As a man born with cerebral palsy, Steve Wampler has been climbing steep, intimidating rock walls throughout his life.
So perhaps it's not so unbelievable that this past Saturday, after six days of hoisting up his own body weight inch by grueling inch, the Lafayette native and Acalanes High graduate became the first person with CP to scale Yosemite's 3,000-foot El Capitan.
Wampler, 42, trained for more than a year, doing 85-pound pull-downs 1,800 times a day over five hours in his gym for a challenge that would require roughly 20,000 repetitive pulls -- at 4-8 inches per pull -- to scale the El Capitan facing, which is twice the height of the Empire State Building.
Outfitted with a specially designed chair and rope wenches and assisted by a two-man support team, Wampler began his arduous ascent on Monday, Sept. 13., But after two relatively smooth days, he began to encounter difficulties he didn't anticipate -- dehydration, fatigue, and worst of all, a severe bout of acrophobia.
Wampler was told he had to negotiate a roof-like outcropping that required him to dangle 25 feet out from the rock wall and pull himself up through dead air more than 225 feet. It petrified him.
"My anxiety level went from four to like 10," he said. "It was like, 'Oh my God, we're 1,000 feet up off the ground.' I basically sat there for 10 minutes working it through and reminding myself I was safe, I was fine."
And after 61/2
"All the while, I just kept thinking, 'Failure is not an option,' " he said. "I spent a year and half training for this, and I didn't want to go down in defeat."
By the fifth day, though -- the day he had hoped to reach the summit -- he was so sore and exhausted he could only climb for three hours.
"I got really aggravated and ticked off because I knew I had to be on the wall one more day," he said. "So the next day I just told myself, 'I'm going to get off this rock no matter what.' And I climbed faster that day than I did the first day."
Wampler finally reached the summit on Saturday afternoon. Upon receiving the news by walkie-talkie that he'd done it, Steve's wife, Elizabeth, fainted. Steve himself was overcome with emotion, particularly when his 10-year-old son, Joseph, greeted him with a group of eight Marines charged with carrying Wampler down the backside of El Capitan the next day.
"When we had our reunion at the bottom of the mountain, we had about 100 people there and it was overwhelming," noted Elizabeth. "I could hear grown men crying out loud."
"I think even the Marines were crying," said Joseph Wampler, Steve's father.
Wampler had a number of goals in mind while making his daunting quest, but the primary one was inspiring belief in people with physical disabilities that any achievement is possible with proper preparation and determination.
"Just knowing that I could do what I thought was impossible two years ago was incentive," he said. "Basically, it was sending a message to all these disabled kids around the country, that if you have a goal in mind, you can reach it no matter what."
Even before ascending El Capitan, Wampler had worked hard to achieve a happy, productive life. Though he was born with severe CP, couldn't walk and needed a power chair to get around, he got around. His parents fought to get him into Lafayette public schools. He ultimately graduated from Acalanes and went on to UC Davis, where he earned a degree in environmental science.
Relocating to Coronado after graduation, Wampler met and married his wife of 15 years, and they have two children. These days, he puts most of his energy into the Stephen J. Wampler Foundation, which operates the wilderness camp in the Sierras that changed his life when he first attended it at age 9.
Wampler developed a love for the outdoors because, beyond the beauty, it helped him solve problems on his own. When he found out that the camp had closed down in 2004, he leaped at the chance to re-open it himself.
Wampler hopes to raise $2 million for his foundation and the camp through publicity of his climb. A documentary profiling Steve and his adventure will be released at some point over the next year.
In short, even though he admitted he's retiring from literal rock climbing, Wampler has many more El Capitans in his sights. They should be a relative snap after conquering the real one.