El Capitan: the long haul

2012 MXP winner

On 11 October 2013, at 4pm, Vanessa François, a mountaineer and a paraplegic, reached the summit of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. She had just completed the 600m-long “Zodiac” route with only the strength of her arms and the extraordinary involvement of Liv Sansoz, double climbing world champion; Marion Poitevin, the first-ever woman to join France’s High Mountain Military Unit; and Fabien Dugit, an excellent climber. Vanessa, 41, had dreamed of this day since a dramatic accident in 2010 stopped her from using her legs… A beautiful sporting adventure, but above all, a tale of the human spirit.

Departure

7 October 2013

Arrival

11 October 2013

Duration

5 days

Geographic coordinates

WHEN LIFE TURNS UPSIDE DOWN

Vanessa François says that before her accident, movement was what defined her. Indeed the Belgian intensive-care nurse had relocated to Chamonix, making it her base camp, back in 2003. She wanted to devote herself to her passion – mountaineering – and become a guide.  For seven years she worked hard, completing some impressive ascents: north face of the Eiger; “Manitua” on the north face of Les Grandes Jorasses (first winter ascent by a woman); the “Intégrale de Peuterey”; the “American Direct” on Les Drus… Lifesized dreams coming true! And then one day, out of the blue, a block of ice smashed her impetus. She was 38 years old. The date: 29 April 2010. Not a cloud in the sky. Vanessa was in training for her aspirant guide’s diploma. She was climbing with two friends, Olivier and François, on the south face of L’Aiguille du Midi when a huge weight crushed her against the wall. The climbing season had hardly begun, but she sensed that hers was already over. “I knew right away I’d lost control of my legs.” A painful and irrevocable verdict, confirmed by her doctors when she woke up two days later: fractured spinal vertebrae (D6 and D7) with a huge displacement. In a few seconds, her dreams were destroyed: she would not walk again, and would never become a guide. Utter despair...  

I’ve never seen such despair in someone’s eyes.

Olivier

THE DREAM TAKES OVER

And then time and friends slowly healed her distress. “Little by little, I gradually adapted to this new pace of life.” Better still, she drove out despondency and began to dream anew. In summer 2010, the idea of scaling El Capitan began to germinate. Some friends offered her a book in which Steph Davis climbs El Cap with a paraplegic girlfriend.  From then on, she shifted into a forward gear again, and channelled all her energy into executing her new project: she would return to the Yosemite Valley, and she too would climb “Zodiac”. Her enthusiasm quickly swayed Marion Poitevin, Nicolas Potard, Liv Sansoz, Fabien Dugit…  The rope-party spirit gained traction.

Liv said: “I thought the project was fantastic and so natural to accompany Vanessa, giving her what I could. Vanessa’s project gradually became our project.” Vanessa set up a nonprofit association, Vaness en Mouv, to raise funds: she needed about €17,000 to cover all costs. She won the public vote on Facebook during the Millet Expedition Project 2012 contest.

Then she began 18 months’ serious physical preparation: cross-country skiing in a wheelchair, recumbent cycling, and two or three climbing sessions a week. With Marion, Fabien and another male friend, Dominique, she also went off to try nights on a portaledge in the Verdon Gorge, southeast France... where she climbed “Castapiagne Rouge”, a 180m route of seven pitches (7c, 8a), in two days. “What an experience it was to reconnect with that goddamned vertical world, two and a half years on!” A rush of horizons swirled around her...

 

Nicolas Hairon / altitudefilms.fr

“I use an adapted paraglider harness. I climb along a fixed rope using a system of pulleys and a custom self-locking handle on handlebars. Each pull lifts me about 50cm, so it took 4,000 to climb ‘Zodiac’! ”

THE BIG DAY

October 2013. At long last, it was time to get going... and a first mishap greeted them on landing in the United States! “It was right in the middle of the budget paralysis. The park was officially closed, and rangers were preventing access.” 

To see 18 months’ preparation binned was out of the question, and luck was on Vanessa’s side. The team managed to discreetly equip the start of the route with fixed ropes. On foot, they carried 100kg of water, food and gear to the starting-point... To climb or not to climb? An exceptional context, fraught with hesitation!

On Monday 7 October, Liv finally gave the signal to depart: “If we’d equivocated any longer, we risked finding ourselves in the rain on a part of the wall with little protection.”

Nicolas decided to meet them at the summit. He felt there were too many unknown factors for him to be responsible as a guide during the ascent. Fabien and Marion would take turns to lead, and Liv would haul the bags and two portaledges. To reach the wall, Vanessa rode piggyback on her teammates. “With the help of Julien [a climber they met on site – Ed.], who took turns to carry me with super Marion and mega Fabien, we got there really quickly. I had butterflies, but I felt that something awesome was going on – a great surge of power and generosity.”

They took five days and four nights to reach the summit. Vanessa pulled herself up the fixed ropes installed by Fabien, using her self-locking handle.

“It felt so good being able to burn my energy in this granite ocean, which the shutdown had emptied of climbers! During the ascent, I never felt disabled: I gave it my best shot, and that’s all the others needed. Pure accessibility and autonomy! My partners gave me a fantastic gift, and it’s forced me to believe in life.” 

“SOMETHING INCREDIBLE IN HUMAN TERMS”

“The only thing to take away from it,” writes Liv Sansoz, “is the magical energy there was between us. We shared and experienced something incredible in human terms. And the prime mover was Vanessa. When I got to the top of ‘Zodiac’, I wasn’t quite the same person who had left the ground five days earlier.”

AND NOW?

Vanessa has since returned to Chamonix. Her memory of this beautiful expression of solidarity – an excellent boost for her self-confidence – is intact. Justifiably proud of her achievement, she's naturally eager to tackle fresh challenges. In the meantime, she wants to dedicated herself to her nonprofit, Vaness en Mouv. She aims to expand its membership – so she can launch fresh challenges, sure, but also to enrich her dialogue with other people, whether or not they have a motor disability. She's also started public-speaking to share this superb adventure – which is also a way for her to shift attitudes on disability.

The Team

Vanessa François
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Marion Poitevin
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Liv Sansoz
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Fabien Dugit
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Nicolas Potard
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Nicolas Hairon
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