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One Legged Solo Ascent of Zodiac El Cap

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 Marc Elliott 19 Sep 2019

I’ve been a climber for 36 years (now 50) but three years ago I lost my leg above the knee in a horrific motorcycle accident. This led to me losing my work, my wife, my Mum passed away and I had become dependent on opiate pain killers.   As you can imagine this was a very traumatic period and at many times along the way, I could have easily given up.  Three years on I feel I am moving forward with my recovery. I’m over much of the trauma, my energy is slowly returning, I’ve started a business,  my two children live with me, and after thinking I wouldn’t climb again, I’ve begun climbing again - The other week I climbing Commando Ridge on Bosigran.   This was a milestone in my recovery and just to be in the climbing environment again was such an amazing experience, a sense of belonging and made me realise how important climbing is to me.

So,  I decided I need a goal, a dream and objective to aim for.   Something that would truly test me, something that hasn’t been achieved before, something that would I could give to the world to inspire and give hope to both able-bodied and those with disability.

As I never got round to climbing a big wall,  climbing a big wall was a natural choice.  I want to highlight the issues I face as an above knee amputee (that I don’t have a left knee complicates mobility much more) and so I think that I need to climb a big wall without any assistance from approach, climb to descent. So a solo aided ascent of a big wall is the way I wish to approach this.

I wish to get as much of climbing, general and social media and community involved as possible. With the recent media coverage of Yosemite with Alex’s incredible achievement on Freerider, I feel El Capitan is the obvious choice, and at the moment I feel Zodiac would be a good choice of route.

I did basic research and I can’t find that anyone with my level of amputation has aid-soloed a big wall.  Is this something you have heard of?

There are a few logistics I need to overcome:

  • Trying to get sponsorship in terms of kit and finance would need to be overcome.
  • Aiding with one leg ( I’d most likely take the prosthetic off for the ascent, the lack of knee control just makes it a pain) would need some thinking to able to aid efficiently and safely - though I may contact Hugh Herr and see if could think of a prosthetic solution to help with aiding
  • Jugging would also need some thought.
  • I’d intend to aid the whole route, as leading sections on one leg using a solo belay aid laden with kit doesn’t sound appealing.  So working out how I can overcome the easier climbable sections efficiently and safely.

Any advice in terms of people or organisations to approach,  technique workarounds with that could work with my disability, or suggestions of other areas's/routes would be greatly received.

 jon 19 Sep 2019
In reply to Marc Elliott:

Hugh Herr definitely, but why solo? I understand that some people see it as the ultimate but surely sharing the experience would be just - maybe more - rewarding. Just a thought... but good luck to you!

 Marc Elliott 19 Sep 2019
In reply to jon:

I agree that sharing would be more fun.  Choosing this style is not so much about style itself, but more about independence.   To prove to myself that I am still very much an independent person but equally to show that a lifechanging event can have very positive outcomes and doesn't limit the goals one sets - I doubt I would have chosen this way of ascent pre-accident and would have certainly chose to climb with a partner.

 MeMeMe 19 Sep 2019
In reply to Marc Elliott:

I've no expertise myself but have you thought about getting in touch with Andy Kirkpatrick? He might be able to offer advice.

And good luck with it!

Post edited at 09:11
 Marc Elliott 19 Sep 2019
In reply to MeMeMe:

Yeh, already speaking to Andy.  Thanks

In reply to Marc Elliott:

Big challenge! even for a climber with a full set of limbs, but hey its an awesome goal and i'd love to read about this on UKC someday! so best of luck

I've never properly aid climbed/climbed a big wall or even done any rope solo stuff (beyond shunting) so can't offer advice here...But maybe get in touch with Andy Kirkpatrick? he has done a lot on El cap with all sorts of different people including a blind guy. controversial guy but i'm sure he'll be able to offer you some advice on the logistics. 

Do you have a rough timescale?

 Marc Elliott 19 Sep 2019
In reply to paul_the_northerner:

Thanks Paul.

Just scoping the scale of the challenge at present, so no set timescale as yet.

 Fellover 19 Sep 2019
In reply to Marc Elliott:

You may get some joy out of Russian Aiders, they're a sort of hook and ring system. You have an aider which instead of steps just has a series if metal rings where the steps would be and then you have the hooks attached to your legs (shins usually, but maybe it could be made to work attached above the knee? I have no idea), you place the hook in the ring and it's like standing in the step.

Might not be of any use, I've never used them so no idea how easy it would be to fix up a system for your specific requirements, but it seems like it might have a chance of working better than conventional aiders given your lack of a foot...


 MischaHY 19 Sep 2019
In reply to Marc Elliott:

Sounds like a great challenge. For what it's worth, I'd consider taking a mate and sharing the experience. it'll give you a training partner, companionship on the wall and also highlight the difference in challenge between a full able person vs your own personal capabilities. It would also aid hugely in filming if that's your bag - which I hope it is because it'd make a great film. 

 slab_happy 19 Sep 2019
In reply to Marc Elliott:

> Any advice in terms of people or organisations to approach,  technique workarounds with that could work with my disability, or suggestions of other areas's/routes would be greatly received.

You should definitely contact Craig De Martino, who led the first all-disabled ascent of El Cap (aid-climbing Zodiac, in fact):


I believe he's a below-the-knee amputee himself, but he knows a lot of other disabled climbers, and would surely be a top person to consult on the logistics, not to mention tips on the route. And one of the other team members, Jarem Frye, is an above-the-knee amputee, and also designs prosthetics.

There's also Paradox Sports; they mostly run courses and events, which probably wouldn't be directly relevant to you, but I bet they'd be able to put you in touch with lots of other people with relevant experience/skills:


 SamR 19 Sep 2019
In reply to Marc Elliott:

I would contact Urko Carmona, he is an above the knee amputee and professional climber (climbs 8a+ !!). His site is urkocb.blogspot.com

 David Coley 19 Sep 2019
In reply to Marc Elliott:

Hi Marc,

Just a few thoughts:

1. As you are in contact with AK, I suggest you ask him very specifically about each of the easy free climbing/walking about sections (e.g. just after the roof on pitch 2 where one moves back left) to make sure there is a continuous crack or at least hooks for the whole climb. I know he has done the route a shed load of times. I'm guessing the final pitch could also be a bit of a challenge. However if you climbed C Ridge the other day, it sounds like you can move around on easy ground?

2. Jugging would be fine: try a grigri and one jug, with the rope re-directed through the jug.

3. Adding should be fine, with adjustable daisies or fifi as you will have to hang before stepping into the next aider.

4. Just a general thought. You say you haven't done a big wall. Have you aid climbed? It isn't for everyone. You are going to have to judge how long the wall will take, which if you have never done a wall will be difficult, and you will have to hump everything to the base, so you don't want to over estimate. You also don't want to be slow, as this means yet more water. So, you need to have the aid/hauling thing dialled before turning up in the valley. And you need to have the wall thing dialled before zodiac. Part of this is about keeping costs down, as with flights, transport etc. time in the valley is quite expensive even if you go for a month. So, I suggest the following: (1) in the UK aid 5 pitches at the wall then on real rock 5 on top rope, 5 on lead, clean 5 of these 10. (2) reassess if you are still in the game. If so, lead/solo another 20 pitches and clean 10 pitches, haul 20 pitches, set the ledge up whilst hanging 10 times. If you don't have the patience for this, a wall is not your natural environment I would suggest. (3) go to the valley for 2 weeks and climb the SFWC or LT with a partner. Then solo the prow - I will lend you a single ledge for the latter. You will need little kit if your partner has lots of cams and a haul bag or two etc. Or maybe your local climbing club might help by leading you stuff, if not join a different club. Others on UKC might give you a couple of racks of old cams and some old wires. This might seem an expensive learning experience, but makes a lot of sense, as you need to (a) find your speed, (b) find out whether aid and walls are your thing or the worse type of climbing there is, (c) don't want to excite the press or sponsors, family or friends, and then only get half way up the first pitch of Zod. (4) return to the valley and send. Yes this approach will cost you one more flight, but multiplies the chance of success.

All the best,


Post edited at 11:40
In reply to Marc Elliott:

Picking up on Jons comment of 'why solo?'... could there by another amputee who could join you for the ascent? I recognise that 3 limbed climbers is quite a small pool to draw from but in that sense at least they would be easy to find! You could contact the teamGB paraclimbing community and see if anyone else is up for it. That might aid (topical pun!) your search for sponsorship as well as make things more fun on the route.

 Marc Elliott 19 Sep 2019
In reply to Fellover:

Thank You - yes, I could see how these could work well.  Thinking a small socket ( carbon stump sleeve) with an in-built hook, I'd be able to transfer all my weight easily this way.

 Marc Elliott 19 Sep 2019
In reply to MischaHY:

Making a film would be a great idea - if I can find someone to film it

 Marc Elliott 19 Sep 2019
In reply to slab_happy:

Thank You - Just sent a message to Craig.

I'll be getting in touch with Paradoxsports too

 Marc Elliott 19 Sep 2019
In reply to SamR:

Good Idea  - how he's climbing so hard is insane!

 Marc Elliott 19 Sep 2019
In reply to David Coley:

Thanks for this David - really helpful info.

Yes, it was Andy that suggested Zodiac.  I will, however, ask him further about the free climbable sections. By the time I come to do the route, I will have climbed a lot more and will have fully adapted my style to suit and might even be comfortable climbing them.

I'll try the gri gri and a jammer  - thanks

Yeh, I think I may be overthinking the aiding part. I imagine once I get on with and with practising a system that works for me will soon evolve.

My aid climbing is limited and was pretty done in the peak on rainy days just for fun. Kinda know the score with it, but yeh I'll require a lot of Uk practise first, and like you mentioned a couple of shorter valley routes to get up to speed. And like you say it's getting a balance between an acceptable weight to be hauled and efficient speed aiding and systems.

Thanks for the 'training' schedule too.  I'm printing this out!

Thanks for the offer a ledge too - I may take you up on that.

I'm pretty certain this is the right choice of the climb.  I'm generally a mule and gets some sadistic hit out of physical slogs.

It's still in the very early days of planning and wouldn't commit to the flight over until I know I was ready for it.

Thanks again David

 Marc Elliott 19 Sep 2019
In reply to Somerset swede basher:

That's a really good point and idea .

I'll put it out to the para climbing community and see what happens

 David Coley 19 Sep 2019

and I assume everyone has seen this by now:


Post edited at 14:20
 MischaHY 19 Sep 2019
In reply to Marc Elliott:

Dropped you an email regarding this as I may know someone. 

 JLS 19 Sep 2019
In reply to Marc Elliott:

>"To prove to myself that I am still very much an independent person"

I'd just like to echo the others that are suggesting you try to find another paraclimber to share the adventure with.

I can understand that to do the climb with a non-amputee may compromise the project ethos of independence, when it could be implied do weren’t pulling you full weight. However if your team is comprised of members with similar physical capacity then it would be obvious you were pulling your weight like any other independent person.

Climbing in a team has got to be way easier. I’d be aiming to go as a team of three so someone is always available to film the climbing…

 slab_happy 19 Sep 2019
In reply to Somerset swede basher:

> I recognise that 3 limbed climbers is quite a small pool to draw from but in that sense at least they would be easy to find!

If you include US climbers as well, it's not that small a pool at all! Lots of lower-limb amputee climbers out there. And US climbers are more likely to already have experience with aid climbing and big walls.

So it could be worth looking for fellow adaptive climbers as partners for your training routes, even if you decide in the end you want to go for Zodiac as a solo.

 Peter Rhodes 20 Sep 2019
In reply to Marc Elliott:

Hey Marc,

Great plan!

I don't remember any mandatory free on Zodiac, do the direct start (Lunar Eclipse?) to avoid the faff of the roof off the deck - I'd reckon of the whole thing the descent will be the crux, it's a slog of a walk out with a solo load and a bit sketchy!

I'd consider Russian Aiders and getting a custom strap made for your left leg which puts the hook as low as possible. Then you'll be able to get super solid stances. Incorporate a protective front piece so you can lean the stump against the wall. I can sketch something if that doesn't make sense! I'm a big Russian Aider fan you see! Adjustable daisies and you'll be crusing.

Make sure you've enough big stuff for the pitch off Peanut unless you are super solid in the wide stuff. Also can't have enough offset cams. We didn't nail so I wouldn't carry any pins.

One leg jugging is fine, on overhangs (which most of Z is) you end up pushing with your lead foot exclusively anyway and I'd guess yours is pretty well developed. Can use a Gri-Gri when tired but it's slow. I stay in my Russian Aiders when solo for this. You should be able to clip your left leg in too and get more output than you think!

It's a fair hike in, like an hour for me and I think I carried 2 loads in. This'll be a long few days for you I'd reckon. Go the long way round from the Nose, the Zodiac talus is dodgy these days.

Proud project, happy to help if I can!


 Marc Elliott 21 Sep 2019
In reply to MischaHY:

Thank you - I'll drop them a line.  

 Marc Elliott 21 Sep 2019
In reply to JLS:

Thank you.   Yeh, I think you are right in what you say.   I think from my perspective I feel I have lost a lot of independence and been dependant on a lot of people to get this far.  I suppose making a solo accident is a statement to myself and to satisfy that need to say 'yeh' I did this climb independent from physical help. If I'm honest, I suppose it's about restoring my pride and independence again. It kinda gives this whole chapter of my life an end and opens the beginning of a new chapter - if that makes sense.   But my pulling this off and letting the world see my story I would be giving something back in a way that I  hope would inspire, motivate and drive people from all backgrounds to have a dream and push to achieve it.   How cool would that be?

 Marc Elliott 21 Sep 2019
In reply to Peter Rhodes:

Thank you Peter.

I've been in contact with Krukonogi and hopefully obtain a set of aiders.  I was wondering if this could be a good set up for the stump side?     Yates for the stump side, Russian aider on the good side and using an alfifi to help rise yourself could work I think.

Yeh, I'd allow plenty of time to get established at the base, and likewise on the descent which could actually be the objectively the riskiest if I opt of the East Ledges Descent.

Thanks, Paul for the offer of help - if I may mail you as I go that would be great.

 bensilvestre 21 Sep 2019
In reply to Marc Elliott:

Didn't have time to read all the comments but in case this hasn't been mentioned...

Your best bet jumaring might be to use a chest harness with a chest ascender. This is how we ascend ropes in rope access, and it is far more efficient and comfortable than the usual climber method of using two jumars. And best of all only requires one leg. The technique is best suited to vertical and steeper ground, which is most of zodiac, but the gri gri method will be better on slabs.

 David Coley 21 Sep 2019
In reply to bensilvestre:

Never used a chest ascender, but I wonder if this would work for cleaning a pitch, going sideways etc. rather than for free hanging ropes

 JLS 21 Sep 2019
In reply to Marc Elliott:

I can (to an extent) understand why you’d like to do the project solo and there is no real reason why not to. I just think you would be making life unnecessarily hard for yourself. If you were to do it as a team and in the end you decided you hadn’t got everything out of it you wanted, there would be nothing stopping you doing it again solo. You’d then be forearmed with a shed load of invaluable experience which I’m sure would make the experience much more enjoyable. I’m a baby steps kinda guy, perhaps you just prefer to go in at the deep end.

Good luck.

 bensilvestre 22 Sep 2019
In reply to David Coley:

Can't see why not. The same principles still apply, you're just attached in a slightly different way. If you've got to lower yourself out this is still easily achieved on a chest ascender, and is a commonly used method in rope access when ropes have to be rigged to avoid hazards. Would be totally fine for cleaning, the jumar goes above the chest so you just climb up to the piece like normal, clip the jumar above and do what you will. There could well be a reason why chest ascenders aren't used more for aid climbing, my aid experience is fairly limited, but for a 1 legged climber it could be a good compromise.

 David Coley 22 Sep 2019
In reply to bensilvestre:

The kind of issue I can see is on less steep ground. Normally my chest is then a long way from the rope. But no reason not to try a new method!

 bensilvestre 22 Sep 2019
In reply to David Coley:

Yes. That's why in my original post I said that the technique was better suited to steeper terrain. But given that there aren't many slabs on Zodiac the chest could still be worthwhile. 

Deadeye 22 Sep 2019
In reply to Marc Elliott:

Go you!  What a fantastic ambition.

Personally I (and, I suspect, most people) would go with a partner, but there's no reason you have to if you would rather go solo.

The only thing I balked at was this:

> Trying to get sponsorship in terms of kit and finance would need to be overcome.

Why?  Why not just, you know, do it for the achievement (and pay for your own flights)?

In reply to bensilvestre:

>  There could well be a reason why chest ascenders aren't used more for aid climbing

Most climbers don't own chest harnesses and it's an extra bit of harness to get in an out of? Does it work for pendulums and free sections?

 David Coley 09 Oct 2019
In reply to Marc Elliott:

Hi Marc.

I climbed the route yesterday. I would say that if you can lead VS you should be OK to aid everything else.

 chrisprescott 09 Oct 2019
In reply to Marc Elliott:

Hi Marc, sounds like a good project. I made a film about a guy called Steve Bate last year called 'Focus', Steve was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa during a normal eye test in 2011 whilst he was training to be a mountain guide, it's a degenerative eye condition which meant he lost his driving licence, had to give up his guide training and left him with around 5% vision (he will likely go completely blind at some point in the future). Like you he decided to aid solo Zodiac in 2013 and this forms the basis of part of the film. I'm happy to send you a waiver code for a download of the film if you feel like some inspiration. Cheers

 David Coley 10 Oct 2019
In reply to chrisprescott:

Chris, were you guys with AK at the time? If so, I remember Steve (red hair?) and meeting you in the lodge. I think he spent 8 days on the wall? Love to watch the film, and happy to pay if you send me the URL. Thanks.

 chrisprescott 10 Oct 2019
In reply to David Coley:

Hi David, yes that's the one, Andy was there helping Steve with his ascent, he was on the wall for 6 days in the end, pretty impressive stuff! The film is on Reelhouse here if you're interested - https://www.reelhouse.org/darkskymedia/focus

 David Coley 11 Oct 2019
In reply to chrisprescott:

Thanks, I'll check it out 

 felt 01 Nov 2019
In reply to Marc Elliott:

This might be of interest, El Cap with a chest-down spinal injury (no details of route):


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