Inspiring feats amaze us on two levels. On the one hand is the undertaking itself, the seeming impossibility of the task that presents a daunting challenge, taunting us in its very essence and existence. This ocean to swim, that mountain to climb — they speak to something in the hearts and souls of a particular kind of person.
That person is the second aspect that intrigues me, possibly moreso than the task. I find myself, in certain moments, caught up in a foolish dare, something that might court embarrassment or low-level shame, potentially a minor degree of bodily harm, just enough, say, to raise the blood pressure a bit or get the adrenaline pumping. But I know my threshold is relatively low. I remember enjoying the discipline of marathon training, and I entertained thoughts of ultra-marathon competitions but never signed on. I knew my limit.
I thought about all of that again while watching Wampler’s Ascent, the documentary account of Steve Wampler’s trek up Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan. The effort, a full week’s worth of strenuous climbing up a sheer rock face, attempted and completed by a precious few every year, recalls the idea of a week’s worth of ultra-marathons, endlessly running uphill. A single question — why — takes on infinite permutations. Why this challenge? Why would I, or anyone, feel compelled to scale this height? Why not just be satisfied knowing that someone has already done it? Why does anyone else need to prove that they can do this?
Wampler presses these questions even further. He’s a family man with severe cerebral palsy, constantly battling with seizures that limit the control he has over his body.
His wife, Elizabeth, helmed the documentary. At best, Wampler maintains command of one arm, meaning that in order to scale he would have to use a special harness requiring the equivalent of 20,000 pull-ups. Most days, he uses a wheelchair, but El Capitan, in all its glory, called out to him. And he responded.
The dream for Wampler began when he was young and his parents sent him to a summer camp for kids with disabilities. It was there that he and a host of kids like him took part in the kinds of activities kids their ages tackle during the height of summer vacation. No one said “No,” or “Sorry this is impossible for you,” and Wampler went back year after year. As an adult, he found out the camp had been closed, so he decided to reopen it for the next generation of kids like himself.
And what better way to raise awareness and money than to climb a mountain?
A story like Wampler’s draws attention, and Wampler’s Ascent includes a collection of celebrity testimonials from the likes of Ellen DeGeneres, Paul Reiser and Will Forte, each of whom, in his or her own fashion, addresses this man’s determination and passion. In their responses, respect and admiration mixed with wide-eyed humor at the craziness of this challenge, reminds you how rare it is for someone with no physical impediments to dare to face off against El Capitan.
What Elizabeth Wampler shows us, though, is that her husband is part of that unique breed — a superman, but most definitely a man to his core. She says along the way, “I am not his nurse. I am not his caretaker. I am his wife,” and she allows us to see, even when he’s all alone on that rock face, that he is more than capable of doing anything he sets his mind to.
Wampler’s Ascent covers the five nights and six days that Wampler and his two-man support team spent on the climb, interspersed with segments on the ground where Elizabeth and their two children waited for updates with a swelling crowd of well-wishers. Drama pours out of every moment, but it never descends into the cheap sentimentality a feature film of this story would so desperately inject into these scenes. There’s no need for that.
During the summer box office season, Hollywood spoon-feeds us enough fantasies and comic book heroics to choke the life out of us. Wampler’s Ascent dares to show us a life well-lived in the hope that it might take us higher. Climb aboard.