MBA Student Looks to Next Quest: Easter Island by Wheelchair

Photo credit: Pedro Paredes-Haz

Álvaro Silberstein, MBA 17, was on top of a mountain in Patagonia in his wheelchair last December, and the cameras were rolling.

He was fulfilling his dream of making an arduous 50-kilometer trek through the landscape of granite towers and massive blue glaciers of the remote Torres del Paine National Park in his native Chile. Documentary filmmakers, part of his 12-member expedition, had captured dramatic footage along the way.

Yet the achievement was just the beginning of a new chapter for Silberstein, who is using the trip’s success to fulfill an even greater goal: making more of the world’s most remote places accessible to adventurous tourists who happen to have disabilities.

Through the Wheel the World nonprofit he formed with sponsor The North Face, Silberstein has now launched a crowdfunding campaign for a November trip to Easter Island. He aims to attract $20,000 to purchase two trekking wheelchairs and two hand bikes to leave behind for future visitors.

“Our main goal is not just me doing this adventure but making these adventures possible for more people,” he said.

He’s already accomplished that in Patagonia. Silberstein raised $8,000 to buy a specialized trekking chair, which helped his team prevail through drenching rain to become the first to complete the tough “W” route at Torres del Paine in a wheelchair in six days. (Read more about the challenges they faced—and see full-sized photos—on UC Berkeley News.)

“Álvaro is one of the strongest and optimistic people I have ever met,” said Matan Sela, MBA 17, a classmate who accompanied Silberstein to Patagonia. “In his mind, there is nothing he cannot accomplish, no matter how challenging it seems.”

Photo credit: Pedro Paredes-Haz

The all-terrain chair they used has just one wheel for narrow trails and is meant to be both pulled and pushed with a harness and handles, making the trek a truly collaborative effort. It was that idea of collaboration that got Silberstein thinking that if he could figure out how to make the trip work for him, maybe he could help more than one person.

“We wanted all of that effort to be useful for other people too,” he said.

He left the chair in Torres del Paine, along with a guide he and his team created for using it. Three people already have done so—including a 10-year-old boy. Another eight people have reserved it for next season.

A spinal cord injury from a car accident when he was 18 left Silberstein with full paralysis from the chest down, and partial paralysis in his arms and hands. It changed his life, he said, but in many ways, it didn’t. Always a sports lover who enjoyed socializing and traveling, he still has the same goals and ambitions, from skiing in Tahoe to visiting national parks like Yosemite, where he was inspired by the easy access for disabled visitors.

Photo credit: Pedro Paredes-Haz

After he graduates in May, Silberstein will work on scaling Wheel the World to open more adventures to all people.

The Patagonia trek has made Silberstein a bit of a folk hero in Chile, where 1,000 people turned out to see the premier of the documentary on his trip. The 15-minute film will be screened at Berkeley-Haas on Monday, April 17, in Andersen Auditorium.

For some teaser footage, check out this short video on the trip by UC Berkeley Public Affairs (with footage from Wheel the World).