CDS: No Limits Ascent

14787066_10209441412844951_1021311420_o
Gary Dunn photo

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.

Enoch Glidden, and the Question “How Can I?”

Enoch Glidden, and the Question “How Can I?”
DSC01212-2 1
Glidden on Washington Column.

What does it take to climb a 3,000-foot cliff?

For Enoch Glidden, a 37-year-old wheelchair-bound climber born with spina bifida, it might sound like a complex challenge built around planning, hundreds of feet of rope, specially designed climbing equipment and more.

But ask him what it takes, and he doesn’t give a complex answer. The Western Maine native keeps it simple: Climbing a 3,000-foot cliff requires friends.

“Nobody does anything without help, disabled or not,” he said.

Next fall Glidden is headed to Yosemite Valley, Calif., the mecca of American rock climbing, with plans to climb El Capitan, the massive granite touchstone for rock climbers worldwide. He’s been there once, last year, and despite his inability to move his legs, he climbed 600 feet up a towering granite rock face.

“It’s possible,” he said. It just comes down to a question he’s asked himself over and over: “How can I?”

That is the theme of the slide show Glidden will be giving Saturday night at International Mountain Equipment in North Conway. “Go Beyond the Fence” discusses his trip last fall and is a step on the road to his next challenge, El Capitan.

“That question has come up my whole life,” Glidden said. “How can I?” He got his first wheelchair when he was 4. Paralyzed from the waist down, he refuses to let that hold him back: He skis (both downhill and cross-country), competes in wheelchair races, plays basketball and is close to getting his pilot’s license. When he sees a challenge he runs at it, and four years ago the new challenge he discovered was climbing.

“It’s just kind of the ultimate challenge,” he said. “It’s all me to get up there.”

He started in New York with Paradox Sports, a Colorado-based nonprofit dedicated to adaptive sports. That led him to ice climbing closer to home — he’s attended Paradox Ice events in North Conway the past three years.

In Yosemite last year, he and a team climbed up Washington Column, a granite tower a few miles north of El Capitan.

But as he said, these kinds of climbs don’t happen alone.

“Pretty much everywhere I go, someone volunteers,” Glidden said. Last fall they had a team of four the night before the planned ascent. By the next morning, their team was up to double digits. People just seem to want to be involved, Glidden said. “I did one presentation, and a whole bunch of people volunteered.”

The group hiked to the base of Washington Column, carrying Glidden over broken rock and talus. They climbed 500 feet up, spent the night, then climbed another 100 feet the next day.

“Two climbers go ahead and set the rope,” Glidden said, “and then I do pull-ups on the rope.”

He has a special rope-climbing device rigged with a mini pull-up bar, he said, which he uses to climb the rope.

“The hardest part is living on the wall,” he said. He can’t stand up, so he can’t move around easily. That makes routine tasks like dressing and going to the bathroom difficult. “You can train for pull-ups. You can’t train for the portaledge,” the fabric platform he uses for resting and sleeping, he said.

But he learned a lot on that trip, worked out many of the kinks. Now “I’m pretty much dialed in,” he said. For his trip this year he won’t be scouring around Yosemite for partners. “This time I’m bringing people with me.”

The climb will take five days and nights, and involve sleeping on the side of the cliff. Glidden will again ascend a rope strung up by partners, doing thousands upon thousands of pull-ups over the course of the ascent. This will be by far the biggest climbing challenge he’s attempted.

But in some ways the vertical world is easier than some of the challenges that come before. First, he has to get to the wall. It’s a steep walk over rough terrain to get to the base of Zodiac, his planned route up El Capitan’s right flank.

That’s where the friends come in: helping get him to the climb, not just up it, and then also off the top of El Capitan and down. He’s got 14 people planning to join for some part of the mission, but it’s still up to him to do all those pull-ups. There will be a crew shooting video, plus Glidden blogging, and Paradox Sports and the Spina Bifida Foundation of Greater New England will be broadcasting the climb as well.

But all that is in October. For now, Glidden is still training, still getting ready for the challenge ahead. He’s been taking lessons from Sean O’Neill of Brownfield, Maine, who pioneered many climbing techniques for paraplegics. O’Neill climbed El Capitan by the same route in 2006, also doing thousands of pull-ups.

“He basically taught me everything,” Glidden said.

And along with training, he’s pulling together the funds to get himself out there. He just finished his degree in computer information systems, and he’s planning to intern for the summer in Palo Alto, Calif.

“The day that ends I’m going to Yosemite to go climbing,” he said.

But Saturday night at IME, 2733 White Mountain Highway, North Conway, the Mount Washington Valley will get a taste of his ascent, with video shot from his trip last fall. And Glidden wille discussing that all-important question, “How can I?”

The event will be held upstairs at IME on Main Street in North Conway Village. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. with free beer courtesy of Tuckerman’s Brewery. The film portion will begin at 7 p.m. There is a suggested donation of $10.

This story appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.