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38 • FEATURE

’ Sean O Neill MAKESFIRSTHISTORIC TELLURIDE ASCENT PARAPLEGIC ICE CLIMB OF BRIDAL VEIL FALLS

t was a clear February morning just past dawn. The dark walls of the canyon, bound in snow and ice, rose around Sean O’Neill like a frozen fortress, its summits untouched by the first light of day. He looked up and saw Bridal Veil Falls for the first time. “Oh my God, this is gigantic,” he said. And then it was go time. O’Neill and his driver boarded a snowmobile and began climbing the steep switchbacks that led to the route. Avalanches had buried the road in places, creating a steep double fall-line that threatened to topple the machine and pin O’Neill who, paralyzed from the waist down, would have been unable to jump to safety. As they ascended, the full length of the waterfall came into view: a hundred-foot ice cone, topped by almost 300 feet of steep pillars and overhanging chandeliers of ice. The low-angle ice cone that greeted him at the base of the route proved to be the crux of the climb. As soon as the rope was fixed, O’Neill attached a pulley and an ascender to the rope and began inching his way up the frozen waterfall. With his knees jutting out in front of him, O’Neill wrestled and rolled his lower half over and around the awkward, couch-sized lumps of cauliflower ice. “I was cursing and muttering my way up, dealing with all these wrestling matches,” O’Neill recalls. “And all of a sudden I thought, ‘I should make this more of a celebration.’” So he started singing to himself. One of the support crew below had a mic on O’Neill and was listening in on his progress. Over the radio waves came a familiar song. “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor, would you be mine? Could you be mine?”

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“The ice was as hard or harder than anything I’ve ever swung into, but it was pretty super duper to get the tools going and dance around on them in such a supreme location. It might be slow and it might look odd, but it’s exhilarating.” A paraplegic climber—a “sit-climber,” he calls himself—O’Neill had come to Telluride to make the first paraplegic ascent of Bridal Veil Falls. The tallest waterfall in the state, its 365 feet of swollen ice, steep pillars, and overhanging curtains were once considered the hardest ice climb in the world. Facilitated by a team of climbers, filmmakers, journalists, and assorted helpers, the climb became the subject of widespread media attention as well as a short film, Prevail, directed by O’Neill’s brother, renowned climber and former Tellurider Timmy O’Neill. Timmy called us from a press conference on the rim of the Grand Canyon overlooking Badger Creek Rapids, the day before launching a 21-day kayaking trip with blind athlete Erik Weihenmayer. “Prevail was born out of our work with Paradox Sports, and wanting to share the programming and mission of Paradox,” Timmy explains. Paradox Sports was founded when disabled Army officer DJ Skelton heard about the O’Neill brothers’ escapades—their climbing feats have drawn lots of media attention. Skelton contacted Timmy to see about doing programming for veterans, and a movement was born. Today, Paradox facilitates adventures on rock and ice, on the water and in the wilderness, for adventurers of various abilities—Paradox is located in Boulder, but its mission is similar to

pitch of Jam Crack, a Yosemite classic. “Sean is an adventurer,” says his brother Timmy. “He’s developing his own systems; he’s a real innovator. No one else is doing what he’s doing.” “Now Sean, he’s the one who teaches the other paraplegic folks how to ice climb,” says Marin. “It’s cool for me to see his progress. When I started working with him, he was the one who was learning; now he’s the person who’s teaching this thing.” As an ambassador for Paradox Sports and the poster child for adaptive extreme sports (the brothers were recently featured on the Katie Couric Show), O’Neill receives a steady stream of emails from other adaptive athletes, asking

in the rope,” Marin says. “‘This is weird,’ I said. ‘I know he’s not on the ground yet.’” They radioed down to O’Neill to find out what was wrong. “At first he wasn’t responding, and we started getting nervous,” Andres said. “Then he came back, ‘I’m in a hole. You need to raise me three feet—but don’t raise me too far or you’ll break my neck.’” With limited maneuverability, O’Neill had been lowered through a hole between the ice and the rock and would have to be hoisted back out. “Timmy got a little bit stressed at that point,” Marin laughed. “He said, ‘If we kill Sean, my mom is going to kill me!’”

for advice or technical information, or thanking him for the inspiration. Sidelined since the Mountainfilm Prevail premiere with a bad case of pressure sores, O’Neill is glad that other disabled people have taken up the torch. “These people become a part of your circle, and their victories are part of mine. It gets you beyond yourself and your own little pile of problems.” The ability to inspire others is almost a greater reward, he says. “For me to get my chance to climb is all well and good, but to have another paraplegic tell me that they want to do it, now that’s a real compliment.”

With a little guidance from the ground crew and from O’Neill himself, however, Marin re-rigged the line for hauling, carefully lifted O’Neill out of the hole, and proceeded to lower him the rest of the way to the ground. “It was kind of an epic descent, but everything turned out to be okay,” says Marin. They got O’Neill back to the car before dark, and the whole team made it back to town just in time for last call at Smuggler’s Brew Pub. What did they order? French fries. “At one point we were getting kind of cold and I said, ‘You know what sounds good right now? French fries!’” Marin says. “After that, we were talking about french fries all day long.” Sean O’Neill is not done dreaming. Up next: He wants to lead part of the Salathé Wall on El Cap, and perhaps solo a multi-pitch aid route on Cathedral Ledge in North Conway, New Hampshire. “It’s all about learning to get beyond yourself,” O’Neill says. “Once you have that humility to ask for help, it gets you through a lot of your troubles. Paradox Sports is the group that puts all these social interactions together. People have ideas of what they want to do but they think it’s impossible. But lo and behold, your wildest dreams can become possibilities.” \

ONE FATEFUL DAY

BY CHRISTINA CALLICOTT | PHOTOS BY KEVIN ZIECHMANN

YOU DON’T SEE THE BRIDE UNTIL THE WEDDING

O’Neill has also developed a special aid-climbing technique which, when outfitted with ice tools, allows him to ascend the ice itself, rather than doing pull-ups on a fixed rope. He was eager to try out the new technique on Bridal Veil. Watching the clock closely, his guides gave him a half hour to try it out. For him, the experience was the highlight of an already peak experience. “The ice was as hard or harder than anything I’ve ever swung into,” O’Neill said, “but it was pretty super duper to get the tools going and dance around on them in such a supreme location. It might be slow and it might look odd, but it’s exhilarating.” It is this exhilaration that bonds the two O’Neill brothers. “Sean’s perspective is so unique and so beautiful,” Timmy says. “I love connecting with him in a world that is really important for me, this world of intense risk management, where there is an immediacy in living and a deep immersion in the wilderness. Sharing that with him is phenomenal. I look for those unique experiences in life. Those experiences are the colors on your palate that you paint the pictures of your world with.”

that of the local organization Telluride Adaptive Sports. Paradox hosts over a dozen programs a year, and just completed a 165-page guide to adaptive rock climbing. “All this was born out of my brother’s disability,” Timmy says. “From great crisis can come great opportunity.” If Timmy O’Neill was the captain of the team for the Bridal Veil climb, then Ouray-based mountain guide Andres Marin was the quarterback. Marin and Sean O’Neill made their first acquaintance at the Ouray Ice Park during an annual ice-climbing event sponsored by Paradox Sports. “I was muttering under my breath and cursing at the ice quality,” O’Neill recalls. Marin came over to check on him. “Andres taught me that in ice climbing, every placement is a ‘maybe,’” O’Neill says. “He had this way of getting me laughing, and I laughed my way up the rest of the climb.” A few years later, when O’Neill was ready to push the envelope, Marin was his partner of choice. “I asked Andres to do some kind of backcountry climb with me. He said ‘Well, let’s do Bridal Veil Falls.’ I didn’t really know what that was, but I said, ‘Sure, that would be great.’” “I chose Bridal Veil because of the access, but also because of how steep it is,” Marin explains. “For a paraplegic climber, the steeper the better, basically.” The conditions for the climb were perfect: decent weather, good ice, and an all-around beautiful formation. “This year the upper pitches had this clear blue ice, like glass, and you could see the water running behind it. It was really cool.” With his regular climbing partner Leon Hiro Davis belaying him, Marin led the pitches and fixed the ropes with which O’Neill ascended most of the route. O’Neill had devised a special ascender-pulley system with a 3:1 mechanical advantage for climbing the ice cone on the first pitch. It worked so well, he used it for the whole climb. “It ended up being the ticket,” O’Neill said.

“Once I was walking barefoot toward a bridge and a bee stung me on the foot. I had cleatless bicycle shoes in my hand figuring they’d be good to have on my feet in case I had to run from the police when I got out of the water.” from “Wheelchair,” by Sean O’Neill, hiddensomewhere.blogspot.com In 1991 Sean O’Neill, 25 and a former student at the National Ornamental Metal Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, walked out onto a bridge over the Mississippi River, climbed over the rail, and jumped. He knew as soon as he hit the water that he’d made a big mistake. “When I came up for air, my legs were all pins and needles,” he recounts. A nearby boat saw him bobbing in the water and threw him a life preserver. He made his way to a barge moored at the edge of the river. From there, a Coast Guard ambulance ferried him upriver to the Port of Memphis, and he was rushed to the hospital. “They told me in rehab that I was statistically old for that kind of injury,” he says. “That’s a nice way of saying you’re a dumbass.” The 100-foot fall may have broken Sean’s back, but clearly not his spirit. Together he and Timmy have climbed Castleton Tower in Utah, Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, and Yosemite’s El Capitan—three times. Their next stop was the Ruth Gorge in Alaska, where they filmed Brothers Wild with National Geographic. Then, they made it six pitches up the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome before turning around. “It was excellent for us to fail finally,” says Timmy. In 2013, Sean made a huge leap forward in paraplegic rock climbing when he led the second

TOPPING OUT AND DESCENDING

“It ain’t over’til it’s over” —Yogi Berra Having cleared one last crux near the top, O’Neill pulled himself over the final bulge and lay on his back in the snow to rest while the rest of the party cheered. After a short celebration, it was time to descend. It had been a long day, everyone was cold and tired, and sunset was close on their heels. They decided to lower O’Neill to the bottom. They tied two 70-meter ropes together, O’Neill tied into the end, and Marin started lowering him. “Everything was going good, we passed the knot, and all of a sudden I feel slack

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Profile for Telluride Magazine

Telluride Magazine Winter/Spring 2014-15  

Sweet Deals in Telluride, John Denver's Moral Victory, Sean O’Neill’s Historic Telluride Ascent, Topical Medicinal Marjuana

Telluride Magazine Winter/Spring 2014-15  

Sweet Deals in Telluride, John Denver's Moral Victory, Sean O’Neill’s Historic Telluride Ascent, Topical Medicinal Marjuana

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