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After The Fall: How A Paraplegic Rock Climber Conquered Yosemite's El Capitan

Though she knew she would never walk again, it didn't mean she couldn't climb.

Vanessa Francois training in French Verdon canyon
Vanessa Francois training in French Verdon canyon
Patricia Jolly

For more than three years, Vanessa François had been thinking about how she could get out of her wheelchair to go rock climbing again. And the 41-year-old paraplegic from Belgium did it with style last month when she ascended the iconic rock formation known as El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

She and a group of friends tackled the climb via the popular 650-meter Zodiac route, which they completed in four days — François using only her arm strength, of course.

Three years earlier, on a beautiful April day, she was climbing the south side of Mont Blanc’s Aiguille du Midi, in the French Alps. A huge block of snow suddenly fell and trapped her against the cliff. She suffered fractures to the sixth and seventh dorsal vertebrae and a compound fracture to her ankle.

“It deformed my spine,” says François, who knew right away that she would not walk again.

She was no amateur. She had already climbed the Eiger’s north face, the Aiguille du Dru and the Grandes Jorasses, all in the Alps. It was in the Chamonix Valley, where she settled and planned to become a mountain guide, that she saw her life take a dramatic turn.

The idea of climbing the Zodiac route came to her just two and a half months after her accident, when a couple of friends came to visit her at the rehabilitation center and gave her Boundless, the 2012 book by Karen Darke, who was also disabled during a rock-climbing accident. The Briton, who became paraplegic at 21 and won a silver medal in handbiking (a hand-operated bike) at the London Paralympics, tells the story of how she climbed the Zodiac, whose steep route is ideal for a person with paralyzed legs. Thanks to its downward slope, climbers don’t scrape themselves against the granite, and it allows them to dodge falling objects.

François — who now receives disability benefits — contacted Karen, who sent her some material about the climb. A year and a half ago, François started her physical training: two or three climbing sessions at the gym every week, wheelchair cross-country skiing and handbiking. Sitting on a paragliding seat adapted to climbing, she climbed along a fixed rope thanks to a pulley mechanism and auto-blocking handles placed onto a bike handlebar. “I pull around 25 kilos with every movement,” she explains, “or a bit more than a third of my own weight.” Each pull-up lifts her by 50 centimeters, meaning that she needed to do 1,000 pull-ups per day in training if she wanted to complete Zodiac.

She also tested her portaledge, a deployable hanging tent system, in the French Verdon canyon to prepare for the nighttime camping. “It has to be perfectly horizontal so I don’t risk falling.”

The team

François called together a group of friends — experienced climbers — to help her with the project, which she called “El Cap at arm’s length.” There was 40-year-old mountain guide Nicolas Potard; Marion Poitevin, a 29-year-old aspiring guide and the first woman to join a mountain military unit; Liv Sansoz, a 36-year-old two-time climbing world champion; and 29-year-old Fabien Dugit, an aspiring guide serving in the Chamonix mountain police squad.

Equipment manufacturer Millet awarded a grant to the project. But the event required major logistical organization. In addition to water, food and equipment, Vanessa needed to be brought to the bottom of the cliff on someone’s back, her legs attached to her carrier with a rope — a long initial walk in an uneven and rocky area. For the descent, she also needed to be brought back down on someone’s back, which took Karen Darke and her companion nine hours to complete.

The shutdown hiccup

In the frequently visited Yosemite National Park, the small European group thought they might be able to count on volunteers to take turns with the carrying. But once there, they were quickly disappointed. Because of the U.S. federal government shutdown last month, Yosemite was closed to the public. Rangers were there to block access. A game of cat and mouse soon started to discreetly equip the departure location with the fixed cords Vanessa needed.

This situation worried Nicolad Potard, who, as the team’s only guide, was personally liable. “We had trained for two days in the Verdon, but in Yosemite we were going for four or five days. It was going to be more difficult, and we were acting illegally,” he says. “I started worrying for Vanessa, who often talked about the compression points and the cold that could have been a problem. But even if it meant waiting a long time while we fixed the material in the wall, she’s such a go-getter that she would never have turned around.

The team reorganized itself. Fabien and Marion were set to climb first in turns, Liv carried up the bags and the two portaledges, which, as it turns out, are more comfortable for four people than five. “Nico is passionate about climbing, and adapting to my rhythm wasn’t easy for him,” François says. “But I wanted to succeed, and for that, everyone had to be OK.”

It was Liv Sansoz who, after a collective hesitation, gave the departure signal. “I had a knot in my stomach when we arrived at the bottom of the cliff,” she admits. “I hadn’t trained with them because I broke my foot at the beginning of summer, and I was scared of rangers. But I had watched the weather forecast, and if we had waited any longer, we would have run the risk of finding ourselves under pouring rain on a section of the wall that wasn’t covered. We ended by working perfectly as a team. For once, we weren’t there for ourselves, but for the success of a project.”

By launching herself into the route, François silently assessed the situation. “I thought to myself that my partners were giving me the huge opportunity to believe in life,” she says. “It was beautiful!”

Her own energy was colossal, her companions say. “Three 40-meter lengths per day didn’t seem enough for her,” Fabien Dugit says with a smile. “She never seemed tired.” Poitevin confesses that “we thought she would slow us down, but we were the ones being slow.”

At the top

After reaching the summit just in time for afternoon tea, François spent the night on a big mattress with water and food, all prepared by Nicolas Potard. “I did actually work hard, finally,” he jokes. “I wanted to be there in case there was a problem.” Vanessa did not suffer even the slightest injury during the expedition.

“What a huge feeling of well-being to be able to spend my energy in this ocean of granite that was deserted because of the shutdown,” she says enthusiastically. “Not being forced to think about accessibility all the time like in my everyday life provided me with a huge feeling of freedom. During the ascent, I never felt I was different compared to able-bodied people. I did what I had to do without asking myself any questions, and nobody expected more from me.”

Still reflecting on her recent emotions, she doesn’t know yet whether another ambitious project is in her future. “I might wait a bit first.”

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