Climbing with Ability

Summit Everest? Conquer El Capitan? For Some, Disabilities are Minor Obstacles to Epic Achievement
By Terry Thompson
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Bill Irwin lost his vision to an eye disease at age 28. Erik Weihenmayer lost his vision at age 13. Tom Whittaker is a below-the-knee amputee. Mark Wellman is a paraplegic from a spinal cord injury. What do these individuals have in common?

The first answer that comes to mind is that they are all persons with disabilities. But there is a better answer: They are all persons who find pleasure and meaning in life by challenging themselves on some of the world's classic mountain climbs and treks.

On March 8, 1990, Bill Irwin, accompanied only by his guide dog Orient, set out from Springer Mountain, Georgia during some of the worst flooding in Georgia history. On November 21, eight months, dozens of falls, and one broken rib later, Irwin arrived at Mount Katahdin, Maine, having become the first blind man to through-hike the Appalachian Trail. Irwin's courageous trek was fueled by his deep spirituality, and by his love for the mountains. Though he couldn't see the magnificent vistas or sunsets during his trek, Irwin says he found solace in the silence of the woods, and beauty in the smells and other sensations of nature.

Mark Wellman has similar affections for the natural world, having climbed mountains since the age of twelve in his native Sierra Nevada and in the French Alps. In 1982, he broke his back in a fall while descending the Seven Gables in the John Muir Wilderness. The accident left him paralyzed below the waist. It took seven years before he was ready to climb again, but in 1989, he and his climbing partner, Mike Corbett, returned to the mountains that Wellman so loved, the Sierra Nevada. Before a television audience, Wellman became the first paraplegic to climb the sheer 3,000-foot granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. As a paraplegic, Wellman climbs exclusively with his hands, and relies on his tremendous grip and arm strength, as well as some creative rope adaptations. In 1991, Wellman climbed another of Yosemite's classic rock walls, the 2,200-foot face of Half Dome.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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