GLOBAL VISIONS REVIEW: Wampler’s Ascent a manifesto for the disabled

GigCity Edmonton Wampler's AscentLike the blind man who summited Mount Everest, Steve Wampler undertook an impossible ordeal few people would think was sensible – scaling the highest cliff in the West despite being afflicted with cerebral palsy.

Wampler’s Ascent, the gala closer of the Global Visions Film Festival on Sunday, March 3, details the California native’s attempt in August, 2011 to climb the infamous “El Capitan” in Yosemite National Park. It’s the real life setting for the Road Runner and Coyote Show. El Capitan is considered the holy grail for rock climbers, the ultimate challenge. Steve Wampler is not physically suited to be a rock climber. He’s been in a wheelchair his entire life. He has the full use of only his right arm, partial use of his left. His movements are spastic. His speech is slurred. He has the whole range of impairments common to cerebral palsy victims.

GigCity Edmonton Wampler's AscentUndaunted, the guy climbed the stupid rock anyway. We watch as he inches up the 2,000 foot high wall using ropes set into the stone above him, pulling a mountaineering come-a-long to haul himself and his harness two to six inches at a time. “Do the math,” suggests one climbing expert. About 20,000 pulls over five days, it turns out. This film is as painful to watch as it sounds, and while there are a few too many “Oprah moments” (not helped by the musical soundtrack), there’s an inspiring message at its heart.

Directed by his wife Elizabeth and co-starring his two perfectly normal children, Wampler’s Ascent calls into question the whole meaning of the term “handicapable.” Also, words like “normal” and “afflicted” and “victims.” Remember when they were called “cripples?”

There are some disturbing questions raised by the film. Is it really such a good idea for blind people climb Mount Everest? Should people with cerebral palsy really be rock climbing? If it weren’t for the worthy goal behind Wampler’s astounding feat – raising money for a camp for disabled children, such as he enjoyed when he was a kid – one might find this whole thing quite ridiculous, unnecessary, and wonder what he has to prove.

That, of course, is the whole point. There was a time when people like Steve Wampler had to fight to get wheelchair ramps in public buildings. Times sure have changed. Wampler’s Ascent is a statement, a hyperbole: That differently-abled people can and should be allowed to do anything that normally-abled people can, and we’re getting into those awkward words again.

Obviously Wampler couldn’t have climbed El Capitan alone. He had professionals to help him every inch of the way (as did the blind Everest climber Erik Weihenmayer). Tommy Thompson and Dave Lane, full-fledged California dudes and rock jocks of the highest order, attached the ropes, maintained the gear, set up the bivouacs, prepared the food, and gave their charge water throughout the sweltering days of the climb. Lucky there wasn’t a storm. They risked their lives so Wampler’s goal could be met. But they, too, are a willing part of this manifesto for the disabled.

Wampler did all the heavy lifting himself – suffering seizures, loss of muscle control, exhaustion and delirium along the way. Not to mention excruciating fear. A lot of able-bodied people couldn’t have done this at all.

GigCity Edmonton Wampler's AscentThe other side of this film is the family story. They watched the whole thing from below. Elizabeth tells the camera at one point, “Ignorance of the disabled from people who don’t have disabilities is 100%, completely understandable.” She tells the tale of how she and Steve met, of her getting over her ignorance to even want to talk to him, falling in love, having children. Despite of a few false notes (why is Will Ferrell acting like a goof in the background of a serious testimonial early in the film? Why wasn’t Wampler’s daughter asked to meet him up top along with the younger son?), it’s interesting to watch a reality show where the subjects, who are not professional filmmakers, were in complete control of the final product.

There is no lack of emotional impact here, and you couldn’t ask for more from any documentary at this year’s Global Visions Film Festival. “I’ve never loved you more than right at this moment,” Elizabeth tells Steve when he reaches the top.

Sorry for the spoiler – but you know he does.

Wampler’s Ascent screens Sunday at 6:45 p.m. at Metro Cinema. The filmmakers will be in attendance.