but without hesitation I asked to have our information passed along to them.
Within a few days I received a phone call from his wife, Cara. Both kindly and immediately engaging, Cara was excited to speak to us about Hope on the Horizon and our efforts to better the world for those facing ALS. I listened as she told me about her husband; Martin.
Martin Wallem was an athlete whose passion for the outdoors was unparalleled. A hunter, backpacker, climber, mountaineer, and skier, Martin loved anything that kept him outside, including his business as a landscaper.
Yet at the age of 31, less than a year into their marriage, ALS came into Martin’s life and steadily began to rob him of his ability to indulge in his passions any longer. First he could no longer climb or backpack; then no longer run his landscaping business. Eventually he could no longer even speak or breathe on his own, and was forced to exist entirely on life support. Yet in the face of all this loss, Martin held fast to the one thing the disease could not rob him of: his determined, adventurous spirit.
I first met the Wallems when they visited our booth at the event later that April. I saw Martin instantly; even in his chair it was easy to see that he was large and had once been very athletic. Cara had been every bit as I had imagined her; possessed of both an charming persona and a quiet, long tested reserve all at once. Little Martin, their son, sat quietly against the foot rests of his father’s chair.
At first the sight was a lot to behold, accented by the steady wheeze of the respirator that allowed Martin to breathe. When he needed to speak, Cara or Susan, Martin’s nurse would hold up a Plexiglas board with the alphabet on it. Martin would look at the letters, and they would trace them with their hand as he spelled out his sentences.
Yet in spite of all this hardship, the Wallems radiated an overwhelming sense of strength and positivity that instantly drew anyone around them in. They did not carry the burden of their suffering, but rather embodied their own strength of will to fight ALS instead.
It did not take much time with Martin to see the life in his eyes; the only part of his body that he could still control. It was a sharp and sudden realization that behind those eyes was every bit of the outdoorsman and the athlete that had been there when his body still served him. And he had no plans of giving up.
Their presence and inspiration was incredible, and hung in the air long after they had left. Before they had gone, they invited me up to New Hampshire in August to help pull Martin to the summit of Mt. Washington. I accepted, still trying to imagine what such a thing would entail.
The next thing I knew it was August, and I was pulling into the parking lot at the base of the Mt. Washington auto road. After greeting Cara, Martin, and the rest of Team Martin, we signed in by the light of our headlamps and then set about preparing ourselves for the eight mile pull up to the summit of the Northeast’s tallest peak.
Martin’s chair was a hybrid of sorts, as though one had rolled a hand truck, wheel barrow, and wheel chair all into one. Made from thick, green metal piping, the chair consisted of two large rounded handles at the rear that tapered into an angled frame down to another set of rounded handles at the bottom. Martin sat towards the rear, his weight centered over a single large wheel barrow tire.
All of his life support devices were contained in the chair with him, and he sat wrapped in blankets as he eagerly awaited the climb ahead.
I was admittedly tired. The seven and a half hour drive up to the Whites followed by barely three hours of sleep had left me in little mood to do anything, let alone climb a mountain. Time spent around Martin, however, had a way of making such things seem petty.
I watched as Cara held up his Plexiglas letter board, following his eyes over the letters as he slowly constructed his sentences. She was checking to make sure that he was comfortable and ready before we started.
I tried to imagine for a moment what it would be like to be in his shoes, but I could not. I could up and climb a mountain any day of the year, anytime I wanted. It was once the same for Martin, but was no longer. Now, because of ALS, he had to wait each year for this day to climb again, to taste his love for the outdoors once again. It was a tough reality to swallow.
Yet, as they had back in April, the Wallems exuded their usual bright and positive energy. I brushed my tiredness aside as I grabbed one of the handles on the side of Martin’s chair. If they could deal with that every day, then I could certainly deal with some lack of sleep.
Team Martin was comprised of friends and family members who had all gathered today to share in the duties of getting Martin to the summit. Slowly we made our way up the steadily increasing gradient of the auto road. To our right, the sun slowly crept higher, illuminating the ranges of the White Mountains in an orange, misty haze.
Every so often, team members would take turns, switching sides and handles to allow everyone a chance to rest between pulls. The lead puller, strapped into a harness and tow straps that stretched about ten feet in front of the chair, would switch out at each mile marker.
But most importantly, at each vista or break in the trees we would stop and turn Martin so that he could take in the stunning view of the mountains he loved so much. Slowly we made our way in this manner; occasionally leapfrogging with one of the other three adaptive sports teams that were also climbing that day.
Gradually the trees gave way to the rocky, upper slopes of Mt. Washington. The stunning peaks of the Presidential Range loomed to our right as we continued on. I took my turn in the harness as lead puller around the four mile mark. By now the road had become steep enough to require nearly everyone on Martin’s chair to continue moving his weight up.
Slowly but surely the miles piled up. The harness was heavy, and I tired, but I had fallen into a rhythm with the pulling. I volunteered to remain in the harness until we reached the summit, driven by the thought of Martin and a continuous influx of energy chews. Before long the Mt. Washington observatory was in view.
With a final push Team Martin at last reached the windy, cloudy summit. True to its reputation for the world’s worst weather, the clouds and wind rolled in, blocking much of the summit view. Yet today that did not matter. Together everyone helped lift Martin off the ground to carry him up the last pile of rocks to the sign marking Mt. Washington’s true summit.
Though Martin could not speak, it was easy to see in his lively eyes that he was ecstatic. Cara reiterated his joy, thanking everyone repeatedly for their help, as little Martin leaned against his father’s chair. Handshakes and hugs abounded as Team Martin prepared to go their separate ways from the summit. I smiled and said my and goodbyes, but for the most part stood silently and observed.
I had never done nor witnessed such a thing before. For all the determination and grit of the backcountry athletes that I counted myself amongst, little compared to the Wallems, or what their determination had allowed them to accomplish today.
In spite of all that ALS had done to their lives, it had done absolutely nothing to keep them from each other, or from living out their lives together. For all the wild moments that Hope on the Horizon’s journey had taken me through, this one had been all its own. Today, I had been able to help a fellow outdoorsman find the mountains again.