Left to right: Bridal Veil Falls (photo: Dan Sohner) and Sean O'Neill approaching the top (photo: Leon Hiro Davis).
On March 2, 2014, Sean O’Neill became the first paraplegic to ice climb 365-foot tall Bridal Veil Falls. An artist who lives in Maine, O'Neill enlisted the help of his brother and Petzl climber Timmy O’Neill, Ouray climbing guide and Petzl climber Andres Marin, and climber Leon Hiro Davis, Marin's chosen second, to tackle the frozen formation in Telluride, Colorado. He used a variety of creative climbing systems on his ascent, many of which he invented.
Jeff Lowe and Mike Weiss first climbed Bridal Veil Falls in 1974. At the time, it was the hardest ice climb in the world. Like Lowe and Weiss, O’Neill’s was also a pioneering ascent.
“It’s the longest and hardest ice route ever done by a paraplegic,” explained Marin, who led the climb, fixing lines for O'Neill at each anchor.
The challenges of O’Neill’s ascent went beyond the physical. To climb a multi-pitch WI5+/6 without the use of his legs, he had to create systems for going up that simply didn’t exist before.
“Climbing Bridal Veil, I mostly used a 3-to-1 off a left-handed Petzl Ascension ascender. I connect a little Oscillante pulley to the ascender with the shortest carabiner possible. Between these, the rope runs through a Mini Traxion at the waist. The free end of the rope pulls 1/3 of the haul, plus my left hand is lifting from the ascender, further lightening the load."
Left to right: Andres Marin, Sean O'Neill, Tim O'Neill, and Leon Hiro Davis. Photo: Kevin Zeichmann
Another system O'Neill uses on his climbs includes an Ascension fitted with a Wellman pull-up bar and a Petzl Croll rope ascender at the waist. “The two systems present different advantages,” he explains. “I have been doing a lot of work with Petzl pulley and Traxion rigs this past year.”
On Bridal Veil Falls, he also carried three ice tools, each connected to a pulley and progress-capture system tied in at his waist. This allowed him to directly aid up the shear blue bulge of Bridal Veil Falls' upper section.
O'Neill has refined his unique climbing systems during the course of many ascents. He's climbed Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, Castleton Tower and The Tombstone in Utah, and Yosemite’s El Capitan, all with his brother Timmy, Executive Director of Paradox Sports, an organization dedicated to improving lives "by creating physical adaptive sport communities built to inspire.”
O’Neill’s Bridal Veil Fall ascent is undeniably inspiring, and there’s more to come. He plans to try out his newly developed lead climbing technique on the Salathe Wall, in Yosemite, and he’ll continue to improve and refine the systems he uses to stretch the limits of the word “possible."