A First: Paraplegic Lead Climbing in Yosemite

Paraplegic Sean O'Neill leading Jamcrack in Yosemite Valley

Paraplegic Sean O'Neill leading Jamcrack in Yosemite Valley. Photo by Dave N. Campbell

7/3/13 - Sean O'Neill, who lost the use of his legs after an accident more than two decades ago, had already done some remarkable climbs. With the help of his brother, Timmy, a pro climber and cofounder of Paradox Sports, and other friends, O'Neill has climbed El Capitan more than once, including a 26-hour single push. But like all climbers with this disability, O'Neill had always followed a non-disabled climber up the cliff, using an ascender/pull-up system attached to a fixed rope.

In late May, as Dave Campbell, a Patagonia pro sales rep, reports in a remarkable story at the Cleanest Line blog, O'Neill tied into the sharp end. Last year, O'Neill began experimenting with aid climbing up cracks—versus ascending a fixed rope—by placing gear and using a simple ratchet attached to his harness to move up the rock. With the help of gear donated by Petzl, Campbell and climber Ammon McNeely refined the system to create more mechanical advantage. And this spring Campbell and O'Neill regrouped in Yosemite Valley, where O'Neill proceeded to lead up two steep crack climbs.

"Something else happened during Sean’s first lead climb, and I did not understand the significance until some time later," Campbell wrote at the Cleanest Line. "Two climbers from California’s Central Valley were passing underneath him while he was lead climbing, and they did not initially realize that he’s paraplegic, even after exchanging words with our crew. Consciously or not, they first saw him as a human, then as a climber, then may have even made note of the clothing he was wearing, and after that saw that he was not using his legs. All too often we first see someone’s disabilities and then try our best to relate to them on the common grounds that we do share. During the first ever paraplegic lead climb, it seems Sean was successful in more ways than just delivering a rope up a section of a rock wall."

Read Campbell's piece for all the details and to see more photos of O'Neill in action.

Date of ascent: May 31, 2013

Sources: The Cleanest Line, Dave Campbell