Paraplegic Stands Tall on El Capitan

Times Staff Writer

A paraplegic park ranger, making his return to rock climbing after a fall seven years ago, is pulling himself up the face of 3,500-foot El Capitan and is expected to reach the summit today, park officials said Tuesday.

Mark Wellman, 29, whose legs are nearly useless, and veteran climber Mike Corbett were about 300 feet below the granite monolith’s summit when they called it a day late Tuesday.

The two men began their assault on the landmark formation July 19 when Corbett carried Wellman from his wheelchair to El Capitan’s base. They have spent nights dangling in sleeping bags thousands of feet above the forested Yosemite Valley floor.


“They are a full day behind schedule and are now expected to reach the top between noon and 2 p.m. Wednesday,” park spokeswoman Lisa Dapprich said Tuesday after talking with the two men by radio.

“Their muscles are tired and sore and they are really sick of being on that rock,” she said, “but they are still in good spirits and are determined to complete the climb.”

Wellman, a naturalist lecturer at the park and director of Yosemite’s access program for the handicapped, has been confined to a wheelchair since being paralyzed from the waist down in a 100-foot fall in the John Muir Wilderness outside the park in 1982.

He fell while “scrambling,” climbing without a rope, and spent a night wedged in a crevice before he was rescued. He suffered a spinal injury that left him with minimal use of his legs.

In choosing El Capitan to make his comeback, Wellman picked a formidable climb that each year attracts expert climbers from around the world. An avid climber before the accident, he would be the first paraplegic to scale the face of El Capitan.

Wellman and Corbett had hoped to reach the top by Tuesday when they began their difficult climb up the western face of the giant slab of granite.

Known as “Mr. El Cap” because he already holds the record for most ascents of El Capitan, Corbett is trying to complete his 42nd climb of the sheer rock wall. Because of Wellman’s disability, Corbett will be doing the physical equivalent of four ascents, other climbers waiting at the top of El Capitan said Tuesday.

The men are using a “multi-pitch” method of ascension, meaning that between Wellman and where the rope is anchored above him, a distance known as the “pitch,” several lengths of rope are used.

During the entire climb, Corbett has scaled ahead to set the climbing ropes in the granite face in 125-foot pitches. Wellman then has been pulling himself up the ropes with a T-bar lift device that he and Corbett designed for the climb.

Dapprich said the climb had become easier by the day because the 200 pounds of gear, food and water the two started with has dwindled to less than 100 pounds, making it easier to drag up behind them.