Hanging Tough : Climbers' Trust in Each Other Is Etched in Rock

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are the sort of friends who are so close they trust one another with their lives.

If one falls, the other is there to catch him. If one needs a lift over some seemingly impassable hurdle, the other won't leave until the obstacle is conquered.

The friendship between Mark Wellman, 31, the paraplegic Yosemite park ranger whose wheelchair doesn't keep him from scaling mountains, and Mike Corbett, 37, a Yosemite medical clinic janitor, served each well over the two brutal weeks they dangled from Half Dome, climbing hand over hand up the famous granite wall.

Using skill and strength, Corbett--the most experienced rock climber in Yosemite--guided the way up one of the most difficult routes established by earlier climbers on the 2,200-foot north face. The pair reached the top Monday, met by Wellman's girlfriend and the admiring cameras of the news media.

And Wellman was there for his able-bodied friend early in the climb when the rock gave way, 700 feet above the ground, and Corbett plunged. Wellman locked their rope in place, stopping the fall at 20 feet. Both men downplayed the scare, but if Wellman had not acted quickly his friend would have continued in virtual free fall until the rope, his lifeline, caught.

"Your partner can save your life--you can save your partner's life," Wellman said this week, as the pair received congratulations from friends in the tightly knit Yosemite Valley community. "There are real close bonds."

It was their first major climb as a team since their dramatic ascent of 3,200-foot El Capitan, which introduced Wellman and Corbett to the nation two years ago. Since that feat, and as their friendship has grown, Wellman and Corbett have gained recognition from Yosemite Valley, where they live, to the Oval Office, where they met President Bush. Along the way, they secured a few endorsement contracts, though Bo Jackson need not feel threatened by the new celebrities.

The foundation of this partnership remains the granite they climb.

"There is a special bond," Corbett said, his hands and fingers punctured and scraped by the rock.

On their climbs, Corbett must take the lead, and, in effect, climb the rock twice. He pounds in the pitons that guide the ropes, and sets other support equipment in cracks as he climbs. Then, after Wellman muscles himself up the rope with brute arm strength, Corbett backtracks to remove the metal spikes. On Half Dome the cycle was repeated, time and again, inch by inch, for 13 days.

At the end of each afternoon, Corbett set up Wellman's bivouac--a sleeping bag suspended from the rock.

As evidenced by his arm and chest muscles, Wellman's job is not easy either. In all, Wellman figures he did 5,000 pullups up the rope, each time gaining no more than six inches, 2,200 feet in all.

"There is nothing easy to it," said Bruce Brossman, director of Yosemite's mountaineering school. "There aren't a whole lot of people who want to do that, and there aren't a whole lot of people who could do it."

Brossman said the route up Half Dome, known by rock climbers as Tis-Sa-Ack, is so perilous because of crumbly granite that fewer than 30 people have climbed it. Many veteran Yosemite climbers, including Brossman, have yet to try the route.

The climb took Corbett and Wellman six days longer than they anticipated, and five days longer than it took them to scale El Capitan, which reaches 1,000 feet higher into the sky above Yosemite Valley.

As they fought with two legs and four arms for every inch, they experienced what Wellman calls the "vertical ecosystem" that flatlanders never see. Peregrine falcons swooped down on prey a few feet from them. The rock is bare, except for moss and an occasional pine tree or rodent.

Park Supt. Michael Finley considered forbidding the climb, which was engineered by the Western Los Angeles County Council of the Boy Scouts as a fund-raiser. Finley cited a park policy against fund-raisers, and said he feared a flood of churches and hospitals wanting to hold charity "hike-a-thons" here.

"Pretty soon you would lose the character of the park," Finley said. In the end, however, the park service "preferred to look at this as an inspirational event," he said, and gave permission. Half of the $100,000 raised so far will go to programs for Scouts with handicaps, with the rest going to help make Yosemite more accessible to disabled people.

Finley's choice seemed popular in the aftermath of the pair's return to the valley. At a Yosemite Lodge reception on Tuesday night, tourists and Yosemite locals offered congratulations to Wellman and Corbett and asked for autographs.

Corporate sponsors also were there. Wellman wore a shirt bearing the name of a wheelchair manufacturer, Fortress, that helped pay expenses for the climb, along with several other companies.

"Guys like this aren't disabled," said Jim Papac, marketing manager for Fortress. To disabled shut-ins, he said, "guys like this are an inspiration."

The pair made arrangements to have the climb recorded on videotape and plan to market a video. But Wellman, who splits the proceeds from speeches with Corbett, said he has no plans to give up his day jobs as a ranger at Yosemite's interpretive center and as the park's handicapped access coordinator.

When the two men met five years ago, they never talked about climbing. "He knew that was how I got hurt--he didn't want to bum me out," Wellman said. He was 22 when he slipped while climbing a mountain in the John Muir Wilderness and fell 50 feet into a crevice. His legs were paralyzed.

In December, 1988, Wellman showed his friend a copy of Sport 'N Spoke, a magazine for disabled athletes, that featured a cover photo of a woman in a wheelchair being lowered down a rock. Corbett asked if Wellman, who liked skiing and kayaking, if he wanted to climb again.

After laying plans over drinks that night, they met at a big oak tree in Yosemite Valley, and with ropes in hand, began training. By July they had scaled El Capitan, the rock outcropping that dominates views on the north side of Yosemite Valley.

Wellman said he is not trying to send any message to disabled people by climbing.

"Everyone has their own goals," Wellman said. ". . . I don't climb rocks to say this is what a disabled person can do." He simply hopes people will see that he climbed before his accident, and he can still climb afterward--"no big deal."

But Corbett chose the tough Tis-Sa-Ack route because it is visible from the valley floor. He wants to bring attention to climbing, his first love, and hopes someone somewhere will find inspiration.

"I encourage other able-bodied people to stop and make a friend," Corbett said. "Never underestimate a person with a disability. They can blow your mind."

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