2 pioneers make their mark Paraplegics ski across Sierras

April 14, 1993|By McClatchy News Service

YOSEMITE, Calif -- It wasn't exactly a piece of cake -- they'l admit it was downright harrowing, once you get them talking about it -- but the two men who pioneered trans-Sierra skiing for paraplegics arrived right on schedule.

Both were elated with their victory. Both were too exhausted and thirsty to enjoy the champagne that awaited them. One said, "Never again," and one was mentally gearing up for another trip in a couple of weeks.

Sunburned, rock-hard, a bit sweaty and grizzled, Mark Wellman and Jeff Pagels rounded a bend and schussed down a snowy slope to arrive at Crane Flat at noon yesterday, just as they had predicted when they left Lee Vining early Saturday on the 50-mile journey.

There were plenty of cross country ski tracks on the route -- it is the same route that becomes Highway 120 once the snow melts. But Mr. Wellman and Mr. Pagels were the first to make it without having the use of their legs.

Instead, they traveled on low-slung, lightweight wheelchair-like sleds called "Sit-Skis," made by Fortress Wheelchair Co. of Clovis, near Fresno.

"It's very simple," said Mr. Wellman, 32, of Truckee. "You just pull yourself along with your arms -- quite easy downhill, murder uphill."

He guessed that he and Mr. Pagels climbed 2,000 feet on the journey, in which they towed all their gear behind them on sleds.

Mr. Wellman, paralyzed in a rock-climbing accident in 1982, gained national attention in 1991 when he became the first paraplegic to climb Half Dome in the Yosemite Valley. Similarly, he had climbed El Capitan there in 1989. He designs climbing gear and has written a book about his climbing experience.

Mr. Pagels, 44, of Green Bay, Wis., paralyzed when a tree fell on him in 1984, is a world record holder in handicapped ski competition.

He works as a park planner for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Accompanying them on the trip were two National Ski Patrol veterans, Larry Coady of Chatsworth and Rick Stein of Santa Barbara.

Their assignment was to do nothing unless some dire emergency arose.

"It was the hardest thing in the world not to help when they struggled," said Mr. Coady.

Added Mr. Stein with a chuckle, "That, and it was almost impossible to keep up with them when the terrain was even. They only slowed down when they had a steep side hill."

The foursome left Ellery Lake on the east side of Tioga Pass at 9 a.m. Saturday, bucking 50-mph head wind. They made it over the pass and down to Tuolumne Meadows that day.

On Sunday, they traveled to Olmsted Point, and it was there that disaster came closest.

Mr. Wellman's Sit-Ski flipped as he was traversing a slide area, sending him tumbling until he belayed himself with his ice ax at the top of a 1,000-foot drop.

After that, Mr. Pagels said, he decided to accept a push to send him past the treacherous stretch.

"I guess I thought, 'What am I doing here?' about once every minute, on the average, that whole trip," said Mr. Pagels.

"There was some terrifying stuff, but then we would be past it, in all that beautiful scenery. It was won

derful, all in all. Yesterday was incredibly beautiful. I slept like a baby last night."

Asked if he would like another such trip, however, he declared, "Never again."

Not so with Mr. Wellman. He said he would like to rest up a couple of weeks, then ski in to Tuolumne Meadows with his girlfriend for a few days.

"This is the way to go," he said.

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