Grit and a Granite Will Conquer El Capitan

updated 08/14/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/14/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The last 100 yards were the hairiest part of the entire climb," Mark Wellman later recalled. After seven days of muscling upward, the 29-year-old paraplegic and his climbing partner, Mike Corbett, 35, were inching toward the brink of success. Below them, some 3,000 feet of sheer rock known as El Capitan fell away into Northern California's Yosemite Valley. Above lay the summit ledge. Corbett had done his best to secure their rope with pitons, but the metal spikes would not hold in the treacherous, gravelly slope girding the summit. As Corbett lifted Wellman onto his back, both knew that a single misstep could send them tumbling off the edge of the cliff. Nearing the top, however, the two heard the shouts—"Yeah, Mark!"—and they knew they had done it.

"I got choked up seeing them come up over that ledge," says Wellman's girlfriend, Catherine Collamer, 33. By making it up 3,569 feet of relentless verticality, Wellman became the first climber to use his arms alone to scale the face of El Capitan, one of the most formidable cliffs in North America. Indeed, just thinking about Wellman's feat would leave most people with two good legs hugging the sidewalk in terror. For Well-man, however, it was just another instance of not letting his useless legs weigh him down. "You know, I don't consider myself disabled," he says. "My whole thing, whether it's kayaking, skiing or rock climbing, is finding another way."

As for Corbett, at the top his first words to girlfriend Owen Schneider, 27, were "Will you marry me?" Schneider, figuring the altitude had gone to Corbett's head, demurred until she and her suitor could have a more down-to-earth discussion. Besides his proposal of union, however, Corbett, a world-class climber who supports his passion for the mountains by working at the Yosemite Medical Clinic as a janitor, was also contemplating an unexpected reunion with his family. Among the millions of TV viewers who had followed the climbers' progress was Corbett's father, George, who had lost track of his son nine years ago and had long presumed him dead.

Wellman, a Yosemite National Park ranger, found the way up El Capitan when he met Corbett late last year. Corbett knew Wellman had taken a 50-foot fall while climbing California's Seven Gables peak in 1982, and that the accident had fractured two vertebrae and cost him control of his legs. But he didn't realize how much Wellman wanted to climb again until his friend showed him a magazine for the handicapped called Sports'N Spokes. "On the cover was this guy from Australia in a wheelchair climbing a mountain," Corbett says, recalling a photo of a chair-bound man hanging from climbing ropes. "I asked Mark if he would ever do something like that and he said, 'Yeah, but not in a wheelchair.' So I said, 'Let's figure out a way to get you back on the rock.' "

Within a couple of weeks of their meeting, the unusual assault on El Capitan became an obsession that bound the two men together. For Wellman, the ascent was a way to liberate himself from his chair, at least for a few days; Corbett hoped to prove that he was more than just a climbing addict. After Wellman hit on the idea of attaching an eight-inch pull-up bar to a device called a jumar, they devised a system that would let Wellman follow Corbett's lead up the face. A familiar piece of equipment to rock climbers, the jumar employs a cog that allows it to be alternately slid up the rope and locked in place so a climber can inch along. Corbett and Wellman began practicing, going up and down a huge oak tree. By the spring, they had moved on to actual rock faces, making 35 practice climbs together. To get in shape for the big event, Well-man began a strict training regimen of swimming and lifting weights.

From the start on the morning of July 19, progress was grueling and slow. At each "pitch," or stage of the climb, Corbett would forge ahead, hammering pi-tons into the rock to anchor the rope. Wellman would jumar up after him. (Later, Wellman figured the climb was the equivalent of doing 7,000 pull-ups.) Corbett then clambered back down, removing the pitons and hoisting their 200 pounds of gear, including special sleeping cots called porta-ledges, 11 gallons of water, and food, such as canned fruit, bagels and cream cheese. The most technically difficult part of the climb was an overhang called the Shield Roof that juts out 40 feet from the granite monolith, 2,000 feet above the valley. "We were upside down and the wind was just brutal," says Corbett. After gaining the top of the ledge, Corbett swung Wellman out from under the roof, suspending him in mid-air before Wellman pulled himself up.

Gusty winds sometimes blew the two men 10 feet out from the rock; temperatures soared to 105 degrees. Some nights they were so exhausted they had to force themselves to eat. One scary moment came when Corbett, who smokes a package of unfiltered Camels a day, reached out to grab a pack of cigarettes that was slipping from a ledge, nearly losing his balance. But there were compensations for the hardships, including living at bird level. "The neatest thing was seeing two peregrine falcons flying 50 feet away from us," says Wellman. "They go almost 200 miles an hour and sound like little jets."

The days alone on the face forged a lasting bond between the two men. "When you climb a big wall you have to have trust in the other person," says Well-man. "I depended on Mike a lot more than a typical able-bodied partner would." Corbett saw things a bit differently. "What I like about climbing with Mark is that we were on the same level. He couldn't get up and walk anywhere. I couldn't get up and walk anywhere."

Corbett's closeness to Wellman was matched by his distance from his own family. Five days into the climb, Schneider radioed that Corbett's family had phoned and wanted to see him. "It came as a shock," he says. "I was trying to focus all my attention on the rock, and then came this outside thing."

Corbett's father, George, 62, a retired Army master sergeant, and his mother, Jean, had divorced in 1970. Corbett has a sister, Terry, 42, and two brothers, George, 40, and Tony, 29. The last member of the family to see Corbett, Tony had visited with his brother in 1980 while passing through Lake Tahoe with his new wife, Cynthia, during their honeymoon.

After that, no one heard from Corbett and letters failed to reach him. The family concluded he might well have died. Corbett was at a loss to explain his long silence. "I always thought I was the black sheep of the family. I don't have a reason" for not keeping in touch, he says, "except I was living my own life and maybe it was simpler not to contact them. That way I wouldn't have to answer to anybody for my actions." The estrangement from his father was especially deep. "I always felt he was kind of a selfish man," he says, "and actually, it rubbed off on me, because I feel like I'm selfish, but I'm working on it."

Perhaps helping Wellman conquer El Capitan finally enabled Corbett to come down from his personal rock face and come to terms with his past. Three days after standing on the summit, he was greeted by shouts of "Uncle Mike!" as five nieces and nephews, Tony and Cynthia's children, met the family hero for the first time. Father and son exchanged a hug. "This is the icing on the cake," declared Corbett, who still hopes Gwen will agree to be his bride. "I have a family now." A family and a few good friends; a man doesn't need much more.

—Montgomery Brower, Lorenzo Benet atop El Capitan

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