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Wampler’s Ascent – why I climbed El Capitan


Stephen Wampler nearing the end of his epic 6-day climb

Born with a severe form of cerebral palsy, Stephen Wampler has led a challenging life. His greatest challenge, though, was self-imposed – as he took on the world’s biggest rock face, El Capitan, which stands almost twice the height of the Empire State Building.

Wampler’s climb in 2010 is the subject of the feature-length documentary Wampler’s Ascent, but he insists it was never a personal mission.

“No!” he exclaims with a burst of laughter, when asked whether he will be attempting another climbing challenge. He describes the climb as the hardest experience of his life.

 Wampler climbed the 3,000ft mountain with the full use of only one limb 
His reaction is hardly surprising when you consider that he spent five nights and six days strapped to the mountainside. He climbed the 3,000ft rock face with full use of only one limb, completing approximately 20,000 pull-ups to reach the top. His goal? Raising awareness for the Wampler Foundation – his own non-profit organization set up to provide physically disabled children with a unique outdoors experience.

The foundation was created in 2002, inspired by Wampler’s own childhood experiences at a wilderness summer camp in the Sierra Nevada.

“He went to the camp for nine summers, for one week at a time,” says Stephen’s wife Elizabeth, who helps to run the foundation alongside her husband. “He loved everything about it and it changed who he was. It’s a place with very rugged terrain, so it’s difficult to get around for anybody – but it’s where he learned that he can do anything.”


Wampler with film crew on Day 6 of the climb

And it turned out he could. After camp he went off to college to study Environmental Engineering, got married, had children, and led what most of us would call a normal life. But despite his numerous successes, when Stephen learned that the camp he’d attended as a child had closed down, he became fixated with reopening it.

“We spoke to the people in our town, and people just jumped to support the concept and his ideas,” says Elizabeth. “They started donating money and it took off like a blaze. We’ve never seen anything like it.”

Soon the camp was restored and bigger than ever, renamed Camp WAMP (Wheelchair Adventure Mountain Programs) and designed for children aged ten to 18 with physical disabilities.

Despite the physical limitations of its members, the Wamplers are keen to create a “very typical American summer camp” experience.

“Even though they have disabilities they can jump on their counsellor’s back and go for hikes,” says Elizabeth. “They have campfires. They go fishing and they have survival challenges and all the rest of it.

“Our big picture philosophy is ‘let’s help you to get the help you need with your physicality’. But beyond that, what have you got left? You’re still a whole human being, so what can you do? If you can’t move at all – if it’s that severe – let’s talk about your brain. Let’s figure out what you can do. And that’s how these kids are changing their minds about who they’re going to become, and their parents are very determined that these kids find their role in life.”

As well as foundations like Stephen’s, technological advancements have made it easier than ever for today’s disabled kids. Wheelchairs have improved dramatically, and walking aids have opened doors that were previously slammed shut. Stephen is positive that if he’d been born to his grandparents, he’d have been in an institution his whole life.

Attitudes have also caught up since the Sixties. Even Elizabeth speaks of being “awkward” and “terrified” upon first meeting Stephen through her then roommate, desperate not to say the wrong thing or hurt his feelings. “I was a doofus,” she says. “I was totally ridiculous.”


The kids of Camp WAMP

Stephen’s vision for the kids at Camp WAMP is that they should have the same opportunities he was given as a child. He proudly explains how many of the kids at camp have also gone on to become college graduates, and highlights one girl in particular – born with spina bifida – who recently became engaged (quite a rarity for those born with disabilities).

Elizabeth also points out one 17 year old, Felipe, who is determined to own a hotel. “He talks about it every summer,” she says. “He must have been 13, and we were just sitting around the fire when he came out with it: ‘I’m going to buy a hotel when I grow up’. And now he has this big plan. You know what? I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t do it.”

As for the Wamplers’ future, they plan to use the movie, Wampler’s Ascent, to raise funds to improve Camp WAMP. They also want to expand what they’re doing and increase visibility as a foundation.

Inspired by their favorite charities Wounded Warrior Project, Challenged Athletes and Easter Seals, their plan is to open a farming camp in the mountains near San Diego, where the kids can grow their own vegetables alongside their usual camp activities.

His simple message for kids growing up with physical disabilities is: go play.

“Go do it anyway, and make your disability irrelevant.”

With the right support and encouragement, perhaps the kids of Camp WAMP will go on to climb their own personal El Capitan.


Stephen Wampler shares his kit wishlist for tech-assisted travel triumph;

  1. Howe & Howe Ripchair 3.0 – When faced with rough terrain as a wheelchair user, the Ripchair is a solid option. It’s a go-anywhere, caterpillar-tracked beast that mocks mud and steep inclines and can even accept users’ existing chairs. Fully customizable with fishing rod holders, gun racks and the like, the Ripchair 3.0 makes proper wheelchair trekking a reality.
  2. Polaris Brutus – Available in a number of formats, the Brutus is an all-wheel drive behemoth of a vehicle. As close to self-driving as you’ll get until Google gets its act together, the Brutus employs a clever ‘Treadle Pedal’ to shift forward and backwards with no gear change required. That’s impressive enough before we mention the number of attachments that can be bought for your Brutus. A snow blower, for example, or a snow plough. Pallet forks, perhaps? Or a lawnmower for sir?
  3. DJI Phantom Aerial UAV Drone – Super-smart Quadcopter with a programmable autopilot function and a fail-safe function that allows it to return to its take-off position if the connection to the remote control is lost. A maximum horizontal speed of 22mph means the Phantom covers ground quickly enough for most and, handily, it also has a neat mount for…
  4. GoPro HERO 3+ Black Edition – GoPro has become the go-to name in rugged, portable HD recording devices and with the HERO 3+ has whats is probably the best supported (in terms of accessories) HD cam around, with mounts/cases, etc. available for more or less any application you can imagine. Full 1080p video plus optional Wi-Fi remote control and a host of quality upgrades over previous models make this a no-brainer for on-the-move recording.
  5. Magellan eXplorist 710 – You have GPS? Sure you do. So your smartphone GPS is rugged and waterproof, gives you a slew of topographical data, and has full road network data for US, Canada, Western Europe and Australia, plus major roads for the rest of the world? Oh, and it runs on two AA batteries for around 16 hours? Yeah, didn’t think so. If you want proper, wilderness-ready navigations, a serious GPS device like those in Magellan’s eXplorist range should be top your list.

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