This September, Steve Wampler will be the first person with cerebral palsy, a chronic condition affecting both body movement and muscle coordination, to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan, a vertical peak twice the height of the Empire State Building.
In his day-to-day life, Steve travels in a wheelchair.
Because of Wampler's condition, he will rely solely on upper body strength to reach the top. The ascent will take six days, about 20,000 pull downs and the help of two skilled climbers. When Steve rests at the peak, he will have an immense rush of individual accomplishment, but this climb is about something much greater than one man's will to rise above.
When Steve was young, he attended a wilderness camp for children with physical disabilities in California's High Sierras. “It absolutely changed my life," he says. "It opened my eyes to the way life was going to be without my mom and dad being around. It just opened my thought process overall.”
Many years after attending camp, Steve learned the program had shut down. Knowing that thousands of kids would miss out on such a life-changing experience didn't sit well with Steve and his wife, Elizabeth. For the next two years they raised funds, and in 2004 they were able to reopen the camp they now call Wamp. Six years later, Wamp is going strong.
“The overall focus of the program is outdoor environmental awareness," says Wampler, "living outside for six nights, seven days and getting the authentic feel for being in the wilderness for the first time."
Steve's hope for his climb of El Capitan is to raise awareness and funds for the Stephen J. Wampler Foundation so the camp can “go on forever.” Keeping the camp funded completely by donation is an important principle for the Wamplers—the campers need to be free of any financial burden.
"A lot of these kids have never left home, never left the city they grew up in, and the remote wilderness we’re in is two hours off the pavement into the High Sierras of California.”
Each day, the young adventurers—in defiance of their disabilities—participate in hiking, water skiing, climbing, archery, and more. Steve has spun aspects of the Survivor TV series into the camp-goer experience. Teams participate in “shelter building, obstacle courses, and scavenger hunts where they use a compass and clues. We basically make them go through mental challenges throughout the week.” With a laugh, Steve clarifies: “By no means is it what teams on the show Survivor go through.”
Challenging themselves physically and mentally at the camp, with no pressures about fitting in, the kids gain a greater sense of independence. Steve wants physically challenged kids to know that, “you can have a very fulfilling and active life if you pursue it.”
To parents of physically challenged kids, he says, “Your kid can most likely do a lot more than you’re allowing them to do. Giving them the chance to struggle and overcome a lot of their mental issues will give them a fulfilling and sustainable life moving forward. Letting go is really hard, but that’s what my mom and dad did at a very early age. That’s what allowed me to basically pursue whatever I wanted in my life.”
It hasn’t always been easy for Steve. “I’m almost 42 years old, and within 30 seconds of meeting someone I can tell if they’re uncomfortable or comfortable.”
Steve’s wife Elizabeth recalls the first time she met him. “I never knew anybody with a disability. I didn’t know how to talk to him. I didn’t know how to be around him, because I didn’t want to offend him. I thought he was having this horrible life and that people were mean to him. I couldn’t have been more incorrect. He’s the happiest guy I know, and he has phenomenal friends.”
As fate would have it, they ran into each other at three different dinner parties. Says Elizabeth: “I would kind of watch him and learn about him without him noticing. I learned he was really funny and fabulous and we became friends.”
Steve asked her out. At first, Elizabeth thought the relationship was platonic, but, “something happened, and I was just mad for him and have been ever since.”
In situations where people may be uncomfortable, Steve says, “I put myself forward and start talking. People soon realize that mentally I’m all there. That’s the biggest hurdle a lot of these kids have. People see the chair, and they don’t see the person. People with physical disabilities are mentally capable of having a normal conversation with almost anyone, but the normal public doesn’t see that. I’m trying to break down that barrier.”
Steve plans to break down the barrier not only through Wamp, but also through starting five separate wilderness programs for children with disabilities in surrounding areas.
On top of all this work, Steve Wampler's most high-profile achievement may be his incredible scaling of El Capitan. A year into his training, with the ascent approximately five months away, he says, "I'm physically ready, but mentally, I’ve got a lot of things to work out in my head. Hopefully the things will be done by the time I get to the base of that mountain.”
Elizabeth Wampler says, “If it’s up to him and his pure determination and will, then he’s going to do it.”