Pilar Elorriaga

Wheel the world: One MBA student’s quest to make the outdoors accessible to all

After six hours of hiking in the rain and mud through the Patagonia, Matias Silberstein was ready to hunker down for the night. But his cousin, Berkeley MBA student Alvaro Silberstein — who was making the trek in a wheelchair — would have none of it. He insisted on pressing on.

Their team of 15 had arrived at their refugio, a shelter along their 30-mile journey in Torres del Pines, one of the most iconic natural places in Chile, if not the world. Everyone was wet and tired; Matias thought the terrain, difficult enough on dry footing, was too risky in the wet weather. Alvaro, riding in a custom wheelchair steered by the team, had already suffered a few falls, and was lucky to have avoided injury.

Alvaro, who organized the expedition of more than a dozen team members, has been in a wheelchair since he was 18, when a car crash left him paralyzed. Despite five more hours of trekking ahead, he would not allow the expedition to be cut short. If they stopped the hike, they would not have enough time to end their trip as planned; kayaking near a massive glacier.

“That was tough for me, both mentally and being cold and wet. It was really hard for everyone else walking in water,” Alvaro says. “But I said, ‘Let’s rest for one hour, have lunch, dry off and then continue the hike.’”

That’s when the sun came out again. The group’s spirits rose with the temperature. Matias muttered some choice words to the group, but had no option but to continue the hike and hope for the best.

A man on a mission

That Alvaro and Matias found themselves in this remote wilderness was the result of six months of training, planning and crowdfunding. Alvaro (MBA’17) has been passionate about the outdoors since he was a child growing up in Santiago, Chile. After he lost the use of his legs and hands in a car crash with a drunk driver, he yearned for trips into the outdoors. But hiking trails and campsites are not often accessible to people with disabilities, leaving them unable to experience many of nature’s greatest treasures.

To help make the outdoors more accessible, Alvaro began planning the expedition, which he called “Wheel the World.” He assembled a 12-member team that included experienced mountaineers, disabilities experts, and a physical therapist who specializes in spinal cord injuries. A Chilean outdoor filmmaker and two photographers also joined to document the trip. The expedition earned sponsorship from several companies, including The North Face.

“We want to raise awareness, and increase the visibility of people with disabilities — people who are active, who have challenges and live life to the fullest,” Alvaro, who graduates in May, recently told the Berkeley Haas School of Business.

Alvaro Silberstein (Photo by Pilar Elorriaga)

The plan was to trek three iconic routes in a wheelchair at the southern tip of the Andes, in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, known for its beautiful glaciers and lakes, sharp peaks and wildlife. The routes would include a strenuous hike to the Mirador Base de las Torres and hikes to Refugio Los Cuernos and the Grey Glacier Lake. Alvaro’s crew planned to use a special wheelchair to help carry him on the trek. Horses would carry their gear and food.

If successful, Alvaro would be among the first to complete these routes in a wheelchair, and the first to reach the famous granite horns of Torres del Paine in a wheelchair.

But he didn’t want to be the last. So came up with a plan. They would raise $8,000 to purchase the special trekking wheelchair, then donate it to the park after the trip and create a guide so that others could use the chair. The 26-pound chair, made by French manufacture Joelette, is the same model some have used to reach base camp at Mt. Everest.

While planning the trip, Alvaro began training. To prepare for the excursion, he trained with the No Limits program at Berkeley, working with physical therapist and No Limits co-founder Rachel Kahn on strengthening and conditioning (See the video below for a glimpse of his training routine).

With a trek planned and a wheelchair purchased, Alvaro flew to Santiago to meet his team 10 days before their Dec. 18 launch date. By the time he was on the plane home from the trek, someone else was already trekking though Torres del Pines using the donated chair.

Photo by Pilar Elorriaga

Into Patagonia

Most of the expedition team lives in Santiago. Once Alvaro arrived, the team spent several days practicing the teamwork needed to navigate the chair in unfamiliar terrain. Santiago’s terrain is similar to the Bay Area’s, with many hills suited for hiking.

“We did a lot of hikes that I couldn’t do before,” Alvaro says. “That was so much fun, I wanted to go almost every day to train.”

Some days they hiked up to six hours on terrain steeper than they’d traverse in Patagonia.

“In Patagonia, you have weather that adds complexity, and you have to carry stuff, but the hikes themselves, the inclination, was more difficult in Santiago. That gave us a lot of confidence,” Alvaro says. “We realized we can do this.”

The team decided they needed to use ropes during their trek to stabilize the chair and improve safety and handling and allow up to six people to move the chair. As the expedition launch day approached, the team couldn’t wait to hit the trails.

“We initially were planning to do a smaller route, but after training we all said maybe this will not be that hard and we can do the whole “W” route, which is a famous route through the park,” Alvaro said.

The expedition met with fanfare in Santiago. The group did interviews with local and international media. One local news outlet would later repost pictures from every day of the expedition. Back in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story about the trek.

After days of training, the expedition set off on the W route with two local guides who would take ownership of the chair after Alvaro’s trek.

Day 1 of the Wheel the World trek flew by, Alvaro says. Word had spread through the park about it, creating a festive atmosphere that night at their campsite. Many team members had only met days before, but by the end of the trip had become friends.

“The mood of the team was amazing. Everyone was taking pictures of us and asking to help when ours paths merged,” Alvaro says.

Not even rain overnight and muddy morning soil could dampen their spirits as they set out on day 2 for a historic leg of the trip. Later that day, when Alvaro reached the Mirrador base of the Torres del Pines viewpoint, a feat never before accomplished by someone in a wheelchair, he was overcome with joy.

“It was really emotional when we arrived at the base,” Alvaro says. “Everyone was clapping; it was beautiful. It was something super special.”

Photo by Pilar Elorriaga
The glacier

Day 3 was hard. The final leg of the trip included 11 hours of hiking across 15 miles. The day started with six hours of hiking in the rain and snow. At the midway rest stop, with five grueling hours between them and the final stop, Grey Glacier Lake, Matias began to worry that the reward was not worth the risk.

So when the rain stopped, the sun appeared and the team embarked toward the glacier, they were reenergized as the glacier came into view. The last three hours of the hike featured spectacular views of the approaching glacier.

“That was the most fun part and the best way of ending the trip,” Alvaro says. “The kayaking at the glacier was amazing, unbelievable. The weather conditions were perfect, no wind. The glacier is huge and you are alone there.”

Photo by Pilar Elorriaga

When the expedition returned, they celebrated their feat with wine. One of the tour guides told Alvaro the trek had helped him put a tragic moment behind him. (For more listen to Alvaro describe the trip below). He ended the trek with a renewed sense of purpose and committed to lead the next expedition of the people who would use the chair.

Photo by Pedro Paredes

Paying it forward

Alvaro and the team were convinced that others with disabilities could follow their route. They had trained their guides on how to use the chair and compiled notes on best practices, and are now working on a website to share their story.

“It’s a beautiful place and it’s great if we can help make it more accessible for other people to visit,” Alvaro says.

Alvaro’s hard work had already done just that. As he was returning home, a 12-year-old boy in a wheelchair was embarking on the same trip he had just completed.

“This was most rewarding part of the trip,” Alvaro says. “I was super worried about what was going to happen, but later a guide told me, ‘Dude, relax, everything went perfect. They had fun, and the trek was much easier since he weighed 50 pounds less than you.’”

Soon after, a 20-year-old woman with disabilities also completed a trek in the park.

So what’s next for someone who’s navigated the Patagonia in a wheelchair? Now Alvaro is embarking on another bold journey. Being a business school student, he’s working to turn Wheel the World into a nonprofit. He already has an expedition planned on Easter Island, where he’s looking to help people with disabilities test themselves in a very different outdoor environment. The plan is to explore Easter Island and then leave behind two trekking wheelchairs and two adaptive bikes (More on this trip’s crowdfunding site). As if that weren’t ambitious enough, Alvaro is adding a special twist to this island adventure.

“SCUBA diving,” Alvaro said.

Follow Wheel the World’s expeditions on Facebook and Instagram.

Photo by Pilar Elorriaga