In 2006 I took part in two climbs with my partner Karen Darke, paraplegic for 15 years following a climbing accident when she was 21 (her story is the focus of her book “If You Fall” which you can buy from her website or most bookshops). When she was ten years old she visited El Cap and told her mum and dad that she would return one day and climb it, not realizing of course what that would mean, being a fairly big job for anyone, let alone someone who has not feeling below the armpits. Luckily for her, I’d climbed El Cap ten times, and was stupid enough to think that it would be easy. It wasn’t. But it was also not impossible.
To be frank Karen’s trajectory up El cap was as steep as the climb itself, beginning with a 10-metre jumar up a tree (to see how we could do it), followed by a 20-metre jumar up a climbing wall (to double-check my ideas worked), followed by two real climbs (Kilnsey Main overhang in Yorkshire and the Old Man of Stoer in Scotland), then off to Yosemite and the climb itself! Karen received a lot of negative comments about her dream to climb El Cap, with some even coming from fellow paraplegic climbers who had done it (including telling her to lose weight and get fitter). In my mind, anyone who could hand bike over the Himalayas, ski across Greenland and pull of a half Iron Man had more than enough determination to climb El Cap. Also, and this is a BIG ALSO, never ever be put off by other people’s own opinions about what YOU can do. No one knows your potential, or your willingness to apply new ideas to old impossibilities. The primary reason we climbed El Cap was our ability to think around problems, work as a team, and be defeated by other peoples negativity, using it instead for positive ends. So what I’m saying is that if you want to do it, then try it and find out for yourself if it is indeed beyond you.
The advantage for a paraplegic or disabled climber wanting to scale el cap or any wall is that the techniques required are limited, and so easy to define and master. These are:
- Ascend the rope as smoothly as possible, ideally in a short time.
- Look after oneself on a belay station and feel safe.
- Help with the mess at belay stations and bivvies, after all, you’re not there for a free ride!
First of all, let’s look at simply climbing a rope.
WHERE THERE’S ROPE THERE’S HOPE
Ropes are what tie a climb together, and your job is to climb that as fast, and as safely and as efficiently as possible. Don’t worry about not leading. It’s like sailing across the ocean; you may not be the one who steers the ship, but you’ve still got the balls to make the journey. Also, don’t be put off by macho wankers who tell you that you have to do a thousand pull-ups - they just don’t have the imagination to think of an easier way. Also, there is a lot of specialist gear on the market designed for people with disabilities, with much of it being priced so high that no one could ever afford to use it. In fact, in order to climb El Cap, the gear we needed was bought off the peg at bike, climbing and paragliding shops and was no more expensive than for any climber.
In order to climb the rope you’ll need:
HARDWARE AND SOFTWARE
- 1x 60-metre static rope 10mm to 11mm. This will be your primary climbing rope (on which you climb).
- 1x 60 metre 10mm to 11mm dynamic climbing rope (optional). This is your back up rope if you need it, allowing you to be belayed when jugging.
- 1X main harness. This should be a paragliding harness, and on El Cap, we used a Gin Yeti Harness which we bought for about £100. This provides a great deal of comfort and support and reduces the very real risk of toxic harness syndrome. It is also well worth reinforcing the harness at the hips with padding and gaffer tape to protect the hip bones (see route choice below).
- 1x safety harness. Although the paragliding harness should be more than enough, personally I would prefer to have a full spec climbing harness worn over or under the paragliding harness. This serves two purposes (when worn over). First, it gives a back up in case of failure of the paragliding unit, plus it can be worn at night when on ledges or when using the toilet (you can not sleep in your parapenting harness). For this, we used a Petzl Gym harness, which was light and unobtrusive and offered some gear racks.Note: It is vital that these two crucial components work well together, and I would recommend a great deal of thought being placed when choosing what type of harness to use, and then mating them together. On some of our early climbs, we used a rigid wooden seat paragliding harness, which although tough, comfy and bombproof, was eventually binned, as we imagined that the hard edges of the seat would hang up, plus get severely worn when jumaring.
- 1x Petzl handled ascender.
- 1x Petzl Fix pulley.
- 1x Petzl Micro ascender. This needs to be modified in order to make it into a pull-up bar. To do this buy a length of 10mm threaded bar (Homebase etc) and 4 nuts and washers. Locate the bar through the clip in the hole on the micro ascender and secure it with two nuts (check you can still remove the pin so as to locate it on the rope. Then wrap gaffer tape around the shaft until you can slide on two mountain bike/BMX handgrips and glue these in place. On El Cap, we actually used a Russian titanium ascender, but these don’t seem to be easily available so the Petzl Micro is a good alternative. NOTE: It’s well worth tying some form of clip loop to this jumar to avoid accidental loss, and this could be done with an 8mm sling (30cm), but care should be taken not to mistake this pull up bar as anything but, as this clip loop will not provide a good enough anchor point as a safety back up.
- 1x Petzl Pro Traction. This is attached directly to the paragliding harness (and through the backup harness’s belay loop). This is best achieved by using a Petzl OMNI Triact krab, which is both easy to operate (no hooked nose), and locates the Pro Traction correctly.
- 1x Petzl OK Triact locking karabiner.
You will also need several screwgates (big chunky auto lockers work best for big wall climbing unless dexterity is a problem, then go for either screw gates or doubled up plain gates). You will also need 2 daisy chains each with lockers on them (basically you can never have enough locking karabiners on a wall!). I would also recommend making an old school Cows tail out of 10mm dynamic rope, with one long end (waist to fingertip with screwgate attached) and one short.
On top of this, you should also carry self-rescue/moving gear including 2 Tiblocs, a spare pulley (metal), a belay device Petzl Grigri is recommended for wall use, plus also carry a standard belay device). Lastly carry two prusik loops (1.5m of 6mm), a cordelette (6m x 7mm) and a penknife.
- 1x Helmet. Get a light and well-ventilated model and wear it!
- 1x sunglasses.
- 1x Body protection. You will need the following items to protect you on the wall. Ankle-high boots to protect feet and ankles. Combined knee and shin guards (we used the fantastic guards made by Sixsixone, which were very tough and did the job. You will also need to protect your hands, so go for tough leatherwork or big wall gloves (Metolius or Petzl), and on some sections, you will need to protect your arms and elbows, and again Sixsixone offers several options.
- 1x Hydration. Jugging up in the midday sun can be a hot affair, so take along a bladder pack (you should be able to rig this so it can be stowed/attached to your yeti/paragliding harness).
On top of the equipment listed above, you will also need the full gamut of big wall tackle. I will deal with this after I have gone through climbing the rope.
ROPE CLIMBING TECHNQUE
Basically you the climber hang from the Petzl Pro Traction, which is attached to the Paragliding harness via the Petzl Omni locker. The Petzl handled ascender is then attached to the rope (the one going up to the anchor), with your cows tail being clipped into the bottom of it (both acting as a backup and ensuring it can’t be lost). We will call this the TOP jumar. The un-tensioned rope coming from the Pro-traction is now secured inside the FIX pulley (using an OK Krab) and clipped into the head/top hole in the jumar. The Micro ascender is then attached to the rope coming out of the pulley (this can be secured to you via a daisy chain). We will call this the PULL-UP jumar.
You are now ready to climb.
Push the top jumar up until it’s out of reach (you may be able to gaffer tape a length of wire/bamboo/tent pole to this to allow it to be pushed further away, as the further the distance the greater the speed).
Slide the pull-up jumar up as high as you can and pull down and repeat until the top jumar is too close to make an effective stroke.
Push up the top jumar again and repeat.
This system creates a 3:1 pulley meaning an 80kg climber needs only pull 36 kg to lift themselves. There seems to be some machismo behind disabled big wall climbing, believing that 1:1 pull-ups were the ONLY WAY, but in fact, this system is far easier and also far quicker, as although a monster strong climber may be faster for the first 20 pull-ups (1:1 is faster), after 100+ they will soon slow down! This system is solid, safe (it reduces rope bounce and injury) and has redundancy built-in.
BIG WALL FACTORS
When myself and Karen first went to climb El Cap all we had in our bag of tricks was the ability to jumar up a rope, but soon we realized that there were quite a few things worth knowing, both for speed, safety and to reduce stress!
I will list them here in no particular order.
In order to reduce the chance of pressure sores or toxic shock, it is vital that the climber goes from one portaledge to another, that that weight can be taken off their harness as soon as possible. This is achieved by always hauling up a ledge and having it pre set up when they arrive. If at all possible the ledge should be set in such a way that they can jumar up to it then be swung in, but when this isn’t possible then the leader above can usually push the ledge away from the wall as they come up.
A vital technique for the easy arrival at the ledge (jumaring downwards is very difficult in this situation) involves first securing the haul line to the belay (fig eight clipped off high, then clipped in again via am alpine butterfly at the master-point). Once secured pull up three metres of slack and attached the jumar rope a third time using an Italian (munter) hitch and tie this off. The rope climber, on reaching the belay (above the portaledge), then be easily lowered into the portaledge, safely.
LEAVING THE LEDGE
Once the rope is fixed above, you should get set up and begin taking in all the slack until the rope is taught. Jumar up until you begin to lift off the ledge. Clip into the haul line and use the slack between you and the belay to lower yourself out (after unclipping your daisy chains etc).
Always clip into the rope as you climb, keeping the loops with you as you climb. If you want more of a safety margin then the leader above can belay you with a second dynamic rope (best done with a magic plate).
Unless time is of the essence then leave hauling until the rope climber is at the belay, as high winds, or extra ropes or bags, and make climbing the rope more stressful.
At each belay, the climber must secure themselves to via their two daisy chains, and this must be taken into account when setting up the belay station (as the climber will be lower than the belay).
On Zodiac, we climbed as a 4, and on many pitches (I led all but 2 pitches), I had begun the next pitch as soon as the cleaner reached me, leaving one person on the belay below to release the haul bags, and the second (on the next belay) to haul and help Karen (once Karen arrived she would belay while the second hauled). This system, although prone to chaos, did allow us to climb the route in the standard time of just three days.
ODDS AND ENDS
The climber will probably be prone on the ledge, so some kind of head support would be good, plus they will have greater exposure to the sun, so having an umbrella/sunshade would be handy.
All of the information above is intended to be integrated into existing big wall technology and technique and although sounding simple, still requires a huge amount of patience, skill and tenacity in order for it to work.
If you have any more questions please get in touch.