Brothers, Keepers

When a climber decides to take his disabled brother up Yosemite’s big walls, he gets a first-hand look at his sibling’s grit and learns a lesson about impermanence.

Bros in Arms: The author and brother Sean showing off their guns. Climbing big walls is a matter of thousands of pull ups for Sean.
Bros in Arms: The author and brother Sean showing off their guns. Climbing big walls is a matter of thousands of pull ups for Sean.

What compels a big-wall climber to leave the relative safety of the ground to live for days on the side of a rock wall enduring a regimen of cold canned food and paper-bag toilets? What makes us go where dehydration, exhaustion and the specter of serious injury and death are the norm? Many things: the exhilaration and perspective of thousands of feet of vertical exposure; the unique problem-solving skills such ascents require; the brute physical exertion; and Nietzsche’s old maxim that “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.”

I embrace the irony of finding a thrill in feeling more alive when I risk my life, but risking my brother’s life is an entirely different matter. So, am I insane for bringing him up the side of this granite monolith? Will his arms carry him through this heinous vertical trial? Will his skin withstand the punishment of 30 pitches and life on the wall for six days?

Worried thoughts cycle through my mind as I watch Sean drag himself across the low-angled slab above me. We are 500 feet up on the “Free Blast,” comprised of the first 10 pitches of the Salathe Wall, one of the longest lines on El Cap and I am beginning to come apart at the seams with irrational fear for his well-being. It’s dumb—not my concern or the climb, but this incessant digging at my emotions.

Fortunately, the business at hand—namely, untangling and managing hundreds of feet of rope—brings me back to reality. The one where everything is OK: No one has fallen to their death, no rocks plummet from above, and my brother, a T-12 paraplegic, is doing just fine. “Relax,” I tell myself, “we’ve done this before, we can do it again; don’t overthink it, just be it.”

Brothers, KeepersThis isn’t the first time we’ve climbed El Cap. In fact, it’s become a ritual in the 18 years since Sean broke his back at the waist after jumping into the water from a height of 30 meters. He was 25 at the time and I was 21. A few years later, after hearing about Mark Wellman’s first paraplegic ascent of El Capitan, I suggested that we climb together in Yosemite National Park.  A decade passed before Sean did his first of thousands of  pull-ups on this unforgiving wall.

The first time we scaled El Capitan, all 3,000 feet of that stone juggernaut, we did a route called “Space.” Originally established in the late 70s as a 10-day rope solo, the line still retains its reputation of steep, difficult and ballsy climbing. Ammon McNeely, the self-styled “Big Wall Pirate” and our trusted-yet-slightly-intoxicated captain, suggested the route based on two criteria. First, it’s extremely overhanging, providing less drag for Sean’s several thousand pull-ups and, second, with more than 50 ascents of El Cap under his belt, Ammon needed a unique challenge.

Brothers, KeepersWhen we told climber friends of our plan, theirs eyes went wide. “Is Space the smartest choice,” they asked with concern. Ammon’s reply, punctuated by a 16-ounce can of malt liquor, was, “Arrrg Mateys, nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Sean’s introduction to big-wall climbing was not subtle. He silently endured days of terror, uncertain of the next move and whether or not he could withstand the physical requirements. With his wheelchair on the ground, he was reliant on us for his mobility. This was his toughest challenge.

Over the next seven days, our party of four (we’d shanghai’ed pro-climber Cedar Wright as hauling slave) labored late into every night before finally assembling our portable ledges to eat and drink to the accompaniment of Sublime or Rage Against the Machine on our little radio. I would then assist Sean in taking off his specialized Wellman harness-chaps, and help him check his skin for pressure sores—the one true problem that could prevent us from succeeding. Infection from pressure sores can kill.

Brothers, KeepersOn the summit, Sean and I gave each other an exhausted embrace. We were finished with our suffer-fest and satisfied with the accomplishment of a difficult personal goal. Cedar, more animated than ever, screamed with joy, “I’m done, it’s over, thank God.” Ammon, having led every pitch, finally let down his guard and collapsed. Sean quipped that El Cap had become his wheelchair and smiled big at his newfound vertical mobility. We all felt different. I felt closer to my brother and to the others who shared in the brotherhood of the rope. The climb enlightened us, and we realized the significance of introducing people with so-called disabilities to activities deemed impossible.

But happiness is fleeting. The flame of the successful ascent wanes. And so, you do it again, and again. For the last four years, along with various partners, Sean and I have continued to travel to Yosemite to climb El Capitan. Our climbs have become a reflection of the truly indomitable and irrepressible human spirit that is fostered through the exploration of wild places. They personify the paradox that life is not always what it seems. Life is not over for those who are physically challenged. On the contrary, it has just begun again, in a unique way.

The adaptive process is ongoing for Sean and, to be honest, I will be adapting to his paralysis for the remainder of my life too. The climbs we share help both of us immensely and they remind me not only of the imperfection and the impermanence of life, but of the importance of living in the moment. Sean continues to teach me that hope is what you want, fate is what you get, and try is what you do.  •

Timmy O’Neill is the co-founder of Paradox Sports (, a non profit that encourages and aids the disabled community to pursue human-powered sports.

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