Mind over mountain

As adaptive adventure sports boom in the West, a paralyzed athlete pushes his limits.

  • Jon Arnow crutch-hikes, skis and kayaks around Lake Tahoe, using specialized equipment that he either designed or helped manufacturers create for disabled athletes like himself.

    Ryan Salm
  • Jon Arnow pushes the limits of adaptive adventure sports.

    Ryan Salm
  • Jon Arnow crutch-walks – or crawls, when necessary – up a trail in North Canyon during a recent Grand Canyon rafting trip.

    Jon Arnow
  • Jon Arnow ascends the Atlantic Ocean Wall on the southeast face of Yosemite's El Capitan, in 1997, before the skiing accident that almost killed him.

    Jon Arnow
  • Arnow in the hospital after his accident, his wife, Debbie, standing by, center.

    Jon Arnow
  • A later X-ray revealing the steel rods and screws that were installed in 2008 to support his spine.

    Jon Arnow
  • Jon Arnow, paddling on Lake Tahoe, learned the hard way about the special equipment he needs for kayaking.

    Ryan Salm

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In 2009, after his second major surgery, he learned to crutch-hike. He had been training his upper body since his accident – handcycling, poling a Nordic sit-ski on cross-country trails, lifting weights in his garage – but dry, unpaved ground presented a new challenge. "You ask really ridiculous things from your arms," he says. In part, he wanted new tools. He contacted a Canadian company, SideStix, whose co-founder, Sarah Doherty, was the first single-leg amputee to summit Alaska's Mount McKinley. SideStix crutches can be fitted with tips of various shapes for sand and snow. Some models include shock absorbers to minimize the strain on wrists, elbows and shoulders, which, in many paraplegics, succumb to arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome and other ailments. Arnow talked his way onto the SideStix product testing crew, promptly wore out an attachment shaped like an over-sized ski-pole basket and convinced the company to redesign it. Then he took his crutches snowshoeing. In the summer of 2010, at the age of 53, he completed the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail, a circumnavigation of the heights around the lake. He was the 1,166th person to do so, but the first to make the trip on crutches.

Arnow has never reopened his surgical practice, but in 2011, he began working again, this time as a consultant for Nevada Social Security Disability Insurance, a position he still holds. He also applies his medical expertise on an online spinal cord injury forum run by Rutgers University. He is a moderator there, and one of his threads, a simple prompt urging others to share their workouts, has drawn more than half a million hits and created a large community of similarly disabled athletes. Arnow is also well known for his posts on chronic pain. He has become something of an expert on the topic. In early February 2012, he acknowledged the 10th anniversary of his accident with an unusually downtrodden post. "There has been so much pain, daily pain, that makes getting through each 24 hrs a huge challenge," he wrote. "Not one in 3,650 days has ended well and peacefully. … I am so beat down from the chronic pain, and all the meds to manage it."

Exercise exacerbates Arnow's pain, but the endorphins it generates help him cope. "Maybe there is a fine line that is just the right amount," he says. "I have not found that yet. I'm unlikely to." Crutch-hiking is particularly painful, due to the strain it places on his legs. These days, he has almost completely given it up because he has found a replacement: kayaking, which is, usually, easier on his body. He must fight his fused spine to sit upright in the boat. On one outing, in 2013, he spent five hours paddling the San Francisco Bay; afterward, he realized he had developed a 1-inch pressure sore on his left buttock. (Without gluteus muscle for padding, his skin had been sandwiched between his ischial bone and the hard plastic seat and, of course, he hadn't felt it.) Cursing his carelessness, he cut a hole in the kayak seat and stitched in a neoprene hammock for his sitz bone. He has purchased several boats since and added padding in each.

Arnow would like to become a proficient saltwater paddler, then head to Baja, and up the Inside Passage to Alaska. For years, he moved, while outdoors, at a faster pace than his family. Lately, he has begun to hope that Debbie, his wife, will join him on the water. He often studs his posts on the Rutgers forum with pictures of his trips – the play of shadows on the canyon walls above flatwater on the Colorado River, winter light on the tufa formations of California's Mono Lake, a geyser in Pyramid Lake in northern Nevada. In December of 2013, he took a photo as he paddled beside a curtain of icicles on the east shore of Lake Tahoe. He posted it with a note: "So beautiful. I don't feel disabled for a change."

Before dawn on the first day of 2014, Arnow met Mark Wellman, the famous paraplegic El Capitan climber, at a boat launch on the north shore of Lake Tahoe. Wellman has made a career delivering inspirational lectures and educating people about adaptive sports. He spends part of his time towing a portable climbing wall around the West, using pulleys to help people climb out of their wheelchairs. "It's pretty cool to see a kid that was born with cerebral palsy, that's trapped in a body that doesn't work, and they might not be able to speak, but they've got a big smile on their face and their parents are crying because they've never seen them do something like this," Wellman says.

After Arnow's accident, the two became friends and frequent outdoor partners. Now, they stuffed their kayaks with camping gear and set out, paddling the shoreline. It was a warm weekend in a mild winter, and the water was calm – "absolutely glass," Arnow recalls. The weather remained that way for the next two days, and although they'd camped by kayak only once before, they moved efficiently and independently. In the evenings, they nosed onto beaches, spread tarps between their boats to keep out the sand, and feasted on smoked salmon and crackers. They slept beneath the stars. Each morning, they woke before dawn, brushed the frost from their sleeping bags and pushed onto the water. The trip was another milestone – the first paraplegic kayak circumnavigation on Lake Tahoe – and the lake was deserted on the New Year's holiday. They had it all to themselves.

This story is part of an April 2014 special issue of the HCN magazine devoted to travel in the West. Terray Sylvester is a former HCN intern. Originally from the Lake Tahoe area, he now lives in Berkeley, Calif., where he travels mainly by bicycle, dodging car doors and potholes, dreaming of peaks.

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