Josh Hancock broke his back when he fell while ice climbing in Snoqualmie, Washington, on Dec. 4, 2014.
That was no small bump in the 35-year-old’s ambitious, outdoorsy life. He became paraplegic, requiring him to use a wheelchair and rendering his three-story Seattle townhouse inaccessible. Hancock refused to let his injury stop him.
In the span of a year, he went from being dependent on medical bedside care to setting off on a year-long, 30,000 mile solo road trip in a modified van to learn the adaptive version of his favorite sports and find a new place to live. He landed in Bend.
Not surprisingly, Hancock has big plans for this summer. He intends to use an inflatable raft to row 80 miles of the Deschutes River, join friends on another raft trip on the Salmon River and surf the Oregon Coast.
That’s leaving out all the mountain biking and road cycling Hancock plans to enjoy along some of his favorite Central Oregon routes, including the McKenzie Pass.
People often tell Hancock his resilience to continue living on his own outdoorsy terms is inspiring.
“Our joke in the adaptive community is that we call inspiration ‘the i-word,’” said Hancock, referring to it as if it were a dirty word. “I ski, for example, because I like skiing — I don’t do it for others’ benefit.”
Hancock learned how to sit ski through Bend-based Oregon Adaptive Sports on the slopes of Mt. Bachelor, where he is now a fixture on winter mornings.
He is one of about 500 individuals this year who will receive some form of adaptive sports instruction from OAS, said Director Pat Addabbo.
Hancock is also one of several people with a physical disability who has moved to Bend in the past 18 months after making contact with the nonprofit.
“Just (Josh’s) presence, pursuing everything that everyone else is pursuing, keeps people aware that there are people who visit here and who live here, who may not use the same types of equipment … but they get all the same (benefits) of being outside and share the desire to be in all the same places.”
Hancock doesn’t want to sound glib about the people who gasp with admiration when they spot him making turns in a sit ski or tidying his RAM ProMaster van, which he accesses by pulling himself up a ramp with the help of a fixed rope and the upper body strength he’s since regained.
“We’re showing the positive outcomes, the resilience of human beings, to be adaptive,” he said. “We show that you can get through this crap. You can still have fun — that’s the chord we strike with people.”
“This crap” is one way to describe the long journey, literal and personal, Hancock has traveled since he fell four stories while ice climbing.
The top rope, anchored to an overhead tree by a climbing partner, came undone.
Hancock still considers the climbing partner a friend.
“I recognize the mistake he made was probably less significant than a lot of mistakes I’ve made in my life, but this time, the consequences materialized,” Hancock said. “We make mistakes all the time that don’t end up hurting or killing someone. This event hurt him in different ways. A big way for me to comfortably relate to the event has revolved around seeing the humanity in him and trying to recognize his responsibility, but not blame him. And not get hung up on trying to make him into someone he’s not because of what happened.”
‘The road’ to adaptation
Hancock stayed in a Seattle hospital for five weeks.
His parents supported him for another eight weeks as he relearned routines: how to get around in a wheelchair, make meals, shower, dress and drive his car, which was fitted with a hand-controlled brake and accelerator.
He had to move out of his three-story Seattle townhouse. Purchasing it was a personal milestone for Hancock, but it had become the “least accessible building on the planet,” he said.
“I’m pretty forgetful, and I would sprint up and down those stairs, three at a time,” Hancock said. “I was fit, and I loved to move my body. Then the house just turned into this impossible thing. I did crawl up the stairs, once, just to say goodbye to the place before some renters moved in.”
Despite his supportive friends, Hancock could no longer make Seattle work. For one thing, he couldn’t ride his bike, which had liberated him from the traffic he now found himself stuck in.
His friends continued to climb and backcountry ski — Hancock’s passions were interrupted. Seattle’s hills, curbs and sidewalk cracks became Hancock’s mountains, boulders and crags. He also had to accept new complications, which include no longer having bladder control. He has learned how to manage it, but there was a learning curve.
When he attends a get-together at someone’s home, for example, he scopes out the bathroom and plans his visits accordingly, using intermittent catheterization to empty his bladder.
“I have to know what I’ve had to drink and stay ahead of it,” he said.
When Hancock achieved full independence, he drove his car on a solo road trip to visit a friend in Idaho in March 2015 — four months after the fall. He compared the trip to sailing a boat across an ocean.
“There was nowhere for me to stop. The whole world felt like this place I couldn’t go except for my friend’s place 1,000 miles away,” Hancock said. “When you’re climbing really steep snow — let’s say a 2,000-foot snow slope — you have this huge sense of commitment and exposure. There is nowhere to rest, and going down is much harder than going up. We use an expression ‘Up is down,’ and I had the same kind of feeling. Like, ‘I’m out there,’ in doing something so ordinary.”
Hancock hit the road in January 2016 for 12 months. He drove his van to Bend where he hired a local company to build it out the with a bed, sink and plenty of storage.
“Getting into my van is like a bouldering problem,” Hancock said with a chuckle. “I joke a lot that climbing prepared me well for life with a spinal-cord injury.”
During his year living in the van, Hancock said his goals were twofold: “I gave myself time to form a (new) identity and have that precipitate a location” to permanently relocate to.
He drove to Sun Valley, Idaho, and then to Jackson, Wyoming, where he stayed for a month. He circled through Salt Lake City and several Colorado mountain towns, including Steamboat Springs and Crested Butte, packing in many days honing his sit ski skills.
He rounded out the last days of spring skiing at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area in California. In Santa Monica and Newport Beach, Hancock learned adaptive surfing.
In August, Hancock and his father explored the Grand Canyon while on a guided raft and kayak trip along the Colorado River. Throughout the road trip, Hancock kept bouncing through Bend, which he realized was the town that “did the most amount of right things for me,” he said.
While still living in his van, which he often parked in front of a friend’s wheelchair-accessible house, Hancock made an offer on a single-level residence in southeast Bend. In February 2017, he moved in. He has since brought a Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever puppy, which he named Teemu, into his life.
“Bend is big enough that it has some culture — some good places to eat, it has a theater,” Hancock said. “I had relationships with people who really love living here.”
Addabbo doesn’t shy from the word inspiration when talking about Hancock’s year-long journey in his van, adding that doing so is an ambitious, scary thing for anyone to do, able-bodied or otherwise.
“I think it took an incredible amount of resilience for Josh to sustain his climbing injury and to so quickly seek out the opportunities that he wanted,” Addabbo said. “I do find the trip he took inspirational. I think a lot of people think, ‘Ah, how cool would it be to live in a van and ski all winter long.’ But things get in the way. It’s not always things like disabilities but jobs, budgets and bills. It’s a risk to leave everything behind for six months or a year and go on that kind of journey. To do that … shows a tremendous amount of resilience. It takes a lot of guts.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7816, firstname.lastname@example.org