The Story Behind the First All-Disabled Ascent of El Cap

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Climbing teams attempting Zodiac, a 16-pitch aid route on Yosemite’s El Capitan, will debate beforehand about what gear to bring: an extensive list of cams, nuts, assorted hooks, pitons, rivet hangers. Only one time has a team brought along two prosthetic legs and a prosthetic arm.

This June, three men geared up at the base of Zodiac to attempt the first all-disabled climb of El Cap: Craig DeMartino, who lost his lower right leg after a climbing fall; Jarem Frye, who had his left leg amputated above the knee after a battle with bone cancer; and Pete Davis, who was born without his right arm.

The film about their climb, Gimp Monkeys, made its online debut this week, after winning the Sierra Club Exceptional Athlete Award at the Adventure Film Festival in October.

“I wanted to make something that was fun, that spoke about things beyond climbing and that my grandmother would find inspirational,” director Fitz Cahall says. “I mean, climbing is fun. That’s why these three guys do it. It’s fun — maybe Type Three fun in this case — but these guys view it as an absolute privilege and a blessing that they can still climb. Stop the hand wringing, ditch the excuses, make your personal goals a priority and go have fun. The gimp monkeys exuded that. I wanted to make a film about that.”

De Martino, Davis, and Frye met six years ago at the Extremity Games, the X Games for amputees, and began dreaming up a climb of the most famous piece of granite in the world. DeMartino and Frye attempted another El Cap route, Lurking Fear, in 2011, and came up short — Frye had lost weight while training for the climb, and his prosthetic leg, fitted around his lower thigh, didn’t quite fit. Frye’s leg fell off as he jugged the route, luckily catching on a sling on his harness instead of falling hundreds of feet to the ground. DeMartino and Frye decided to abandon the plan and come back next year.

To shoot the film on the 1,800-foot route this June, Cahall, Mikey Schaefer, and Austin Siadak — all accomplished climbers as well as filmmakers — chose to climb the route ahead of DeMartino, Davis, and Frye.

“Traditionally, when people film El Cap they come in from the top, but it kind of means that you are only there for certain parts of the day,” Cahall says. “I just wanted to be 200 feet ahead of them the entire time. I felt like we had to be there the entire time vs just showing up for the good light. So we just climbed the route just above them, careful to never to get in their way or assist. Our goal with filming was to match the Gimp Monkeys’ effort. I think we achieved that.”

The result is an honest, fun film about three guys who happen to be minus a few limbs. Three guys who should get used to hearing the word “inspiring” mentioned in the same sentence with their names, although that doesn’t seem to be their goal on Zodiac — they just want to get to the top of a big piece of stone.

“We’re not going to raise awareness, we’re not going to further the cause of disabled people, to show people anything,” DeMartino says in the film. “We were just going because we all like to climb, and it’s one of the raddest places to climb.”

But it’s hard to not be a least a little wowed as you watch DeMartino step his prosthetic foot into etriers with hundreds of feet of air underneath him, or watch Davis alternate hand jams and “stump jams” high on Zodiac.

“It’s all about perception,” Davis says in the film. “What do you really perceive as hard? I feel like having only one arm is a pretty minor inconvenience.”

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{ 3 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Lauren Schaad

    I grow weary of the term “first” in the adventure community, and in some cases it seems to be overused. But this trio is legitimately awesome. The fact that they’re doing it for the love of climbing, rather than raising awareness for disable people, is truly refreshing.

  • Stu Hammett

    Love the story – I was a disabled climber myself (spinal cord injury; I can walk ok, but have paralysis in my legs requiring special braces for climbing) and aspiring wall climber (two attempts on Prodigal Sun route in Zion National Park in early ’00′s, both unsuccessful).

    However, having known some good big wall climbers, I would clarify the description of these guys’ achievement: the first successful all-PHYSICALLY disabled ascent. heehee

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