Saturday, May 29, 2010

Californian trains to be first person with CP to climb El Capitan in Yosemite

From the San Diego Union Tribune:

CORONADO, Calif. — Stephen Wampler (pictured training) can’t walk, but if all goes according to plan the 41-year-old Coronado resident will become the first person with cerebral palsy to scale the 3,000-foot El Capitan granite monolith at Yosemite National Park.

His climb is set for the last week of summer.

“My first thought was, ‘That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,’ ” said Wampler’s wife, Elizabeth. “But I know him. He wouldn’t say it if he didn’t mean it.”

Wampler said his desire was fueled about a year ago while visiting Yosemite with a couple of friends — Mark Wellman, who in 1989 became the first paraplegic to ascend El Capitan, and Steve Muse, who in 2008 was the first quadriplegic to scale it.

“I looked at both and said, ‘If they can do it, I can do it,’ ” Wampler said.

But he is not doing the climb for himself. His goal is to raise $2 million for the Stephen J. Wampler Foundation, a nonprofit he started that sponsors camps for children with physical disabilities.

Wampler, who had never climbed before, began training May 18, 2009. He had more than a few doubts.

“I’m getting back to the gym after so many years of not training and going, ‘How am I going to do this?’ ”

Now he’s working out five days a week at the Family Gym in Coronado, and he recently went to Joshua Tree National Park with friends to practice his climbing technique. His biggest test came a couple of weeks ago when he scaled 2,500 feet to the Nose of El Capitan.

When he got back to camp, “people would give me a hug and I was so sore, it physically hurt just to touch me,” Wampler said.

He will basically be doing one “pull-up” at a time, bringing him four to six inches closer to the top. He expects to climb 400 to 450 feet per day. Wampler will employ much of the routine gear — ropes and bolts — along with a unique climbing apparatus he designed based on inventions used by others with physical disabilities. The project will cost roughly $400,000, which includes the climb and a crew documenting the experience for a film called “Wall.” He hopes to raise much of the money for his nonprofit through the film.

Ken Yager, president and founder of the Yosemite Climbing Association, has hiked El Capitan multiple times. He said the mission is difficult for even the most experienced athletes.

“At the beginning you get these self-doubts like, ‘Am I up for doing this for five days?’ ” Yager said. “The last few days the body is hurting and the hands are stiff.”

Yager in 2005 led Kelly Perkins, the first person with a heart transplant to scale El Capitan. He said more people with physical disabilities are climbing the Yosemite landmark. Scott Gediman, a park ranger and spokesman for Yosemite, said the park does not keep records of all who attempt to scale the summit but has seen a 12-year-old and a blind man succeed.

Wampler’s climb will raise money for an endowment to provide scholarships to those with physical disabilities to Camp Nejedly northwest of Lake Tahoe.

“It’s not like a usual camp where the camper would go with 150 people and get lost in the shuffle,” said Jenny Yarrow, director with the Steve Wampler Foundation. “This is 16 campers, 16 counselors.”

Wampler attended a similar camp when he was 9.

When the program almost closed, Wampler began his foundation to help save it. It raised $110,000 over two years.

“I am trying to give these kids the same experiences I had and hopefully the light will go off for them, too,” he said.

One of those kids is Jackie Schmidt, a senior at Bella Vista High School in Fair Oaks. Schmidt suffered a spinal cord injury when she was 10 while riding on an ATV. She uses a wheelchair, but counselors carry her around at Camp Nejedly.

“They are my legs for the week,” said Schmidt, who talked glowingly about the outings.

Wampler wants others with disabilities to share the same experience.

“Life is not over because you’re in a chair. There’s so much more you can do,” Wampler said. “You’re in a chair now. Move and create a new life for yourself.”