I stared up at the sandstone walls of the Kingfisher Tower outside of Moab, Utah, and felt sick with anxiety. I could faintly make out the speck of a man on the summit and knew it was Ammon McNeely. He was up there hobbling around on his surgically repaired foot (now laced with so many scars it looked like a relief map of canyon country). He carefully studied the cliff edges and exposure below, in search of the best spot to jump, but the wind was gusting, creating less-than-ideal conditions for flying. Deep down I suspected this would not deter him. “Fuck. Maybe I shouldn’t have helped him get up there,” I thought.
Ammon currently holds the most speed records and one-day ascents of Yosemite’s iconic El Capitan, and he’s done more than 1,000 BASE jumps. This jaunt in the Fisher Towers wouldn’t create a buzz far past the fire circle, if not for one thing: Just months ago, he suffered an accident so severe that he nearly lost his foot. In a jump not far from here last October, Ammon’s parachute didn’t open properly. He swung back toward the wall and pushed off of it with his left foot. This may have saved his life, but it resulted in a gruesome compound fracture—his foot literally hanging by a few thin threads of skin and muscle tissue. Ammon calmly applied a tourniquet using chute rigging and apologized to his mother (he filmed it). Doctors wanted to amputate, but after seven surgeries, two skin grafts, and a remarkable amount of community support, he was now miraculously ready to climb again. And he asked me to join him. Ammon and I climbed the filthy chimneys and exposed arête of Colorado Northeast Ridge (5.8 C2), and then fixed 500 feet of rope on the wall, so that he could quickly return when the time seemed right for the jump.
As he pondered conditions, we spoke for a bit on the radios about lulls between wind gusts and such. Then Ammon declared he was ready. He punctuated his decision by throwing the climbing rope and his harness off of the tower. I watched it plummet to the ground, creating a puff of smoke on impact. My mouth went dry. Within moments he was airborne, and his parachute canopy cracked open with a bah-boom! I watched as the one and only “El Cap Pirate” flew safely to the desert floor. Ammon had dug deep to bring the world another speed record: his lightning-fast recovery.
How I Made It Back(As told to Dave N. Campbell)
1. Setbacks aren't the endWhen I realized I might lose my foot, I instantly thought about people like Chad Jukes, Sean O’Neill, and Malcolm Daly. Chad is missing his leg just below the knee; Sean is paralyzed from the waist down; and Malcolm lost his foot. I thought about the climbing those guys continue to do, regardless of their disabilities, and acknowledged that I could still maintain my adventurous spirit, even without a limb.
2. Keep an active mindI buried myself in Steve “Crusher” Bartlett’s book Desert Towers, which my friend Mario Richard gave me before he passed away. Conrad Anker mailed me his book with a note, “With a heap of respect, your friend, Conrad.” I also watched a lot of motivational speaking on the Internet, such as Nick Vujicic, who was born without limbs but remains super-positive. My injury seemed insignificant compared to his struggle.
3. Small steps lead to big gainsI did 20 trips up and down a flight of stairs each day. In the beginning, I had to use two crutches, and then was eventually able to walk up and down on my own. I also swam two hours every day. Once the doctor said I could weight my leg, I did a BASE jump. I also started doing five-mile hikes with a forearm crutch. After three months, I onsighted a 5.9 on Owl Rock. It felt like a huge leap, and after that, I knew I was ready.
4. Create inspiring projectsI’m going to continue combining my two passions: climbing and BASE jumping. I also get a lot of satisfaction out of working with Paradox Sports adaptive athletes. I’ve climbed El Cap a couple of times with paraplegic Sean O’Neill and his brother Timmy. We have plans to help Sean lead climb on El Cap this year. It’s such an inspiration to see guys out there charging like that after losing so much.
5. Learn from your passionsThe outdoors is where I’m most happy and comfortable, and climbing has taught me so many things about myself and about life. The biggest is how to overcome obstacles and hardships, how to be patient but also how to grab the bull by the horns when you need to get things done. There’s a saying I really like: “I refuse to tip-toe through life only to arrive safely at death.” That perfectly sums up my attitude.