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Two men assist a man in a hikiing wheelchair down a steep slope as mountainbikers look on

Our Adventure with a Hiking Wheelchair in the Grand Canyon

When my father told me he wanted to take a family hiking trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, I’ll admit I thought he was out of his mind. A wheelchair user since a brainstem stroke in 2005, I knew he was itching for adventure, but this was something different. This would be a trek, an overnight, multi-day descent into one of the most inaccessible places on the planet. I now realize that was his point, but cut me some slack, I was young and short-sighted.

A group of twelve people smiling at the Grand Canyon

The Grand AdvenChair team at sunrise at the Bright Angel trailhead, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, U.S.A.

Dad had been sit-skiing, kayaking, and horseback riding as various forms of therapy and fun for years, and we all enjoyed taking hikes on relatively tame trails. Even on those however, we sometimes struggled. Our favorite hike at the time, Shevlin Park in Bend, Oregon was steep enough to excite the old adventurer, but tame enough that we could push him safely along it. But one day I misjudged a rock and dumped him on his face!

A man shows off a scrape on the side of his face to the camera

Road rash. Fortunately, between youthful hubris and “you told me you like going fast!” the author has avoided too much guilt.

Mind you, this didn’t happen with a standard, indoor-use chair. The goal had always been to get back to the outdoors and “the healing tonic of wildness,” so we were using AdvenChair 1.0 – a rugged titanium chair upgraded with mountain bike tires, a handlebar for the driver, and disc brakes. 

But if even the most challenging routes at a local park could still cause us this much trouble, how were we going to tackle one of the world’s natural wonders?

Obviously, we needed to keep upgrading the chair.

So we added a larger, detachable front wheel, a seatbelt, and a strap system for long descents (braking) and climbs (pulling). The AdvenChair 1.0 was impressive, and we managed to tackle some dirt and gravel trails with it, but I was still skeptical about a 10.2 mile, 5,000 foot descent into the Grand Canyon, not to mention the climb back out!

A group of people assist a man in an all terrain wheelchair on a trail,.

Field trials with AdvenChair 1.0. The driver is a helicopter mechanic who constantly asks “What can go wrong here?” and Mom in front. We tried real hard to break it in our summer of testing.

But who was I to say so out loud? The same youthful ignorance that said “this isn’t possible” also said “well, screw this! Let’s do it anyway!”

With the Grand Canyon in the background, a team of three people, one in a wheelchair, descend a trail heading into the canyon

Descent into the Grand Canyon.

Fast forward months of iterating and planning, climbing local mountains and tackling any trail we could find, and there we were, partway down the Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel trail, sitting in the rain waiting for a crew to bring down a rescue sled so we could pack Dad and his broken wheelchair back out.

Turns out youthful me had been right. AdvenChair 1.0 wasn’t nearly strong enough.


The original packmule (the author) and his father, trying to stay positive about shattered hopes and crushed dreams while sitting in the rain at the 2 Mile Rest House on the Bright Angel Trail.

If we were to achieve our goal, we needed something truly indestructible, while still being functional and comfortable enough that at the end of the day’s long hike, we could all gather around a campfire or picnic table to drink beer, eat fresh peach cobbler, and laugh about the day’s challenges.

With the help of helicopter mechanic Dale Neubauer, design engineer Jack Arnold, some mountain bikers, and a wheelchair specialist, Dad started from scratch. First came a rugged and durable welded aluminum frame, with 16 touch points for pushing, pulling, and lifting, followed by 27.5” mountain bike wheels, and a reinforced mount for the enlarged, detachable 20” front wheel. With that was added inner tire suspension, new heavy-duty disc brakes, an adjustable footplate, and a bucket seat. Not only was the end result trail-tested and tough, but most of these moving parts came straight from local mountain bike shops, where they could quickly and cheaply be replaced or repaired. 

Looking at the evolution of the AdvenChair, it’s safe to say that that broken axle was the best thing that could have happened. Where before there sat a young housecat with a fancy collar, now stood a fully-grown tiger.  

Advenchair 2.0 hasn’t been back to the Grand Canyon yet, but I can confidently say it’s ready. We plan to take ours along the Great Wall in China, ship one to Spain for the Camino de Santiago, and can’t wait to see who-knows-what other adaptive adventures people dream up. All over the world, people just like me are waiting to be told “let’s do the impossible!“ by the people we love, having no idea that what was thought to be impossible, is just the beginning. 

Roll boldly, my friends! The healing tonic of nature awaits. 

The AdvenChair 3.0 will be available for preorder here, starting in early December (just in time for a confirmation postcard to make it under the Christmas tree or into a stocking!), and ship in June of 2021. 

By: Emory Babb

This blog is part of a series of Travel Stories, written and submitted by people in the WTW community. Read more stories from travelers, like Brad in Colorado here, or Chris Alp’s adventure in Torres del Paine here. If you’re interested in submitting a story, please let us know by emailing our content manager at [email protected]

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