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A Paraplegic’s Climb and a Lesson in Grace

Updated: Feb 10, 2020

By Connie Hubble

In 1987 I had the opportunity to get to know a man who was in physical rehabilitation from a fall he had survived five years earlier. In a freak accident, the then 21-year-old mountain climber, named Mark Wellman, fell 100 feet and injured his spine. From that moment on he was a paraplegic (meaning he had no control or feeling in his legs). I met him at Kaiser Hospital Rehab Center in Vallejo, California when I took my children to visit with some of the patients there. I was so impressed with his positive attitude, and the intensity he put into his rehabilitation. But when I learned that he had a dream to climb mountains again, I thought to myself “this guy must still be in denial about the extent of his injury. How can you climb a mountain without the use of your legs?”

Then in 1989 I ate humble pie as I had the great opportunity to go to Yosemite to watch Mark

Wellman climb one of the United State’s most formidable sheer cliffs, El Capitan. Mark climbed the 3,569 foot mountain using only his upper body. He used a pulley system that he invented which allowed him to hoist himself up the mountain by doing pull-ups. Mark estimated that he did 7,000 pull-ups over the space of eight days. He climbed during the heat of the day and rested at night in a bed hung on the side of the cliff. Mark Wellman is a model of positivity, guts, and self-reliance.

I need to mention though, that he did not do the climb alone. See, a year before the climb, Mark met a man nicknamed “El Cap” (because he knew every facet of El Capitan - more than any other climber). Mike Corbett, “El Cap,” challenged Mark to climb the mountain with him, and the two men immediately set out to devise a plan. They made a prototype of the pulley system they used to climb El Capitan.

They began their practice climbs by taking baby steps. At first, they climbed trees together. And then went on to boulders, and then small mountain cliffs. Each day making it a little farther than the day before.

During the big climb on El Capitan, “El Cap” would climb ahead to set the pins, and then Mark

would pull himself up to that point. “El Cap” would then descend back down the mountain to hoist up the 250 pounds of gear that the two men were bringing along. They needed food, water, clothes, beds, and other equipment. Again “El Cap” would climb ahead to set the pins, and Mark would pull himself up to that point. Then, “El Cap” would go back down to hoist up the equipment. They did this over and over hundreds of times.

The last 100 yards of the climb were the most difficult because after seven days of muscling upward, exhausted from not only climbing, but fighting winds and record heat, “El Cap” was not able to secure their ropes. The gravelly slope would not hold the metal spikes, and the slope was too steep for Mark to drag his legs up. They were stuck…. dangling almost three quarters of a mile up in the air. “El Cap” and Mark heard cheers from the top. Their family and friends were waiting for them. Their cheers gave the two men courage.

“El Cap” did the only thing he could do, and that was to lift Wellman onto his back to traverse the last 100 yards. And as he did so, both men knew that a single misstep or a slip on the gravelly surface, could send them both hurdling off the edge of the cliff. But they made it, making Mark Wellman the first paraplegic to climb El Capitan.

Does the inclusion of “El Cap” into Mark Wellman’s climb make Mark’s accomplishment less impressive?

I would submit that it makes the climb MORE impressive. For a person to understand he needs help, and to accept it, is a tough thing f to do sometimes. For Mark to give 100% of all he had to something that most able-bodied persons would never dare to do is remarkable. For Mark to trust “El Cap” enough to let him carry him when he was not able to summit the mount, is awesome….and I mean awesome in the true sense of the word. Full of awe.

Over the last 30 years, as I have considered the great accomplishment of Mark Wellman in climbing El Capitan, I have likened his climb to the grace of God.

Mark, though impressive, remarkable, and awesome, could not have accomplished his climb without “El Cap.” We, too, are dependent upon the Lord in our quest to live a joyful life and return to live with our Heavenly Father someday. We cannot accomplish such a feat without the glorious gift of grace that the Lord offers. He makes it possible for us to repent, so we can be free of sin, guilt, sorrow, and pain.

Each one of us needs a Savior who will climb with us, go before us, and carry us when needed. When we get to the point where we can admit that we need the help the Lord offers, and we are willing, like Mark, to trust the Lord,then we can truly make astounding progress in this life.

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