Success on Shaste: Parapalegic climber Mark Wellman makes it to the top
Last week, those climbing on Mount Shasta, the 14,162-foot center of the universe for the New Age movement in surrounding communities, likely noticed some strange tracks on the mountain.
The tracks were in fact from “snowpods”, but much to crystal worshipers chagrin, they weren’t the alpine equivalent to crop circles.
They were tracks left by four paraplegic climbers who were steadily on their way, inch by inch, to the top of Northern California’s highest peak.
The group included Truckee’s Mark Wellman.
Wellman, 42, made history by climbing El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park with only his arms in the late 1990s. He was injured in a remote 1982 climbing accident.
“It was like an endurance thing where you’re cranking on this [device] 12 hours a day,” Wellman said on Tuesday, a day after getting home from his first alpine climb since the accident.
“It was a real expedition. Four paraplegic climbers made it to the summit … There has never been a paraplegic on top of Mount Shasta,” he said.
But the exhilaration of sumitting and the breath taking views didn’t come cheap.
The snowpods, framed in chromoly steel with 47 gears and disc brakes at a cost of about $7,000 each, pull the climbers up the hill, literally an inch at a time.
“Less than an inch in some of the low gears and just under two inches in the higher gears,” Wellman pointed out.
“We figured it out and it took around 250,000 cranks,” he said.
Snowpod designer Pete Rieke accompanied Wellman.
Rieke, 48, of Pasco Washington, has a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Arizona. He broke his neck and back in a 1994 climbing accident. After coming up with the idea of a hand-powered climbing device in 1995, he built the first model and ascended 11,200-foot Mount Hood in Oregon in 1998. He climbed 14,411-foot Mount Rainier in Washington two years later.
Muffy Davis, 29, of Sun Valley, Idaho was also with the team. Davis became a paraplegic after crashing into a tree during a 1989 ski accident. She is a medal- winning member of the United States Disabled Ski Team.
Rounding out the climbing team was Keegan Reilly, 21, of Eugene Ore., who last summer reached the summit of 14,433-foot Mount Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak. Reilly, an Oregon State University student, suffered spinal cord injuries in a 1996 car accident.
Together, the team started climbing on May 26.
In order to avoid “postholing”, or breaking through the snow, they climbed by night and tried to sleep during the day, often bedding down around 10 of 11 a.m. for several hours of restless mid-day sleep.
“We were pretty sleep deprived, it was a bummer,” Wellman said.
The climb, which takes most able-bodied climbers anywhere from one to three days, took this determined group of mountaineers nearly a week.
“You move so slow, it’s a little slower than I’m used to doing things,” Wellman said with a laugh. “You’re just fighting for inches.”
Still, four bivouacs later, and the team was closing in on the summit.
But towards the top they got caught in an electrical storm, delaying their summit bid.
Scattered afternoon showers turned into evening thunderstorms, with lightning and snow on the summit.
But by 6 a.m. the following day, the weather broke and the foursome made the ascent a historic one by sumitting by 11 a.m., celebrating an accomplishment that thwarts climbers with strong, healthy legs almost daily.
“We’re there. We’re on the summit of Mount Shasta. We are on top of the world,” said Davis in a dispatch to The Associate Press report. “We’re still celebrating … Everyone is just high in general.”
*Darin Olde of the Tahoe Daily Tribune contributed to this story and was on the mountain with the climbers.
“The summit was beautiful. We were up above the clouds and the storm finally broke.”
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