Paraplegic man completes climb up Calif. summit Yosemite ordeal took pair 13 days

September 17, 1991|By Paul McHugh | Paul McHugh,San Francisco Chronicle

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. -- After almost two weeks of climbing, Mike Corbett staggered over the final granite slab to Half Dome's 8,800-foot summit at the side of his paraplegic friend Mark Wellman.

Grins split their stubble-wreathed faces as they ascended into the cheers of 60 onlookers and sprays from geysers of champagne on the 13th day of what had been planned as a seven-day climb.

Below was the broad blue expanse of Yosemite Valley; behind them, the distant shoulder of El Capitan, scene of their previous triumph in 1989, the first major rock climb by a paraplegic.

Mr. Wellman, a Yosemite ranger, was paralyzed by a mountaineering accident in 1982.

"That was a fantastic climb, a lot harder than we thought," Mr. Wellman said yesterday. "I feel I barely made it."

"I didn't know if I could make it," said Mr. Corbett. "We laughed that we wanted something harder than El Capitan. We found it."

Mr. Wellman, 31, made the difficult ascent up the 2,200-foot Tis-Sa-Ack route to Half Dome's summit using his arms to perform almost 5,000 pull-ups on a rope set by Mr. Corbett.

As the pair reached the top, Paulette Irving, Mr. Wellman's girlfriend, gave him a hug and kiss and fed him a welcome slice of orange.

Mr. Corbett's pregnant wife, Nikyra, talked with him from the Yosemite Valley floor through a television link.

"It's good to see you on top. I wish I was there with you," she said, wiping away a tear.

The climbers had taken their food and water supplies to the limit, sharing their last breakfast bar before finishing the climb.

Exhaustion showed in the lines around their eyes. But they were exultant as they grabbed bottles of champagne to spray each other and the crowd when they reached the top at 1:25 p.m.

"This second summit was much sweeter than the first," Mr. Wellman said as he settled into a wheelchair that a support crew provided at the crest. "Every pitch was tough. There was some scary stuff up there."

He pointed at Mr. Corbett. "This guy is the technician. He's the big wall leader. Now we're two for two," Mr. Wellman said.

The exhausted pair halted their climb only 75 feet from the summit Sunday and set out to finish their climb at 8:30 a.m. after sleeping onthe face of Half Dome for a 12th night.

With Mr. Corbett leading, they inched up the final crest of Half Dome's vertical face.

An overhang forced them to swing their rope eight to 10 feet away from the face. "Maybe it was more like 20 feet at one place," Mr. Wellman said.

Mr. Corbett, 37, Yosemite's most experienced rock climber, made each part of the extraordinary climb twice, once to set pitons and a second time after returning to pick up their equipment after Mr. Wellman had pulled himself up hand-over-hand to the next pitch.

Their stamina ebbing, Mr. Corbett was suffering from numbness in his arms near the end of the ascent, and Mr. Wellman's left arm was aching from pulling his body up the granite face on his ascent bar.

But during the the final feet before their victory, Mr. Wellman assured waiting onlookers:

"We're making it. We're making it."

They finally did. In response to the inevitable question of what their next adventure would be, Mr. Corbett answered: "We'll celebrate this one now. I could see doing Lost Arrow [also in Yosemite], but it won't be anything like this."

Resting his right arm, numb from 13 days of pounding pitons into rock cracks, Mr. Corbett then declared, "This is the limit of what can be achieved in this fashion. I wouldn't want to push myself any further than this. I'd crumble under the pressure."

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