Bob Coomber was walking on a beach at Lake Almanor in 1989 when, as he puts it, "my left leg just kind of blew up."
"I hadn't realized that having juvenile diabetes for as long as I had causes bone density issues -- most doctors, in fact weren't aware of that at the time," said Coomber, a Livermore resident and City Council member who moved to the Tri-Valley that year.
Coomber, now 62, began rehabbing from the injury with the help of doctors. He worked through physical therapy, progressing from crutches to a cane.
"The day they told me, 'Yes you can now go to a cane and graduate,' I broke both ankles just from bearing weight -- that's the way my bones were going," Coomber recalled during a recent interview in Livermore.
He would go through seven breaks overall. By the early 1990s, Coomber was in a wheelchair.
A Piedmont native, Coomber grew up an avid hiker, frequently taking trips to Tilden Regional Park with his family. Suddenly he was faced with figuring out how to adapt to living with limited mobility.
"One of the things I thought about as I was in bed was, 'What am I going to do to get out and see these places I'm used to seeing?'" Coomber said.
Transitioning to hiking in a wheelchair, Coomber soon realized, meant making some major adjustments. That involved doing overnight excursions that would be day trips for walkers and taking packing into account.
"It was difficult," Coomber said. "After years of getting your legs in shape and your back in shape to carry stuff, you're now worried about your shoulders and your elbows and making sure everything's strong enough so when you come down a hill you can actually stop the chair."
"And you have to work toward that," he continued. "It meant getting in a gym and doing certain exercises that you don't think about when you're walking."
Coomber estimates he has logged thousands of miles in his wheelchair, traversing everything from smooth park paths to rocky mountain passes throughout California. One day every winter he leaves his house before sunrise and takes the Iron Horse Regional Trail from Pleasanton to Concord and back, returning when it's dark outside again -- a 68-mile round trip.
He has also been the first person in a wheelchair to reach the summit of Mount Diablo, Mission Peak and White Mountain, California's third-highest peak at 14,252 feet. His experiences led him to be inducted into the California Outdoors Hall of Fame in 2007 and recognized by the George W. Bush administration with a President's Council on Physical Fitness Community Leadership Award in 2008.
In 2013, he set out to become the first wheelchair hiker to cross the 11,485-foot Kearsarge Pass in the Sierra Nevada. By then his excursions had already caught the attention of Tal Skloot, a Bay Area filmmaker who teaches at Diablo Valley College.
"I first read about Bob in a newspaper article back in 2010, (and) my first thought was, 'That sure puts my life in perspective,'" Skloot said in an email interview. "My second thought was, 'How the hell does he get up those steep dirt trails in a wheelchair?'...I contacted Bob out of the blue and we met for what was to be the first of many unconventional hikes together."
Skloot, along with a few firefighters from the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department, went along with Coomber on his attempt to cross Kearsarge Pass.
Halfway through, Coomber's insulin pump malfunctioned, forcing him to turn back. He returned the following year, but once again had to end his excursion early to avoid getting an infection in his hands.
Coomber's attempts to cross the mountain pass were documented by Skloot and turned into a film titled "4 Wheel Bob," which has been shown this year in San Francisco and in theaters across Europe. A Livermore screening is being planned for sometime next month at Vine Cinema and Alehouse.
"(The film) does promote speaking in four-letter words when you have to keep dragging a wheelchair up over rocks and trails that narrow down to a few inches and you have to somehow get everything over that while you're sitting on the side of the trail and you're tired, but you just want to keep going," Coomber said.
"I just don't believe in running into something and saying, 'Oh I just can't do this,'" he added.
With that perspective in mind, Coomber plans to make a third attempt at crossing the Kearsarge Pass, possibly next summer. In the meantime, the retired Livermore resident will stay busy with City Council business, visits to local convalescent homes and the veterans affairs hospital, and smaller hiking excursions.
Skloot said he hopes his film about Coomber, who he characterizes as having a "easy-going, sweet and gregarious nature," motivates people to get out and explore nature.
"I also hope that the film will inspire viewers to look at their own self-imposed limitations and perhaps reach beyond what they think is possible," he added.
Coomber added he hopes people who learn about him will "ditch their cell phones for five minutes and realize that there's a whole world left to be explored."
"No matter their abilities, there's something for everybody once you step outside the door," he said.
For more information on the "4 Wheel Bob" documentary, visit www.4wheelbobfilm.com.