Climbing El Capitan With Adaptive Athlete Wayne Willoughby

“I’m not even close to being done,” says 66-year-old Wayne Willoughby, who was diagnosed with polio at nine months old and has survived multiple motorcycle crashes and a bike accident.

We were midway up the great El Capitan, the 3,000-foot granite monolith that stands proudly in the middle of Yosemite Valley, when I looked over at adaptive athlete Willoughby and told him that my arms ached and hands burned from climbing nonstop for the previous 15 hours.

“You don’t know what real pain is,” he quipped. (I silently agreed.) For the remaining 20 hours it took us to reach the top, I kept my mouth shut.

We climbed all day, all night and all through the next day. Despite the cold, Willoughby was all smiles. Photo: Chris Van Leuven

What brought Paul Gagner (along with his wife Suze Strooer, who accompanied Willoughby to the base and back down from the top) and I to El Cap on a recent cold November day was a chance to climb with our friend Willoughby.

The plan was simple: Gagner and I would do all the legwork required to get up the 15-pitch Zodiac route while Willoughby would ascend the static rope we trailed behind us. Though Gagner has been climbing El Cap since the 70s, and I since the mid-90s, we’d never done it with an adaptive athlete.

We saw the climb as a chance to help our buddy get one step closer to his goal of ascending the formation in every month of the year. (After ticking November, he only has February left.)

During the 35 hours we spent climbing, Willoughby, never complained, never slowed, as he inched his way up the rope. His stomach cramped constantly, one of many side effects of living with post-polio syndrome. In total, the ascent required him to do some 3,000 pull-ups with assistance from his left leg. Our ascent marked his 24th time up El Cap and his 46th big wall.

Exposure to the max. Willoughby staying strong and steady. Photo: Chris Van Leuven

His first time up El Cap was in 1990, and since then he’s made it up the tallest walls in North America including those in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park (The Diamond, which he’s climbed four times), Zion National Park, and the Chief in Squamish, B.C.

Over the years, he’s partnered with the sport’s best, including “Hollywood” Hans Florine, Chris “Mac” McNamara and the late “”Flyin'” Brian McCray.

“I’m the first person with this high a disability to do it in a day,” he told me after the climb from his home in Seattle. “And I’m still doing it at 66.” He’s one of two adaptive climbers to have completed El Cap in fewer than 24 hours; the other is Craig Demartino.

Due to his condition, Willoughby walks with the assistance of hiking poles. Once on the wall, there was no hiding that the climbing caused him excruciating pain. To get off the formation, he alternated between using his hiking poles and crab-crawled – a painstakingly long process.

Gagner (in red) cleans the gear as Willoughby ascends the blue static rope. Photo: Chris Van Leuven

So why does he do it?

“This is bigger than me,” he says. “People say I inspire them. To me, it’s about much more than climbing. It’s about the team working together and bringing out the best in all of us.”

He knows the discomfort he experiences on the wall will pass, a fleeting moment in the big picture of life. He climbs because he enjoys it and uses the experience as a chance to build meaningful memories with friends.

The climb didn’t go smoothly and it took us many more hours than we planned, forcing us to sleep out in the open on the top of the formation as temps dropped to the 20s. (Willoughby had a sleeping bag because Strooer brought him one, while Gagner and I had little more than our jackets to keep warm).

After shivering through the night, we sat together and watched the sun rise behind Half Dome. We sifted our blackened hands through whatever food we had left in our bag, picking out bars and nuts to give us energy to get through the day, then slowly made our way down. The descent off El Cap takes most teams two, maybe three hours. It took Wayne many hours longer, but he never lost his smile. We all shed substantial weight and it took days for us get our strength back.

First light on the Captain, hour 20-something on the wall. Photo: Chris Van Leuven

Looking back, there were little moments that made it all worth it. Like when I lowered Willoughby 30, maybe 40 feet out from the wall and watched him peacefully make his way up the line.

After our recent call, Willoughby said that if I wanted to find out more about him that I should visit his Facebook page. I only had to scroll a few lines down to see why he keeps climbing big walls as he nears age 70. He circled text on a page that reads:

“Don’t strive to be better than others; strive to better than your best self.”

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