Asheville man gives Parkinson’s the boot climbing 40 peaks
ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Mary Fond Daughtridge knew her husband was whip-smart, quick-witted and physically fit. Still, each time Bob DeBrecht came home from a hike over the past two years, Daughtridge checked him over for places that might be oozing blood, banged up or broken.
DeBrecht, a retired electrical engineer, had decided in 2016 to fully launch himself into the Carolina Mountain Club’s oldest and most difficult hiking challenge, the South Beyond 6,000 — aka the SB6K — a hike to 40 of Western North Carolina’s mountain peaks above 6,000 feet elevation.
The challenge, which requires at least 100 miles of hiking on some of the roughest terrain in the Southern Appalachians, with more than half requiring hikers to “bushwhack” their way to the top on ill-defined trails, is enough to mentally and physically intimidate any hiker.
But it can be argued that DeBrecht, at age 74 and battling Parkinson’s disease, had even more chutzpah to tackle the challenge than someone half his age.
“When he does something, he’s very thorough. He doesn’t leave a lot of stones unturned. I knew if it were possible, he would do it,” Daughtridge said. “With Parkinson’s, you never know how quickly the symptoms will progress.”
DeBrecht was born and raised in California, but lived for 40 years in New York City before moving to Asheville in 2001. He said he was always active, had camped and backpacked as a child, bicycled, and once even completed the NYC Marathon.
But in later years, and living in the city, his hiking whittled down to a once a year trip with friends to Mount Washington in New Hampshire.
Once settled in the hiking mecca of WNC, he joined the region’s oldest hiking club, the Carolina Mountain Club, which offers a year-round slate of guided hikes. His first high peak with the club was to Winter Star, a 6,212-foot peak in the Black Mountains, of which Mount Mitchell, at 6,684 feet and the highest mountain in the Eastern United States, is a part.
Feb. 8, 2004, was baptism by fire, or rather by snow and ice. Winter Star was strenuous and treacherous, requiring an ascent of some 3,400 feet in elevation over 9 miles.
“I had done some preparatory hikes, but that was the first major hike I did here,” DeBrecht said. “I earned the title of being high maintenance. Coming down my legs kept cramping and everyone had to wait for me.”
Undeterred and enjoying the physicality, DeBrecht did more club hikes and over the next decade had heard of the group’s SB6K Challenge. He realized he had already climbed 10 peaks above 6,000 feet. He was a quarter of the way through the challenge without knowing it.
The CMC has other hiking challenges, including the Pisgah 400 (400 miles of trails in Pisgah National Forest), the Waterfall 100, the Lookout Tower and the Smoky Mountain 900.
Peter Barr, the CMC’s SB6K coordinator, said the SB6K started in 1968, and is the most difficult challenge due to the off-trail hiking, navigation, tough terrain and overnight backpacks required. To date, only 269 people have officially completed it.
In June 2015, DeBrecht was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
“A month after my diagnosis, I went to my first Parkinson’s support group and spoke with Dick Poore, who led the group,” DeBrecht said. “When he heard I enjoyed hiking, he encouraged me to do as much of it as I could because Parkinson’s might limit my ability later. I appreciated his advice.”
Hiking on CMC-led outings, with his old hiking buddies from up North, with Daughtridge, and alone, DeBrecht did two more hikes in 2016, then bagged 20 peaks in 2017.
Looking back, DeBrecht said he probably had Parkinson’s years before diagnosis. He had been noticing a lack of smell and tremors in his left hand, both signs of the disease. He was teaching engineering courses at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and told his students they’d have to get used to his papers shaking.
He also developed RBD, (REM sleep Behavior Disorder), that causes him to lurch around in his sleep and launch himself out of bed, and he noticed issues with balance and increased falls.
According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, the disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects predominately dopamine-producing neurons in the brain. There is no cure for the disease, which causes symptoms such as tremors, slowness of movement, limb rigidity and gait and balance problems. There are nearly 1 million people in the U.S. living with Parkinson’s, and 24,000 in North Carolina.
DeBrecht’s doctor advised him he could go mountain climbing as long as he felt safe.
“That’s what hiking poles are for,” DeBrecht said. With the encouragement of his wife of nine years, his two sons and two young grandchildren, friends and Parkinson’s support group members, Bob took on the quest full bore.
DeBrecht trained by boxing, taking spin classes and walking on the treadmill with 30 pounds of kitty litter strapped to his back to simulate a backpack load.
While most trails were well-marked, the final push to the peak was often a challenge. He relied on the notes and GPS tracks from those who had gone before him. When hiking Mount Kephart in the Smokies, the snow was so thick it covered any semblance of trail.
“The GPS saved my derriere on a number of occasions,” Debrecht said.
He hiked to several of the peaks with John Cansler, 62, of Morganton, a friend he made on a hike on Roan Mountain. Cansler had started the SB6K in 2012, thinking he’d “knock them out in a year.”
But by 2017 he still had about 10 left and started hiking with DeBrecht.
“I would never have found (the peaks) without Bob. I could do the hikes with trails real well, but the ones in the Smokies were tough,” Cansler said. “He’s the most prepared person I know. He can out-hike any of my 60-year-old buddies.”
Hazards were everywhere. Descending Mount Luftee, a 17-mile hike with Cansler on Balsam Mountain Trail in the Smokies, DeBrecht tripped and fell, hitting his arm. As he continued hiking, they noticed the lump growing larger and realized he was bleeding internally. He wrapped it in gauze to slow the bleeding.
“That was kind of scary,” he said.
His toughest bushwhack was to Craggy Dome off the Blue Ridge Parkway near Craggy Gardens, where “the underbrush was about as tall as I was,” DeBrecht said. The whole bushwhack in and out was less than a mile but took him a couple of hours, and at times he couldn’t see the ground beneath his feet and badly twisted an ankle.
He saved the most difficult of the peaks — four in the Smokies — until the end. Just to reach the remote Mount Sequoyah required a hike of 25 miles in a day.
But that peak and three others, Tri Corner Knob, Mount Chapman and Mark’s Knob, all requiring bushwhacks, could be done as day hikes from the Tricorner Shelter. However, DeBrecht hadn’t done an overnight backpack since he was 17.
“I conned my sister (Kathy Gallagher, 72, a retired pediatrician and accomplished hiker, who lives in California) into coming out here and going backpacking with me,” DeBrecht said.
“We stayed out four days and three nights. It was really sweet of her. She coached me on how to prepare. I had trepidation, but we had nice, sunny days. It was a delightful hike. Thanks to my sister, I bagged my remaining four peaks I needed to complete the SB6K Challenge.”
DeBrecht finished on Sept. 22. For their years of blood, sweat and toil, he and Cansler each received a certificate and a patch. DeBrecht said he racked up 234 miles, but only had one wildlife spotting - a rattlesnake.
“These days, the balance isn’t quite as good as it used to be and my tremor progresses. But it is my firm belief that my flexibility, functioning and attitude have benefitted and improved from this exercise regimen,” said DeBrecht, who plans to do shorter, slower hikes so he can appreciate nature.
“The wonderful thing, in my opinion, is he’s reversed some of the Parkinson’s symptoms with this extreme exercise,” said Daughtridge, who welcomed her husband home with a cake and balloons. “Between the medicine and the extreme exercise, I feel like I got him back.”
Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times, http://www.citizen-times.com