Defining Normal

The paradox of adaptive climbing

“It’s like going to church, it makes you feel like everything is going to be okay.”

That’s how Adaptive Climber Sean O’Neill describes the sport; his jump off a 100-foot bridge into the Mississippi left him a T12 paraplegic at age 25.

With the help of his brother and professional climber, Timmy O’Neill, Sean began pushing the limits of his body and redefining things with a wheelchair and beyond–something he’s continued to do for over 20 years.

In 1996, Sean made his first climb as a paraplegic on Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower. He summited Utah’s Castleton Tower and Tombstone Rock two years later. Both strenuous, multi-pitch climbs, the daunting Castleton approach required a large crew and some ingenuity.

“Climbing allows you to see some beautiful places, and if you’re able to get in the rhythm of it, it’s like dancing,” says Sean. He talks about climbing as a paraplegic being a reaction to being limited.

Leading on 2nd pitch of Jamcrack in Yosemite, photo  byDave N. Campbell

Leading on 2nd pitch of Jamcrack in Yosemite, photo byDave N. Campbell

“You want to express yourself through a lack of constriction,” he says, “we as humans have an inherit urge to move up.”

2005 was another year of firsts for the adaptive athlete. He climbed El Capitan in Yosemite for the first time, something he’s done twice since and has plans to do again this fall. Earlier that year, he decided to conquer a hill he had seen in Bicycle Magazine years back. Beating the reporters to the top, Sean rolled himself and his chair up New Hampshire’s infamous Mt. Washington Auto Road.

Nearing the top of El Capitan, Yosemite CA photo  by Tim O'Neill

Nearing the top of El Capitan, Yosemite CA photo by Tim O’Neill

“It was like an infection, I just had to push,” he recalls.

Three years later, he rolled his chair from ocean to summit in Hawaii, covering 47 miles and making it to the top of Mauna Kea’s 13,800-foot peak, using an uphill route from Boulder to Brainard Lake to train.

“You get saddled as inspirational, but it just sort of works,” says Sean, “People like to hear stories of people meeting challenges head-on. It transforms into their own struggles.”

Just last year, Sean lead climbed Jamcrack in Yosemite. It was the first time a paraplegic had climbed without the aid of another climber to set ropes that would allow the adaptive climber to ascend. It was a major step in adaptive climbing, a sport that until Sean’s lead climb, was not something a paraplegic could do on his or her own.

Adaptive climbing is growing in popularity, with monthly Adaptive Climbing Club meet-ups at Boulder’s BRC and several national competitions among the support. Paradox Sports is a platform to showcase the increased popularity and allows local and national adaptive athletes to get involved.

“Outdoor sports allow people to define their own normal,” says Paradox Sports founder, Timmy O’Neill.

Sean O’Neill is pioneering adaptive climbing equipment and hopes to soon take his equipment to gyms from California to Baltimore to promote adaptive climbing. He works with other wheelchair users to develop his equipment and loans it to other Paradox climbers.

“Tons of people are getting ideas,” he says, “discovering pulleys, progress capture devices, and designing and building harnesses.” He describes his own harness as a bosun’s chair with a climbing helmet for the pelvis shaping up. The community is supportive and excited about this modified equipment. Sean’s working with other wheelchair users to design and build new gear prototypes to address the specific needs of each person.

“You have to be careful with the type of equipment you’re using to climb when you’re working with paralysis,” he says, “You have reduced sensation and circulation and you can’t have a harness that rubs and have to be really careful about what you’re sitting on.”

In his latest feat, Sean O’Neill became the first paraplegic to climb Bridal Veil Falls, the 365-foot slab of ice in Telluride’s Box Canyon. Recognized as one of the most difficult ice climbs in the country, “I didn’t know if I would be able to do the climb,” Sean admitted in a Denver Post interview, “People want to shake my hand now–professional mountaineers want to shake my hand.”

Sean on Bridal Veil Falls, Telluride, CO photo by Leon Hiro Davis

Sean on Bridal Veil Falls, Telluride, CO photo by Leon Hiro Davis

A video of the ascent shows the climber inching his way up the frozen fall, water visible under the ice. Switching from being suspended above the ground in his harness and dragging his body along–and up– the frozen terrain, Sean wraps his right hand around the rope, tugging downward to progress upward using a pulley system. He’s quick to acknowledge that each of his climbs is a group effort. He’s carried–or in this case, pulled in a purple sled–to the approach of his climb. Before he began leading, he relied on a partner to climb the route ahead of him, setting a series of ropes that would allow Sean to summit.

“For a paraplegic to get out of their chair is really uncommon. In fact, you can not only climb out of that chair, but live outside that chair,” said Timmy O’Neill the Denver Post interview.

He filmed his brother’s Bridal Veil ascent for a short film titled Struggle which will premier at Telluride’s Mountainfilm Film Festival in May.

Watch O’Neill’s Bridal Veil climb, learn how you can get involved with Paradox Sports, and read about Paradox Veterans.