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Cory Smith hikes at Staunton State Park near Pine, Colo., using a track chair, an off-road wheelchair, on the Davis Ponds Trail on Sunday, Oct. 23, 2022. (Joe Mahoney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Cory Smith’s buddy called him at 3 a.m. and asked if he wanted to climb a 14er. Sure, Smith answered, using a well-placed F-bomb that typically decorates his language. 

It was October, a time when snow begins to fall on Colorado’s tallest peaks, making them more treacherous. He wasn’t in good shape, or, really, any shape at all. He didn’t own any equipment, except for the bladder on his back, the knife on his hip and the beer in his pack. And, of course, it was 3 a.m., a perfect time to leave for the long drive to the trailhead, except Smith hadn’t gone to bed yet.

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

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“He was drunk, and I was drunk,” Smith recalled in an interview. “So, sure, let’s do it. I had no damn idea what I was getting into.” 

It was the kind of trip that makes search and rescue folks shake their heads. But Smith had a couple things going for him. He had a mountaineer’s stubbornness, the kind that keeps you going through thin air, cold hands and craving for a cheeseburger. He felt comfortable in the mountains and the rough roads that led to them, taking yearly trips off-roading to Moab in a Jeep he named Deadpool because it, like the Marvel character, seemed indestructible. He’d spent many childhood hours wading through the Maumee River in Ohio in exchange for a day of fishing the legendary spring walleye runs. And perhaps this is the most important thing: He loved it. 

He dearly misses it now. Smith, 40, uses a wheelchair after COVID-19 caused a stroke. But thanks to a program at Staunton State Park, he’s still able to hike on his own, without, as he puts it, “someone fucking pushing me.”  

High demand

Staunton State Park is nestled deep in the trees near — and we’re not making this up — Pine, a town of 4,000 residents. The park opened in 2013, 17 years after Frances Staunton donated more than 1,700 acres. The park, 40 miles southwest of Denver, is more than 3,800 acres, with lots of opportunities to explore in an unforgiving backcountry. Trail runners, backpackers and anglers who love remote, quiet places all love Staunton for its hardcore hiking opportunities. 

But wheelchair users love it, too, as much or perhaps even more than those rugged folks. 

Staunton is remote, but if you have heard of it, you’ve probably heard of its track-chair program. The state park is one of the best places in the country, and probably the world, for anyone with limitations who wants a rare and delicious opportunity to explore, get dirty and, yes, hike on a trail in the wilderness.

Track chairs are basically four-wheel drive wheelchairs with tank treads and the capability of going over the kind of a terrain that would tie up a typecast suburban-mom car. Staunton lends these to those who need them, free of charge with no questions asked, meaning you don’t need a note from your doctor. Nearly all of the users can’t hike or even walk without assistance. The definition remains loose, however: The park’s manager, Zach Taylor, used one to hike after he had surgery to repair a torn ACL. 

The demand is so fierce that reservations are as coveted as the state’s best camping spots, meaning, you’d better be ready to fight for one when they open at 8 a.m. on May 1. When they opened this year, they received 68 requests for days.

This is, in part, because it’s hard to overstate what an exception these trips are for wheelchair users, who at other state parks are limited to ADA sidewalks and easily traveled paths, with little chance to see the backcountry.

A group of hikers stop to chat with Staunton State Park guide Randee Lawrence, Cory Smith and Daryle Clippinger, far right, at the park near Pine. (Joe Mahoney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Staunton has 25 active volunteers who work as hands-off guides for track-chair hikers. They hike along to show them the way and help them out of sticky situations. Possibly as a result, there’s been just one mishap in more than 1,000 trips, when a user toppled over. The person spent one night in the hospital with minor injuries, mostly out of precaution. 

Kristin Waltz, who runs the program for Staunton, not only matches volunteers with trips, she spends hours working the calendar for those who failed to get a spot to offer up other chances or notify them of cancellations. Nearly all who want a trip should get one at least once a year with a little flexibility. 

“My goal,” she said, “is for them to never be empty.” 

Alas, the program has limitations. It hibernates through the winter, as extreme cold and snow causes problems both for the chairs and the users, even when Waltz keeps a supply of blankets, pillows and adaptive devices, even helmets, to help users stay comfortable during the hike. This gives the program a short summer life, from June through October, though they will extend it to November if conditions are good. The park takes individual reservations Friday-Sunday and group reservations the rest of the week. 

There’s a waitlist. And Waltz tries not to give out more than one reservation a month per user so as many get to experience it as possible. 

That’s important, as some users haven’t had the chance to get out beyond a parking lot near a lake. Waltz said one guy, who hadn’t left his hospital room in 30 years, was gobsmacked during his hike. Another woman said through tears that she used to hike with her family all the time and was floored when she finally got the chance again after a decade of staying indoors. 

The park offers three trails for track-chair users, and all of them are at least 2-miles long, a loop that many average national park users would find challenging. They’re groomed enough that the park puts pictures of little kids, golden retrievers and moms with robust baby strollers hiking the smooth blankets of silky dirt. But not all parts are easy, and that’s by design: A big part of the track-chair experience is the chance for wheelchair users to move over something that isn’t a sidewalk and go into the wilderness. The Historic Cabins Trail, the longest at 3.5 miles, is labeled moderate to difficult and goes deep into the park.

The freedom to get out is important, but the freedom to rough it is something many wheelchair users have never experienced. Some, like Smith, desperately miss it. 

“Rocks are fun,” Waltz said through a smile. “We do our program through rain or shine for that same reason. Some want to feel the rain on their face.” 

The quiet nothingness

Smith was an off-roader and an angler, but hiking 14ers wasn’t anything he had ever experienced. He loved seeing the Milky Way and enjoying the quiet nothingness and feeling the accomplishment only a summit could bring him. All that love balanced out all the drinking and smoking and sitting that might keep many others at the trailhead. 

“It felt so good to summit,” Smith said. “I was hooked.” 

Smith began to climb the 14ers and celebrated each one with a beer on top. By 2019, he had climbed half of them and, encouraged by a successful trip up Longs Peak — “a bitch,” he said, but he did it — was talking with friends about doing some of the harder ones. So he didn’t worry about what he thought was a bad cold in March 2020, even after he’d heard about a strange new illness on the news. When he fell out of bed at 3 a.m. — he was asleep this time — his wife, Jennifer Cline, thought he was joking when he told her he couldn’t get back into bed and, in fact, he couldn’t even get off the floor. It was exactly the kind of joke he’d pull on her. 

Paramedics arrived and told him he was having a stroke. A stroke? He was 38 and a mountain climber. How could he be having a stroke? He would later learn that COVID-19 caused blood clots in a few rare cases.

He tells his story in an apartment in Englewood on an afternoon weekday, after he goes through some videos and pictures of his off-roading and climbing days. He no longer has Deadpool.

“I seemed to smile a lot more on summits than I do now,” he says, and he falls silent. 

Spreading the word

There’s little doubt the track-chair program is a big source of pride at Staunton. Brochures are devoted to it, and there’s a big display in the park’s visitor center. But that pride extends beyond some well-deserved pats on the back. 

The program essentially started the year after the park opened with Mark Madsen. Madsen spent many hours hiking and biking with his sons in the area, but in 2001, he swerved to avoid a deer, rolled his car and was paralyzed from the neck down. He still spent time at his mountain cabin in an area now known as Lion Head. In 2014, the Craig Rehabilitation Hospital loaned him a track chair. Madsen loved it. He felt as if the park had opened up to him again. 

A year later, Madsen died in his cabin, and his family and Friends of Staunton State Park purchased two track chairs as part of the Mark Madsen Accessibility Fund. There are now five, and both organizations continue to raise money to support the program, including an annual fundraising barbecue in August.

Staunton loves the fact that they probably were the first in the state, and maybe in the country, to offer chairs to the public outside of Craig and include a real wilderness experience. Now workers there don’t want to keep that elite status. They market the chairs to get more visitors to their own park, but it’s also to spread the word, even advocate for them and get them all over the state and beyond. Staunton donated a track chair to Ridgway and Barr Lake state parks, and for now, those are the only other state parks to have one. But that’s just for starters. 

“We want to push it everywhere,” Waltz said. 

Daryle Clippinger, left, and Staunton State Park guide Randee Lawrence hike with Cory Smith at the park near Pine. (Joe Mahoney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Taylor, the park’s manager, hopes to promote the program statewide and is searching for ways to do it. Waltz, he said, knows enough to share how a program could work and already travels to conferences and other state parks in the off-season to talk about it. 

“We want to promote a statewide track-chair program,” Taylor said. “I want to share ideas and send Kristin (Waltz) on the road.”

Freedom

The days aren’t as dark now, two years after his stroke, but Smith admits he still gets depressed. The outdoors were, as he puts it, “just a bunch of good ‘ole boys having a good ‘ole time.” He is now 40. 

“My lifestyle was taken away,” Smith said. 

Smith’s been a few times now to Staunton and once to Barr Lake, and he was skeptical until he got into one and figured out just how much freedom the chair gives him. 

“It’s so nice to get back out there,” Smith said. “It’s so great to be on a trail.”

Track chairs used by the park cost $16,500. He lost Deadpool because he couldn’t afford the payments after the stroke. Money is tight enough that a track chair is too much. This is true for nearly all the users at Staunton, Waltz said. Those who do have a chair are welcome to use the park, she said, although she still recommends they use the trails designed for them.

In fact, the park hopes to have another trail ready at some point, but it takes hard work to get them ready, even if they do like to keep them somewhat natural. Some of the work involves taking out trees or large stumps. 

“We want more access to some more extreme terrain and more to the west side,” Taylor said. “Maybe we can get them to the overlooks. There really isn’t much you can’t do.” 

Smith took the Davis Ponds Trail just before Halloween, before winter brought the cold and some sad snow days. It reminded him of his first trip up a 14er, when he discovered a lifestyle he didn’t know he wanted. Now he wants whatever remains of it. When the hike was over, he celebrated the trip and his friends with a beer. 

TO GO: The track-chair program will open again in June. Reservations open May 1. Reserve spots early as they tend to fill up fast. Go here to reserve a spot. 

Dan England

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @DanEngland