#Fun4thedisabled’s Vanessa Harris interviews Mark Wellman, a parapelgic adventurer and athlete, about his disability journey and his years as a rock climber and paralympian.
On screen text reads: Mark Wellman: The Adventure Never Ends]
[On screen text: The Accident. Vanessa begins the interview.]
Now, tell me about your accident when you were 22-years-old.
[Mark Wellman, being interviewed in front of a rock climbing wall]
Oh man, I fell, uh I was on a backpacking climbing trip and I fell 100 feet at 13,000 feet. And I had a significant climbing accident, and uh, broke my lower back at T11 T12, and uh from there uh, you know I went to a rehab hospital…that was uh, it was difficult. Difficult part of my life, going through that whole accident. And uh, took a long time you know we were 20 miles into the backcountry, we were far away from any kind of help, any sort of a hospitalization, so by the time I got to a trauma center, the Navy flew in a Navy helicopter and lowered a Navy medic and they got us off the mountain and then down to a trauma center. I was in the hospital in 1982 for three months.
[Mark] No– seven months! Excuse me. Seven months, not three months. Seven months. Nowadays, it’d be about three months.
[On screen text: Rehab Center: Kaiser Vallejo]
Kaiser Vallejo was where I rehabbed at, oh I learned how to live my life out of a wheelchair, you know? All the personal care you have to do for yourself. Um…you know I was taught that I…you know your arms become your legs, your, you know you have to get strong, so I went through a lot of PT, and uh, I really attribute my success in my life now to my really great rehabilitation experience at Kaiser Vallejo.
[On screen text: When I met Mark, he immediately impressed me with his spirit…everyone of us wallows in self-pity at one point or another- for some, it’s sooner; others later- but Mark seemed to move past this age faster than most. He must have felt these things inside, but he seemed as if he’d already made up his mind to go out and have a life. -Mark Sutherland]
[Vanessa] What is the key to moving forward with this incredible positive attitude?
[Mark] Man it’s just, you know, I…I think it’s really having a passion for adventure sports. And, you know I think we all need to find that passion, after an illness oh uh, an accident, and now we have a, maybe a disability in our life. And uh, you know you can turn that into very positiveness and being able again through modern technology. Uh, so, you know it’s a difficult thing. We uh, we all have our battles to face. And uh, I love just, you know, now being able to climb the way I’ve climbed and ski and ride my bicycle, and uh, you know I’ve had a good life over the years.
[On screen text: A week after Mark left Kaiser Vallejo, his father drove him to De Anza college to sign up for classes. Unsure on what he was going to do, he believed this place was perfect to build himself up.]
De Anza was a junior college at Cupertino, California near Apple Computer back in those days. And De Anza, we had a great wheelchair athletic program, and then I also went to West Valley College and got my uh, degree in Park Management, where I became a ranger in Yosemite National Park.
[On screen text: I began to realize that Shirley, the counselor at the State Department of Rehabilitation, was right- I could be a park ranger in my chair. I knew it was the career I wanted. -Mark Wellman]
[Vanessa] How did you overcome the reluctance of some people hiring you to become a ranger?
[Mark] I became a Ranger Naturalist, interpreting the natural processes of the park to the public. You know uh geology, bear management, wildlife management, and then of course rock climbing. People come from all over the world to see the cliffs of Yosemite.
[Vanessa] What were some of your most memorable experiences about being a ranger?
Oh, just uh being around the public and, you know the summertimes in Yosemite, people from all over the world coming to the parks. Uh, I enjoyed that aspect of it. And then uh, my offtime of kayaking, climbing, skiing in Yosemite was great memories for me.
[Footage of Mark outdoors is shown.] Being a paraplegic I don’t have any feeling in my legs. What the rock chaps do is they protect my legs from any kind of abrasion from the rock. And I’ve incorporated the swami belt into the rock chaps as part of my harness. And of course I have super duper leg loops here, these uh, typically leg loops are about two inches wide. Being a paraplegic my legs have atrophied over the years, and the wider leg loops disperse the weight so I don’t cut off the circulation.
[Vanessa] How did you become involved in climbing again after your injury?
[Mark] I met Mike Corbett. Mike Corbett, he climbed El Capitan many times, more than anybody else in the world back in 1989. And him and I developed adaptive climbing so I could actually uh, get back on the rock and climb the largest unbroken granite cliff in North America, El Capitan.
Climbing El Capitan after 10 years was a revelation for me. Back on the big stone, I remembered how much I loved it up there. But it’s never easy. Better gear, better technique, and better strategy all help. But my muscles and joints were 10 years older. And the route we chose was seriously paraplegic unfriendly.
Alright, see everybody at the top hopefully.
[Female voice] Have fun, Mark!
The climb helped change the way the world looks at the disabled, and more importantly, it changed the way we believe in ourselves. Since then a lot has changed. Bold young athletes have come on the scene, new equipment developed, and new barriers broken. But one thing hasn’t changed: my own passion to climb big mountains. 10 years after my first El Cap climb, Mike Corbett and I came back for more. Older, but not wiser, once again we hit the mountain in the blistering heat of July.
[Vanessa] Here’s something that most people don’t address effectively, which is something that everyone needs to hear about, which you address in your book. How does being in a wheelchair affect relationships?
[Mark] Relationships with what?
[Vanessa] With a man or a woman?
[Mark] Oh I don’t know, it doesn’t really affect my relationships anyway, you know? I’ve been disabled now longer than I was able-bodied, I’ve been a wheelchair user for 37 years, and I was able-bodied for 22 years. So I don’t know any– it’s almost like I was born with, in using a wheelchair. I don’t know, um…I get along with lots of people, have lots of friends, I have my wife, have my business. It’s all good!
[On screen text: There are all sorts of reasons why relationships blossom and fade between two people, and gimps who blame every love affair gone sour on their wheelchairs are deceiving themselves. -Mark]
[Vanessa] How did your partnership with Mike Corbett develop?
[Mark] Oh we were bonded from, we lived and breathed that climb for six months, training, developing equipment, and then finally executing the climb and ended up our journey in the White House talking to President Bush about bonefishing, and in 1989, President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act after my visit to the White House. So that was great.
[Vanessa] What mountains have you climbed besides El Capitan?
[Mark] Uh Half Dome I mentioned earlier, Mount Shasta, uh…Mont Aiguille in France, so I’ve done some mountains over the years.
[Vanessa] What other honors have you gotten?
[Mark] Oh I got to light the Paralympic torch, I climbed an 80-foot rope, and light the Paralympic torch in Atlanta in 1997 for the Paralympics. Muhammad Ali lit the able-bodied torch and I was able to do the uh, torch for the Paralypics.
[Vanessa] You also met David Letterman and Tom Brokaw! Can you describe those meetings?
[Mark] Yeah Tom Brokaw was the, you know, NBC News anchor for NBC National News out of New York and after the climb, we met the President then we came down to New York, had a luncheon with Tom Brokaw and his staff. They covered our climb from The Today Show, to the evening news, nightly for the eight days, and we were on for like 56 minutes for national television I believe, for that week. So that was huge, and uh…then we climbed the other famous monolith in Yosemite, Half Dome, two years later. Uh, David Letterman, we weren’t on his show but we were in the green room and hung out with David Letterman when we saw Tom Brokaw.
[Vanessa] You also met former President Bill Clinton and the former First Lady, Hillary Clinton! Can you tell me about that experience?
[Mark] Yeah! That was with the whole– it wasn’t as intimate as President George Bush because the Oval Office visit for a half hour with the President, it was with uh, Rit Nauer, he was the Department of Interior Secretary, uh, Jack Morehead was a Superintendent of Yosemite National Park, Mike Corbett was my client partner, and myself. So the four of us were talking with President Bush in the Oval Office. The Clintons, I was with the U.S. Disabled Ski Team, and also the able-bodied ski team. So there was a lot of us, they had a reception for us, uh speeches, luncheon, and then we met the Clintons. We each got, each person got to shake their hand and get a picture.
[Vanessa] What other notable people have you met? Anybody that strikes your fancy.
[Mark] Um…Mario Andretti, uh, Maynard Ferguson, I don’t know if people know–
[Vanessa] Yeah! I know who that, yeah!
[Mark] Maynard Ferguson, and Dizzy Gillespie, I was a trumpet player so I’ve always loved seeing those kinda, the horn players. Um…there’s been a lot of people travelling over the years. Uh, the Queen of Norway, the queens– The King and Queen of Norway when we did a– I was in the Paralympics in ‘94, ski racing. So you know it’s, it’s been a journey and uh, it’s great to be here at the Abilities Expo in Chicago, I hope people can come down and we’re actually doing all the ability shows with Liberator Medical, and uh, or most of them, I think we’re not doing San Mateo this year but we did LA, New York, Chicago, uh, we’re doing Houston–
[Vanessa] Are you gonna be doing Dallas?
[Mark] Dallas, in December. So if you have an interest in coming out and trying adaptive climbing, it’s kinda been my specialty over the years, we really, if you have the desire to climb, we can facilitate that, and make your dreams come true. So come on down!
[Footage is shown of the rock climbing wall in use before landing on Crystal.]
So we are here at the rock climbing wall with our, one of our customers, his name’s Mark Wellman. So we have some uh, some people climbing the rocking wall and then we also offer some catheter supplies to them. We carry catheters, ostomy supplies, diabetic supplies, incontinence supplies, so. We’re just having a lot of fun, having people hang out, climb the wall and, having a lot of fun today!
[Vanessa] Okay, well thanks a lot Crystal!
[Crystal] You’re welcome!
[Vanessa] This is really cool, and Mark is so impressive.
[Crystal] He is. It’s an experience and it’s cool to see other people encouraged to try something new and using their upper body strength to make it to the top, so it’s really, it’s encouraging to watch.
[Vanessa] Yeah, I did it last year, I think I’m gonna do it again this year!
[Crystal] Okay, hey you better get on there now! [Laughing]
[Video ends with credit roll. Captioned by aslcaptions.com]