CONWAY — How does a guy in a wheelchair climb the biggest cliff in the America? Pull-ups. Lots of pull-ups.
Enoch Glidden may have been born with spina bifida, but that doesn’t keep the 37-year-old Western Mainer from rock climbing. Paralyzed from the waist down, he got his first wheelchair when he was 4. But his birth defect didn’t diminish his passion for adventure, and this month, Glidden climbed the largest granite monolith in North America: El Capitan in California’s Yosemite Valley.
“It was definitely a pretty awesome experience,” Glidden said in a phone interview from somewhere in Colorado (he was driving back to Bethel, Maine).
Glidden and two partners — climber Christian Cattell and climber, artist and filmmaker Craig Muderlak — set out from the valley floor on Oct. 4. Their goal was to climb Zodiac, a well-known route on El Capitan’s steep right-hand flank.
Zodiac ascends 1,800 vertical feet of sheer rock up mostly overhanging terrain. It requires nights as well as days on the wall, and most teams have to haul camping gear, food, water, even a collapsible hanging ledge to have somewhere to sleep. It can take anywhere from a handful of hours to days to ascend.
Glidden and his team planned on five days. The three were scheduled to start out on Oct. 5, but it turned out that a woman from Italy, who was also an adaptive climber, was set to begin the same route on the same day, so Glidden and his team opted to launch their effort early.
As in any such expedition, theirs was not without complications. Eleven volunteers met Glidden, Cattell, Muderlak and a fourth team member — climber and guide Gary Dunn — in the meadow below El Capitan early on the morning of Oct. 4. It was 30 degrees F., but soon everyone was warmed as they took turns carrying the 130-pound Glidden strapped in a litter over a mile of trail, rocks and boulders to reach the base of the route.
“It was exciting to see and be part of it,” said Joan Veilleux, a Mount Washington Valley guide and nurse at North Conway’s Memorial Hospital, who was on Enoch’s support team.
Once they reached the base, Cattell and Muderlak started up Zodiac. Then it was Dunn’s turn, whose job would be to support Glidden throughout the climb.
But a short way up the first section of the cliff, Dunn injured his shoulder. Still close to the ground, it was clear he couldn’t continue. He came down, and suddenly the team of four was down to three — of which one member couldn’t use his legs.
Muderlak and Cattell descended, and along with Glidden considered their options. They decided to see whether anyone back at camp would take on the job and had suitable experience.
But their search was fruitless, and a few hours later, Muderlak and Cattell returned to start up with Glidden as a team of three.
“That kind of started us off a little unsure,” Enoch said, but they were determined to give it a shot. They developed a system: Cattell would go up first and set the ropes, which included a line for Glidden to climb. Glidden would start up, doing pull-up after pull-up using specially rigged rope clamps that would allow him to ascend to the top anchor, while Muderlak would set out from the low point to clean any gear Cattell used in climbing. Cattell, meanwhile, would haul the bags of overnight gear, food and water to the high anchor.
This meant Glidden was without the planned support person to help should there be complications. While Cattell and Muderlak concentrated on the rock and the gear, Glidden hung, twisting and swaying on the rope, hundreds of feet above the valley. There were definitely moments, he said, when he thought, “Why am I doing this?”
It was scary, when the wind caught and spun him, he said, but it was also why he was there: to challenge himself, for the sense of exploration and adventure.
With the adventure, of course, came times of doubt. “Just using the bathroom was a total chore,” Glidden said.
Muderlak agreed: “That was the most stressful part of the day.” It was forced intimacy, something nobody was comfortable with. “But we got better at it.”
The project had begun two years before, and Muderlak had been to Yosemite with Enoch in 2015. “The more work is manageable,” Muderlak said.
The biggest challenge was pushing Glidden, “but not pushing him too far.”
Glidden said he was definitely pushed.
“Most people would think (the hardest part) was the 4,000 pull-ups,” he said, “but it was the mental challenge.”
Five days on the wall is wearing; 1,800 feet of sheer rock is wearing. Day after day, with no ground beneath you gets wearing. When it came to pull-ups, “I actually wasn’t that sore,” Glidden said, “I guess I’d put in enough time at the gym.”
Despite his undeniable fitness, “there were definitely thoughts of maybe I should bail,” he said.
Like at the top of the seventh section of climbing, the point where the route becomes too steep to retreat easily. That had Glidden thinking hard about returning to flat ground. But he kept going up.
And five days later — and thousands of pull-ups later — Team Glidden reached the top.
Glidden is modest, not a talkative guy. His reminiscences about summit day are subdued. He’s the kind of guy whom you ask, “How was it?” and he’ll reply, “Cool.” Or “Fun.” Or “Hard.” A journey of a lifetime squeezed into a single word.
But for those who worked with him and witnessed his determination, this was not just another mountain.
“This was so much more than that five-day climb,” Muderlak said. This was the culmination of two years of planning, training, effort and setbacks.
For Veilleux, who met the team at the top to help them descend, it was an emotional moment. “I just lost it,” she said. “It really was amazing. I’m still coming down from it.”
But the top, as every mountaineer knows, is only halfway. After five days on the wall, the hardest part was yet to come. It took another day and another team of 12 to make it off the top of El Capitan and back to civilization.
By all accounts, the descent was grueling and took until well after dark.
But on the way down, strange things started happening. People showed up, started helping, assisting with the litter carry and donating food, water, fresh headlamps. “All these climbers were coming to our group to meet Enoch,” Veilleux said.
In truth, Muderlak said, that was the real magic of Enoch’s ascent: “The climb isn’t really the story. The real story is the moments in between. The real story to me is the community of people.”
Enoch’s determination, his drive, was moving, Muderlak said. “He is what inspired people.”
Muderlak captured it all on video, filming the climb and the lead-up. He plans to release a movie on Glidden next spring, giving everyone a chance to see what determination and adventure really look like.
Glidden, meanwhile, hasn’t slowed. He reached the summit, but it looks to be just one of a string. “The next day, we were talking about doing Rainier,” he said, referring to the hulking 14,410-foot volcano that dominates the Seattle skyline.
It’s a different kind of ascent, one that will require him to pull his way over crevassed glaciers. He’ll probably sit on a ski, he said, and use a rope to pull himself along.
“I’ll definitely be training for that.”
This story appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.