Months of planning. Hours crawling through snow and clawing up vertical ice. Hundreds of nonstop pull-ups.
And when climber Sean O’Neill reached the top of Telluride’s daunting Bridal Veil Falls, a 365-foot fang of treacherous ice, he felt reborn.
“You are at the top, and it’s like I’m born as a new person,” said the 48-year-old artist from Maine. “I’m a guy that’s climbed Bridal Veil.”
Not just any guy, either.
O’Neill last week became the first paraplegic to climb Bridal Veil, a thundering waterfall that pours into Telluride’s box canyon and, in its frozen form, was for decades considered one of the most difficult ice climbs in the country.
O’Neill hopes his monumental, dawn-to-dark ascent will inspire others with mobility issues to push outside their comfort level and explore life beyond the chair.
O’Neill’s younger brother Timmy, 44, filmed the ascent as part of a six-minute docudrama — tentatively named “Struggle” — that will elevate the climb as a motivator for people whose bodies have stopped listening.
“For a paraplegic to get out of their chair is really uncommon. In fact, you can not only climb out of that chair, but live outside that chair,” said Timmy, a Boulder raconteur and professional climber who hopes to premiere “Struggle” in May at the Mountainfilm in Telluride film festival.
“For Sean to go and climb something like Bridal Veil Falls sends a really clear message that life is what you make it,” said Timmy, founder of Paradox Sports, which provides outdoor opportunities to people with disabilities. “It’s not necessarily about the climb as much as it is about creating health in your life. It sends this message that it’s not over, it’s just begun again in a new way.”
O’Neill’s laborious ascent involved a crew that helped clear avalanche debris off the road so he could crawl to the base of the waterfall. They pulled him in a kid’s sled across snowfields on the approach. Two guides, Andres Marin and Leon Hiro Davis, set the ropes that O’Neill used to scale up the ice.
With his posse, a padded seat, layers of insulation and rock-shielding chaps on his immobile lower half and his jangling collection of customized ice tools, O’Neill is hardly a swift and silent ice ninja.
He flips open the seminal “The Ice Experience” and reads a quote from ice climbing pioneer Jeff Lowe: “The purity of the ice experience lies in learning to use a minimum number of aids in the most efficient manner possible.”
“I’ve got tons more purity to learn about,” O’Neill said. “But it’s been fun so far.”
He builds most of his own ice tools. He engineered the unique array of pulleys and webs of water knots he used to ascend the dangling rope on Bridal Veil. His designs were inspired in part by Leonardo da Vinci’s block-and-tackle system.
Timmy calls his brother “the Leonardo da Vinci of aid climbing,” noting that hundreds of wheelchair athletes have sought O’Neill’s advice on designing climbing tools.
“This population needs way more information than any other,” Timmy said. “Sean’s ideas are enabling a lot of people.”
O’Neill’s adventure résumé also includes two ascents of El Capitan in Yosemite and a 47-mile, 14,000-vertical-foot wheelchair push up Hawaii’s snowcapped Mauna Kea volcano. The idea for Bridal Veil came last year as he prepared to participate in the annual Paradox Sports ice-climbing event held in Ouray’s famed ice park.
He and Timmy started dreaming big: Why not go beyond top-roped ice climbing in a park? Why not try something that’s never been done? Why not Bridal Veil, a multipitch wilderness route far from any road or rescue?
“Which you should never do with a paraplegic,” Timmy said, laughing and slapping his brother on the shoulder. “It’s not only daunting, but grossly negligent.”
It has been more than 20 years since O’Neill broke his T-12 vertebrae leaping from a Tennessee bridge into the Mississippi River. Today, his hands are a leathery black from the knobby mountain bike tires on his chair. He hammers metal art at his Maine studio. When he visits his brother in Boulder, he adventures hard. He recently rolled from downtown Boulder up to Brainard Lake, a 33-mile jaunt up Boulder Canyon.
In 2006, Timmy led him on a 26-hour, single push up the 18-pitch Zodiac route to the summit of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
The brothers — two of seven Philadelphia siblings — are tight. Each says the other pushes him to dig deeper for meaningful moments that transcend adrenaline-soaked thrills.
“From crisis comes opportunity, and this
represents an opportunity for him to live as fully as he can imagine,” Timmy said. “Really, what we are looking for is profound experiences that are created out of the raw materials of one’s courage and vulnerability, and he is a ‘couragesmith.’ “
The movie will be yet another opportunity for O’Neill to spark ideas among his disabled tribe.
“I’ll be more able to assist other wheelchair users,” he said, “because people are looking at me now and I can say, ‘Hey, look what we can do.’ “