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Disability Awareness Month Local Hero Stephen Wampler: Conqueror Of El Capitan

Disability Awareness Month 2015 Honoree

Hopes are high for a new campsite in the High Sierras and how it will transform the lives of children with disabilities.

It’s the latest effort by Stephen Wampler, the founder of the Stephen J. Wampler Foundation, who plans to buy property and make it the permanent home of his camp for disabled kids from around the world.

To make it a reality, Wampler has launched The 2gether Project, a fundraising campaign with high profile celebrities in support of not just the project, but a broader push for the public to forge friendships with people with disabilities.

Photo credit: Ron Stein

Stephen Wampler, founder of the Stephen J. Wampler Foundation.

Wampler, who was born with cerebral palsy and gets around in a wheelchair, has lived his life setting big dreams for himself and others, and not letting obstacles get in the way.

He said this confidence started when he was nine years old and his parents sent him to a summer camp for physically challenged kids.

“It was a life changing experience. It opened my eyes to what I was capable of doing.”

One day after learning his childhood camp had closed, he decided to open up his own and provide the same service free of charge to the kids. All costs are paid by his foundation, and more than 1,000 children have gone through the program in the past 14 years.

“I knew that it would do the same for other disabled kids as it did for me, and I wanted to show them that their lives could be changed and their lives could be fulfilling and rewarding.”

Jump to video: Footage of the El Capitan climb and what it means to Wampler

Children come from all over the country. Most of them are about 10 years old, and for many it’s the first time they are away from home, away from their parents.

The first and second days are the hardest.

“A lot of the kids never get out of the city. They’re in the middle of a forest and they’re homesick and they’re scared.”

Throughout the week the children participate in survival challenges like starting a fire, and fishing.

An astronomer also comes and gets everyone looking up to the sky, asking them questions about what they see.

“And it just opens up a whole new way of thinking. Just having them sleep outside under the stars and wake up in the morning. It’s unbelievable to see these kids experience a real outdoor wilderness experience.”

Wampler said they get letters all the time from kids and parents saying how they’ve changed. Parents are blown away by the independence of their children when they come home.

Photo caption: The belief behind the Wampler foundation is that nature teaches everyone that...

Photo credit: Stephen J. Wampler Foundation

The belief behind the Wampler foundation is that nature teaches everyone that challenges can be overcome even with physical limitations.

Seven years ago, Wampler said the foundation was going through some growing pains, forcing them to ask themselves what were they really capable of doing in disabled kids’ lives.

“I decided I needed to do something big and I didn’t know what that would be.”

At the time, Wampler was in Yosemite National Park looking up at El Capitan, a rock more than twice the height of the Empire State Building — a rock lots of climbers aspire to conquer.

“I was by myself, looking up at El Capitan, and I never climbed before in my life. I looked up, and I thought you know that looks like a major challenge.”

Wampler trained for 18 months in Solid Rock Gym in San Diego two to three times a week, and with a personal trainer six days a week up to five hours a day.

“I don’t have strength in my legs, I can’t walk. I have full use of only one limb. My left arm is as strong as my right, but I don’t have a lot of coordination in my left arm. But I said, 'let’s see how this goes.'”

Photo credit: Stephen J. Wampler Foundation

From front to back Stephen Wampler with professional rock climbers, Tommy Thompson, and Dave Lane.

With the help of two climbers, Wampler got started — attached to a harness, gripping a bar, pulling himself with his hands two to four inches at a time, and going eight to 10 hours a day.

On the third day he wanted to quit. He was physically and mentally exhausted. He remembers hallucinating and passing out, and on the fourth day he passed out again.

“It was so beyond my wildest imagination to be doing this and so I’d get mad I’d get sad. Every emotion that you can ever imagine would go through every five minutes, and then you look down and you get scared again. It was just an emotional roller coaster.”

His wife, children, and other friends and family rooted for him from below.

The two rock climbers accompanying him started to wonder if he would make it, but on day six Wampler climbed for 12 hours straight.

Photo caption: Wampler's Ascent is a documentary about Stephen's Wampler's journey up El Cap...

Photo credit: Elizabeth Wampler

Wampler's Ascent is a documentary about Stephen's Wampler's journey up El Capitan, directed by his wife, Elizabeth Wampler, it was awarded 38 film festival laurels.

“I remember thinking to myself, I need to get to the top right now, so there was no stopping me. I was like, 'I’m done. I have to get off from this rock and I’m never doing this again.'”

After pulling himself up with his hands 20,000 times he reached the top of El Capitan in six days.

Afterwards he got thousands of emails and letters from around the world.

“It was quite overwhelming. It’s been almost five years and I still can’t believe it. It doesn’t define who I am at all. I’m just a normal guy, next door, that’s all.”

But he’s also the first person with cerebral palsy to climb to the top of that mountain.

“It proved to kids around the world that no matter what you do, you can always achieve whatever you put your mind to.”

Disability Awareness Month Local Hero Stephen Wampler

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Questions or comments on this story can be directed to Nate John at njohn@kpbs.org.

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