Mark Wellman: Living with a Disability and Without Boundaries
By Mike Savicki
In the dark and quiet pre-dawn hours before the Opening Ceremony of the 1996 Summer Paralympics in Atlanta, Georgia, Mark Wellman and a team of technical experts gathered around the base of the cauldron for a top-secret torch-lighting dress rehearsal. Only a handful of people knew later that night, in front of a packed Olympic Stadium, Wellman would ascend a 120-foot rope using his unique “arms only” climbing style and ignite the flame that would open the Games. The dress rehearsal went off without a hitch—that is to say until a strong wind whipped through the stadium and extinguished the flame—and the team discussed possible solutions.
“It was a big enough challenge for us to figure out a way to climb the rope and carry the lit torch at the same time. I couldn’t very well be climbing the rope and drop the torch in front of 80,000 eyes,” Mark Wellman explains. “We never figured the fuse might cause a problem.”
Working with a stunt coordinator and a pyrotechnics expert, Wellman came up with a solution. “We decided to turn up the gas,” he jokes. “Both guys laughed and assured me that when I lit it for real later that night, there would be no question the cauldron would stay lit.”
“Well, as soon as I lit it, there was a huge fireball around me. I didn’t know if I should laugh or be afraid of being blown right out of the air. I guess you could say I was lucky I didn’t singe myself or burn the rope and take a hundred foot fall in front of the eyes of the world,” he concludes.
The event was groundbreaking. When Mark Wellman descended to his wheelchair, he was swarmed by hundreds of people who had trampled down a snow fence just to be closer to him. “More than being a great way to open the Paralympics, I think it changed people’s public perceptions about what disabled people can do,” he offers.
Since Mark Wellman broke his back 26 years ago, he has been changing perceptions and pushing the limits of disability through adventure sports. “When I first got hurt, you would hear talk about how disabled people would never be able to do this or that and there was nothing or no one to show them otherwise. When I first started working in Yosemite in the 1980s and people learned that we wanted to climb El Cap, they thought we were crazy. People just couldn’t see outside the box. Now, through avenues like the media, we are seeing the accomplishments of the disabled make the national headline news.”
As the author of Climbing Back, as well as the writer and director of the four adventure films Wheels of Fire, No Barriers, Beyond the Barriers and Crank it Up! The White Rim Adventure, Wellman understands the influence the media has on public perception. He believes in spreading messages of possibility through his work.
“Of all the films I’ve done, one of my favorite segments is from the movie Beyond the Barriers and it involves a complete quadriplegic named Larry Bowden. Larry uses a sip, puff and bite control to operate the sheets, sails and tiller of a sailboat. He told me that when he sails, he can be a ‘doer’ instead of a ‘viewer.’ You know, supercrips can pretty much do whatever they want these days, but it’s an incredibly powerful image to see Larry leave his power chair behind and float across the water.”
Mark Wellman is also experienced with leaving his chair behind. “I started with rock climbing after developing a system where you put an ascender on a pull-up bar, add a second ascender to a chest harness and climb a rope by doing a series of pull-ups.” His legendary 1989 ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan was covered nationally by Tom Brokaw and even earned him an invitation to the White House. Reflecting on the busy period immediately after the climb he says, “The next thing you knew, we were in the Oval Office talking about bone fishing with President Bush. That climb really changed my life forever.”
In the years since his ascent of El Cap, Wellman has impacted the lives of literally thousands of similarly disabled individuals. His book and movies are fixtures in rehab hospitals across the country and his climbing clinics and adventure camps are oversubscribed. It’s safe to say that if there is a pioneering breakthrough in the outdoor adventure sports, Mark Wellman has something to do with it.
“My message is really a simple one. You don’t have to climb El Cap or ski across the Sierras to break through your barriers. Find a passion that you love and figure out a way to do it,” he concludes.
This article was originally published online at Disaboom.com in June 2008.