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After Accident, 'Madman' Poole Uses Handcycle To Conquer Backcountry05:35
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After a hiking accident David Poole was paralyzed from the sternum down. He was unable to traverse the backcountry after his injury, until he found handcycling. (Liz Welles/Only A Game)
After a hiking accident David Poole was paralyzed from the sternum down. He was unable to traverse the backcountry after his injury, until he found handcycling. (Liz Welles/Only A Game)

Later this month, Crested Butte, Colorado, will be home to the Off-Road Hand Cycling World Championship. David Poole is expected to be among the top finishers.

Every summer I was stuck. I was trapped. My friends were able to go into the mountains and talk about how great a time they had.

David Poole, handcyclist

Three months ago, I saw David Poole cycling for the first time. And I couldn’t get him out of my head. He doesn’t have use of his legs, so he was pedaling up a steep mountain with only his arms. I recently joined David on that same trail, hiking behind him as he cranked up Mount Ellis. The climb is hard for David. I have no trouble keeping up on foot even though I’m seven-months pregnant, and he’s pedaling furiously.

To understand how we got there, you have to start in the small town where he grew up: Townsend, Montana.

"It's five minutes from the river. It's five minutes from the lake, and it's five minutes from the mountain," Poole said. "We did a lot of camping, we did a lot of exploring in the mountains, we did a lot of fishing and we did a lot of hunting."

Handcycling has given Poole the ability to go into the backcountry again. (Liz Welles/Only A Game)
Handcycling has given Poole the ability to go into the backcountry again. (Liz Welles/Only A Game)

David was always a hard-charger in the outdoors, earning him the nickname “Madman" Poole as a teenager. That name, and that mentality, stuck. When he graduated from high school, he headed out on his next adventure: working at a ski resort in Colorado. One day, while skiing on his lunch break, David’s life changed forever.

"I got hung up on some rocks and tumbled down a big cliff," he said. "I woke up in the snow. My upper body was cold and it seemed like my lower body was warm. But, really, I couldn't feel it at all. I remember a patroller yelling my name, asking if it was me, and I told him it was. And they had to carry me out on the stretcher. And as soon as I got on the helicopter, the guy said, ‘You made it,’ and he gave me the stuff to fall asleep, and [I woke] up in the ICU.

"My mom and my dad and my two best friends from Montana were in the hospital in Denver. And I asked them, ‘What are you guys doing here?' And they said, ‘Well, uh, we heard you got in an accident.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but it's Monday. Don't you guys have jobs?’ And they're like, ‘Well, this is kind of serious.'"

David learned that he was paralyzed from the sternum down.

"The thing that bummed me the most was that I wasn’t going to be able to hike in the mountains and hunt like I used to," he said. "Every time I saw a picture of an elk or I’d think about hunting, it took a while to really get over that."

The thing that bummed me the most was that I wasn’t going to be able to hike in the mountains and hunt like I used to. Every time I saw a picture of an elk or I’d think about hunting, it took a while to really get over that.

David 'Madman' Poole

"Every summer I was stuck," he said. "I was trapped. My friends were able to go into the mountains and talk about how great a time they had."

They offered to pull David along on a game cart — basically a wheelbarrow for getting large animals out of the woods. You can imagine that didn’t sound appealing to him. So he found something that could help him power himself into the backcountry: a new piece of gear called an off-road handcycle. It looks like something out of a "Mad Max" movie, super low to the ground and wide in front, skinny in back.

The rider leans forward with his chest over the pedals. These bikes aren’t cheap: $7,000 for a new one. But seven years after his accident, David was able to purchase a used one for much less. In typical "Madman" Poole fashion, he rode it everyday, everywhere he could.

"Going new places everyday, pushing my limits everyday, seeing where it can go and loving every minute of it because I was experiencing some of the things I never thought I'd be able to experience again," he said.

But he still hadn’t been in the backcountry. After he’d been riding for a few months, friends invited him on their annual camping trip to a remote mountain lake. The trail would be more challenging than anything he had ridden so far.

"It starts off with 13 switchbacks dropping down a steep slope and then an additional, probably, two or three miles of up and down with basketball-sized boulders and stumps to go over the entire way. The first eight switchbacks were way too narrow for my bike.

"I had to have my buddies tie a rope up to me to keep me from tipping and rolling downhill while I’m angled on this really steep sidehill. But after about eight switchbacks, I was able to get the rest of them on my own. It took me four-and-a-half hours to get into the lake.

"It was awesome. Unexplainable. It was freedom. It was everything."

Back on the trail, David and I finished a slow and steady climb to a lookout point. He’s crazy fast on the downhill. So he took off ahead of me. In the distance, as he flew down, I heard happy shouts.

This segment aired on August 1, 2015.

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