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Using technology to open up wilderness trails to people with disabilities

Before heading out on the trail, Carol Woody and volunteer Erwin Berry make sure Gage Tatar is safely buckled into the Cimgo. Grinning wide, Tatar listens as Woody explains what he can expect on the dirt track.
Emily Chen-Newton
Before heading out on the trail, Carol Woody and volunteer Erwin Berry make sure Gage Tatar is safely buckled into the Cimgo. Grinning wide, Tatar listens as Woody explains what he can expect on the dirt track.

SNOWSHOE MOUNTAIN, W.Va. — Outdoor recreation played a larger role in the lives of many Americans since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, including those with disabilities.

The influx has highlighted the efforts of groups across the country working to ensure all hikers and bikers have access to outdoor spaces regardless of their disabilities.

A small adaptive sports non-profit in West Virginia has added a rugged downhill wheelchair to its fleet of mountain bikes, so even those with severe mobility limitations can experience the speed and thrill of a trail ride.

While Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia is known for its ski slopes, during mountain biking season, the powder-white runs turn to dirt tracks. And no matter the season, Carol Woody is the woman behind the adaptive programming as the director of Challenged Athletes of West Virginia (CAWV), a nonprofit partner of the resort.

Athletes with amputations, those who are paralyzed, or have learning disabilities can all find ski options at Snowshoe, and that's Woody's goal for the adaptive bike program as well.

So, even though CAWV already had a fleet of handcycle mountain bikes, that wasn't good enough for Woody. Handcycles require considerable skill and strength, "So what about the rest of the people that wouldn't have the ability to ride a handcycle?" asks Woody. "They want to go out and get that, that thrill of speeding down some super technical, rocky, rooty trails. It's just the excitement of it, it's the thrill of it." Enter, the Cimgo, an all-terrain downhill wheelchair produced by the French company, Tessier.

On one of the first crisp mornings in September, Woody instructs a team of volunteers on the mountain as they load the four-wheeled all-terrain chair onto a lift. The resort's ski-lifts are used as bike-lifts, bringing both able-bodied cyclists and adaptive athletes back to the summit after they tear down the trails.

Working with the efficiency of a pit crew, the volunteer team hoists the rugged cart-like chair onto the lift. As it starts moving, Tricia Tatar calls out, "Have fun kiddo" and waves to her son, Gage, who's on board today.

Carol Woody leans forward with her hands on her knees as she asks Gage Tatar if he's ready to ride again in the Cimgo. Gage Tatar smiles from underneath his mountain biking helmet while a volunteer, Erwin Berry stands by ready to help.
/ Emily Chen-Newton
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Emily Chen-Newton
Carol Woody leans forward with her hands on her knees as she asks Gage Tatar if he's ready to ride again in the Cimgo. Gage Tatar smiles from underneath his mountain biking helmet while a volunteer, Erwin Berry stands by ready to help.

I get to be his mom and not his helper

Tatar is the main caretaker for her son, who is nonverbal, and she says when he gets to do things like adaptive skiing and mountain biking, it brings each of them an important sense of freedom. "Because I get to be his mom and not his helper. And my son gets to be able to trust somebody else, to like believe in other humans because I'm not always going to be here for him," she says.

Tatar gestures with her hands as bikes whiz down the trail around her. She explains the sensory exposure her son gets is unlike anything he experiences in his daily life. She says Gage especially loves going fast down the dirt trails and she believes that feeling the wind on his face, splashing through puddles, watching trees zoom by, "just wakes the brain up."

There are lots of people like Gage who love the speed and excitement of trails, but have physical disabilities and limited access to rugged outdoor spaces. That's why Carol Woody had her sights set on the Cimgos. And she incorporated them into the bike program because even without pedals they can tackle the most technical trails.

Carol Woody steers the Cimgo while standing firmly on the foot pegs at the back of the all-terrain device. Gage Tatar rides in the Cimgo giggling and smiling his way down the dirt path at Snowshoe Resort.
/ Emily Chen-Newton
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Emily Chen-Newton
Carol Woody steers the Cimgo while standing firmly on the foot pegs at the back of the all-terrain device. Gage Tatar rides in the Cimgo giggling and smiling his way down the dirt path at Snowshoe Resort.

"Mountain biking doesn't have to be the same for everyone but everyone can come out and experience it," affirms Woody as she points out the different features of the Cimgos, and some of the other adaptive bikes available at the CAWV center.

The Cimgos are "pilot driven" she explains, so the rider is safely strapped into a modified race car seat – with an instructor standing on foot-pegs at the back, in control of the steering and hydraulic disc brakes. The pilot also wears a waist strap "that is hooked into the braking system, so that if anything happens, that the pilot comes off of the equipment, it engages a safety brake, so that the bike would not be rolling down a hill or mountain without their pilot."

There is a two-day mandatory training to pilot the Cimgos, only offered in Europe. But, now that Challenged Athletes of West Virginia has their certification, next summer they'll start working to become a North American training hub. Woody says they'll be working with Tessier "so that more people can be served across the country in adaptive programs."

Standing on a gravel path with a lake behind her, Lillian Mullock checks the laptop atop the HETAP device for recent data points as part of a training session at the Delaware Water Gap.
/ Jared Lenahan
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Jared Lenahan
Standing on a gravel path with a lake behind her, Lillian Mullock checks the laptop atop the HETAP device for recent data points as part of a training session at the Delaware Water Gap.

Having the technology is one thing, knowing where you can use it is another.

That's where Jacob Tyree comes in. He's a wheelchair user and works for Move United. It's a national non-profit which has begun a trail assessment projectalong with a research firm, Beneficial Designs, to gather basic measurements like the trail slant, width, and obstacle height.

He says it's extremely important to know the dimensions of the trail — especially the slant. "I'm gonna tip over if it's more than four inches from left to right – and I'm really leaning uphill, so it really becomes a big accessibility concern."

A crew of outdoor industry professionals huddle around a HETAP cart in the rain for a training session at the Delaware Water Gap. A blue umbrella protects the laptop and other technology housed in the rolling device as it's pushed down a tree lined trail. (left to right: Gus Parrish, Jesse Rourke, Matthew Clarke, Christopher Dubas, and Garret Wilson).
/ Jared Lenahan
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Jared Lenahan
A crew of outdoor industry professionals huddle around a HETAP cart in the rain for a training session at the Delaware Water Gap. A blue umbrella protects the laptop and other technology housed in the rolling device as it's pushed down a tree lined trail. (left to right: Gus Parrish, Jesse Rourke, Matthew Clarke, Christopher Dubas, and Garret Wilson).

Move United isn't the only group in the U.S. to do this. But this organization partners with the National Park Service — and uses a specialized rolling device to collect data to map out and measure the undulations and contours of the trails. Beneficial Designs created a tool they've nicknamed, the "HETAP device" — short for High Efficiency Trail Assessment Process. Tyree describes one version "like a stroller, that you hook up a rugged laptop, with a bunch of sensors. And it's got a little black box that collects all this technology data." So far, the project has been implemented in more than nine states.

Tyree emphasizes though, accurate trail information and new technologies, like the Cimgos are needed to allow access no matter a person's limitations. "We've taken these ideas of 'what does a bike look like' and fundamentally used that technology to overcome the disability limitations, in a way that we're not asking you to pave the side of the Appalachian Trail...I want to enjoy the mountain the way it is, just like everyone else who's going out there."

Exactly how the stats and measurements are displayed is up to the individual park or recreation area. But, the aim is to have this information online or in an app, so people with disabilities can plan their trips in advance. Because without having to worry about surprise logistics like the device not fitting on the trail, people can get back to what really matters...the thrill of it.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Chen-Newton