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September 18, 2010

Overcoming obstacles: Climber with cerebral palsy conquers El Capitan

The newest conqueror of Yosemite's El Capitan is Stephen Wampler, a Coronado man with severe cerebral palsy who normally uses a power chair to accomplish his daily activities.

Since Monday, Wampler, 42, has been pulling himself up the 3,000-foot face of El Capitan's Zodiac Route. He was set to finish Friday evening. Inspired by previous El Capitan climbs by disabled people, such as the 1989 ascent by Mark Wellman, Wampler is the first person with cerebral palsy to scale the rock face.

Hundreds of climbers attempt to climb El Capitan each year, but the National Park Service doesn't keep records because the climb doesn't require a permit. Wampler was being helped along the way by Tommy Thompson, a veteran rock climber who also climbed with Wellman, the first paraplegic to make the climb in 1989.

He trained for more than a year. Using a rigged apparatus that looks like a lounge chair with handlebars, Wampler spent the last five days pulling himself up, five inches at a time, a few hundred feet each day, for an equivalent of about 20,000 pull-ups.

During a break on Wednesday, with 650 feet left in his climb, he told a reporter with ABC News that he was "tired, exhausted and ready to get this thing over with."

His wife, Elizabeth, and their two children, were anxiously waiting and watching the climb at the base of the cliff.

On Tuesday, the second day of the climb, the family held a brief conversation via walkie-talkie.

"The kids want to say something to their dad," Elizabeth Wampler said to her beaming husband, suspended in mid-air.

"We love you!" the kids shouted.

He smiled.

For Wampler, this climb is all about the kids -- his own, as well as kids growing up with disabilities. The climb is a fundraising effort for the Stephen J. Wampler Foundation, an organization he started to help children with disabilities.

"Stephen's doing this so kids can see themselves beyond their chairs," Elizabeth Wampler said in a promotional video. "They'll see that a physical disability is not who you are."

Proceeds will help support Camp Wamp, a camp near Lake Tahoe for children with physical disabilities. Wampler attended the camp as a 9-year-old. A few years ago, he found out that the camp had been shuttered.

"The program that was closed down ended the opportunity for kids to have the opportunities I had growing up," Wampler said.

Wampler started the camp back up with the condition that children don't have to pay -- it's expensive enough for parents of disabled children, he said.

"The camp that Stephen designed is very specific and that experience is capability," Elizabeth Wampler said in the video. "It's about realizing that you have a physical disability and deciding that in spite of that, you're going to see what limits you can push."

Wampler didn't have to push his limits anymore once he reached the top. The trip down El Capitan was going to be a lot easier than the trip up -- eight Marines volunteered to escort him back to the valley floor.

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