Film Reel

Immovable Mountain

‘Wampler’s Ascent’ Spotlights Determination, Forgiveness

Wamplers Ascent film clip

"Wampler's Ascent" documents Stephen Wampler's climb of El Capitan Mountain in Yosemite National Park. Photos courtesy of the Wampler Foundation

At the base of El Capitan Mountain in Yosemite National Park, staring into the sun and clouds at the massive expanse of rock, one must feel humbled. Nature has a way of making us realize just how human and fragile we are. And staring at the credits on the other side of the documentary “Wampler’s Ascent,” I felt somewhat similarly about Stephen Wampler. Humbled? Defintely. But fragile? Not even close.

“Wampler’s Ascent” is a documentary about Wampler’s attempt to become the first person with a disability to climb El Capitan, a mountain that spans the height of two Empire State buildings and a feat accomplished by only 50 percent of the climbers who attempt it. Wampler who has severe cerebral palsy and uses a power chair can do only two things with his left arm: push and pull. And those two motions are all he needs to pull himself up the mountain.

Perhaps “all” is a little simplistic. As support systems go, Wampler is stacked. On the ground, Team Wampler includes his wife and two children, elite climbers and a gang of onlookers, some from Camp Wamp, a camp for children with disabilities run by Wampler and his wife Elizabeth. In the air, Wampler is supported by two guides who coach him relentlessly up the mountain. And inside, Wampler has something that a lot of people don’t: determination that far exceeds the height of El Capitan.

As Wampler makes his ascent, pulling himself in his carriage in the blinding sun, he encounters fatigue, increased spasms that make it hard for him to use his left arm, severe dehydration and loss of consciousness. Everyone begins to doubt that Wampler will make it to the top.

To the naysayers, Wampler says only, “I have to go up.”

Wamplers Ascent film clip

Wampler and his guides working their way up the mountain.

The audience goes with him thanks to the filmmakers who shoot the film from Wampler’s vantage point, bringing the distance, fatigue and sheer wonder of El Capitan to life. So personal is the film’s narration that one begins to feel that the journey up the mountain isn’t just Wampler’s.

Perhaps it is this sentiment that really shines through the film. No matter what we’re facing, we are not as fragile as we like to think. We can push, against all odds, to get to the top of whatever challenge is set out before us.

Around day 3 or 4, one of his guides remarked that Wampler told him that it was the longest he’d ever been out of his wheelchair.

That seems a fitting theme for the film: To live your life, you need to “get out of the wheelchair”—even if the wheelchair is in your mind.

“You can achieve anything you want. Everyone can dream,” Wampler says at the end.

It’s easy to love this message, but what I loved most about "Wampler's Ascent" was that the movie shed light—whether intentional or not—on not only that someone with a disability could accomplish this amazing feat but that someone like Wampler, someone with severe cerebral palsy, could have a wife and kids and a normal life.

Elizabeth told a brilliant story in the film about how she was scared to talk to Wampler when she first met him. She said he broke her heart, and all she could think was that he must have led a horrible life and people must have been mean to him. But as Elizabeth got to know Wampler, she realized that he was extremely funny and ultimately that she was crazy about him.

Then Elizabeth said that she and Wampler had both talked about her initial feelings, and they believe that a lot of people who have never been around people with disabilities are ignorant about what it means to have a disability and how to act. And she said this: We both think that's okay.

That tiny sentence of forgiveness shows just how strong people with disabilities can truly be. Because it’s not just getting up a mountain that makes you strong, it’s being able to look past disabilities, emotional or otherwise. It’s a sentiment that the Wampler’s get, and a warm feeling you’ll take with you long beyond the 77 minutes you spend in the theater.

The film, directed by Elizabeth and Stephen Wampler and produced by Jacques Spitzer, aired at the Thin Line Film Fest in Denton, Texas, (near Dallas) Feb. 9 and 14. The film is making its way through the film festival circuit and will be at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, Calif. March 1, 3 and 7 as well as the Reel Abilities Film Festival in New York March 9-10.

Follow Wampler on Facebook for updated information.

Click here to watch the trailer.

About the Author

Elisha Bury is the editor of The Mobility Project. She can be reached at