Scaling a dream on Yosemite’s El Capitan

Of the hundreds of people who scale El Capitan every year, few if any require more assistance than Enock Glidden.

Which is just how the 38-year-old from Bethel, Maine, and his friends in the Yosemite rock climbing community like it.

Glidden, a paraplegic, realized his dream of scaling a big wall in America’s most famous climbing destination Oct. 9 when he and partners Craig Muderlak and Christian Cattell topped out on Zodiac, an 1,800-foot route on El Capitan’s sweeping southeast face.

The trio spent five days on the wall, but in some ways the actual climb was the easy part. Just getting Glidden from El Capitan Meadow to the base of the wall required a supreme effort of a dozen people, some of whom volunteered on the spot, to carry him in a rescue basket. The treacherous descent via the East Ledges, which involves rappels, took 12 hours.

“What an amazing group of people,” Glidden said. “It’s pretty awesome to have people come out of the woodwork to help make a dream come true.”

The physical stuff you can train for. But you can’t be mentally prepared until it actually happens and you’re hanging by the rope in midair.

Enock Glidden, paraplegic who climbed El Capitan

Born with spina bifida, Glidden has been in a wheelchair since birth although that hasn’t prevented him from rock climbing, skiing, kayaking or training for a pilot’s license. He got his first taste of Yosemite’s sheer granite cliffs last fall during a “training climb” on the Washington Column.

Since Glidden does not have the use of his legs, his manner of climbing involves ascending a fixed rope via a pull-up bar attached to two devices, one on the bar and one on his chest, that prevents the rope from slipping.

Glidden estimated that his ascent required nearly 4,000 pull-ups. Since the route is vertical and even overhanging in some places, he often found himself dangling away from the wall in space.

“That made it a lot more scary,” Glidden said. “It’s more comforting when you can touch the rock for some reason. Even though if something happened I still wouldn’t be able to rescue myself.”

Glidden relied on Muderlak and Cattell to fix the ropes, establish anchor points and set up a portaledge that Glidden waited on while his partners climbed each pitch. Glidden performed some hauling and kept the ropes coiled and stacked.

Just to watch him (climb), it was powerful motivation for me.

Christian Cattell, climbing guide

“That’s the thing – it wasn’t just us bringing him up the wall,” said Cattell, a climbing guide. “He was an active member of the team.”

In 1989, Mark Wellman became the first paraplegic to climb El Cap. Glidden said he was inspired by both Wellman, whom he met a few weeks ago, and by the exploits of renowned paraplegic climber Sean O’Neill.

Now Glidden is the guy inspiring others.

“I know the pain of climbing El Cap, from personal experience, and to see somebody who’s willing to suffer through that is inspiring,” Cattell said. “Just to watch him do it, it was powerful motivation for me.”

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