Paraplegic Gets to Top in 8-Day Yosemite Climb
After eight days of using only his muscular arms to pull himself up, six inches at a time, paraplegic climber Mark Wellman reached the summit of 3,500-foot El Capitan on Wednesday, exhausted but elated by his landmark feat.
“I have pains where I didn’t even know I had parts,” the 29-year-old park ranger said by radio to supporters at the foot of the granite monolith. “It’s great. It’s fantastic. It was a really great, beautiful climb and a really wonderful experience.”
Wellman and his expert climbing partner, Mike Corbett, were drenched in sweat when they reached the top just before 2 p.m. For the last 100 yards or so, Corbett, 35, carried Wellman piggyback as the rock leveled off at the summit.
Before greeting the approximately 50 well-wishers and reporters awaiting him, Wellman sat against a rock looking out over Yosemite Valley and nodding his head--a silent affirmation of his own determination. Both climbers appeared grim and subdued until a fellow ranger handed Wellman a bottle of champagne.
“Hey, it feels great,” Wellman said, popping the cork. “We’re at the top.”
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said Corbett, who completed a record 42nd ascent of El Capitan--twice as many as any other climber. He estimated that this ascent was as hard as making three regular climbs up the granite rock.
Corbett climbed ahead of Wellman to anchor ropes at each stage, or pitch, of the ascent. Wellman then pulled himself up using a T-bar device that the two men designed for the assault on the monolith.
A naturalist-lecturer at the park and director of Yosemite’s access program for the handicapped, Wellman has been using a wheelchair since he was paralyzed from the waist down in a 50-foot fall in the John Muir Wilderness outside the park in 1982.
“I got out of the wheelchair for eight days,” Wellman said at the summit. “Since the accident, I’ve never been out that long. I don’t consider myself disabled. I tried to overcome that by finding another way.”
In addition to using the T-bar, Wellman wore a special harness allowing him to rest whenever he needed to. He also wore “rock chaps,” well-padded pants that protected his paralyzed legs from being injured against the rock.
“It feels great to have climbed one of the longest unbroken pieces of granite in the world,” Wellman said.
And just how much strain did he feel after doing the equivalent of 7,000 pullups? “I feel good. I feel strong,” Wellman replied, flexing his massive biceps.
For the climb he wore the same boots he had on when he fell and suffered the spinal injury. But Wellman said it “was just a coincidence. They’re a good pair of boots, and these days I don’t wear out shoes too fast. I wear tires out.”
Asked if he thought rock climbing was something a paraplegic should be doing, Wellman replied, “If you feel you can do it, just go for it. That’s what it’s all about.”
Peregrine falcons gave Wellman “a real pump” during the agonizingly slow ascent, he said. “They were flying 50 feet away from me. You can’t see them from the valley floor. They sound like little jets flying by you.”
Wellman said he has thought about undertaking some new challenges such as cross-country skiing, but most immediate on his agenda were “a shower and a meal.”
Corbett said that even when Wellman was in a difficult position on the rock “he never complained. He is a true champ--solid as a rock.”
After spending the night Tuesday tied into sleeping bags on Chickenhead Ledge, Wellman and Corbett had about 300 feet to go.
They covered about 125 feet in the first two hours and just before noon Wellman left his gear on a ledge to lighten his load for the final push to the top.
“You have a dream and you know the only way that dream is going to happen is if you just do it--even if it’s six inches at a time,” Wellman told reporters before beginning the grueling ascent last Wednesday.
He said he chose a route that is almost straight up because it is more practical for him. The route included tackling the Shield Roof, a ledge jutting 40 feet out from the monolith, 2,000 feet above Yosemite Valley. The two climbers had to dangle beneath it and hoist themselves up a rope.
Corbett, a park janitor also known as “Mr. El Cap” for his record number of climbs, called his friend “a great companion, so solid, never complaining, always going for it.”
Their biggest problem was the wind, which Wellman said gusted from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day, sometimes blowing them 10 feet out from the cliff face. Temperatures occasionally soared to more than 100 degrees, but the wind was the bigger problem, the climbers agreed.
News coverage of the adventure has led to a reconciliation between Corbett and his family. He had been estranged from his family since his parents’ “really traumatic” divorce, a friend said.