Paradox Sports in Yosemite: Inspiring a New Generation of Veteran Growth

If you hear shouts of joy from the tops of Half Dome, El Capitan, and the Royal Arches on September 11th this year, it’s probably a group of veterans. Paradox Sports is bringing twelve veterans to Yosemite National Park to commemorate a difficult day in U.S. history by celebrating veteran community. The group, including ten volunteers and guides, will climb and hike in some of Yosemite’s most famous areas, reaching their respective summits on 9/11.

Paradox Sports, a non-profit started by Timmy O’Neill and DJ Skelton to build communities around adaptive sports, has been leading trips in Yosemite for three years. The organization was founded to create opportunities for people with all kinds of physical disabilities to explore the outdoors. Paradox’s veterans program holds five events each year, including trips to Grand Teton National Park and Mount Rainier National Park.

The Yosemite event is focused on veterans dealing with disabilities caused by their time in the military. Disabilities that, for many, have been holding them back from living the full lives they want to live after returning from service. Paradox Sports finds ways for everyone to climb – regardless of disability – including amputees, veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and blinded veterans. Last year, a veteran named Cody Elliot attended the Yosemite event for the first time. At 25 years old, Cody has seen more than most people his age. He lost some of his best friends in combat and almost lost his own life to an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan. But he survived, minus a leg and a finger, and now he feels he must live for those he lost. “I’m trying to live the lives they would have, “ Elliott says. And he’s doing them proud. Last year, he climbed the Royal Arches route to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 – one of four areas the veterans climbed in throughout the week. The trip with Paradox Sports inspired him to continue to pursue more opportunities to climb and he has started to compete in paraclimbing competitions this past year.

Why climbing? Why not take the veterans skiing or skydiving? Just like in the military, climbing forces the vets to rely on each other and look to others when facing fear or insecurity. In wartime, veterans build a brotherhood to lean on, but that brotherhood often disperses to different areas of the country upon returning. They are left alone to deal with the effects of their experiences or even traumatic brain injuries. Paradox Sports works to build that family back up. The openness of the climbing community, combined with the challenge of climbing, provides a perfect place to find a new brotherhood and a new mission. “Facing the unknown on the rocks of Yosemite brings real risks and perceived risks that results in some really profound learning and an important sense of purpose, “ says Doug Sandok, Executive Director of Paradox Sports. “Our participants bring that newfound strength into their everyday lives and it becomes a resource for moving past their perceived disabilities every single day.”

It is no coincidence that the event takes place in Yosemite, of all climbing destinations to choose. Yosemite National Park has been a climbing Mecca since the 1960s. That legacy was brought into focus this year in particular when the entire nation followed the attempt of Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell to complete one of the hardest free-climbing routes in the world on El Capitan. The park represents some of the most important values of our nation; hard work, freedom, and protection of our precious resources. Paradox Sports has partnered with Yosemite National Park and Delaware North at Yosemite to host their event in this outstanding and powerful venue. This event is provided to qualifying veterans at no cost. Delaware North at Yosemite provides guiding & mule packing services, along with a welcome dinner in Yosemite Valley.

To find out more about Paradox Sports, follow us on Facebook or check our website for programs and donation opportunities.

Written by Madeline Pickering

Top 10 Secrets of Summer in Yosemite

Summer vacation fun in Yosemite is not a secret. This busy season accommodates families, students, international travelers and casual daytrippers with warm sunny weather, activities for all ages such as hiking and biking, and access to Yosemite’s backcountry for backpacking under the stars. Sharing Yosemite with so many people may seem inevitable, but visitors can still find places to call their own with unique experiences that are worthy of an Instagram or two. Unless, of course, you want to keep it all to yourself!

1. Hike in Wawona. Yosemite Valley’s iconic trails are crowded for a reason. In Wawona, you can experience the same Sierra Nevada landscape with less company at a more leisurely pace. The Chilnualna Falls Trail and the Swinging Bridge Trail put visitors face-to-face with Yosemite’s magnificent waterworks in the form of waterfalls and the south fork of the Merced River. One of Wawona’s best kept secrets? The Swinging Bridge is perched above one of Yosemite’s coolest summer swimming holes. After a day in the sun, have dinner on the lawn of the Wawona Hotel during the Saturday BBQ.
http://www.yosemitepark.com/wawona-dining-room.aspx

2. Swim laps in the pool at Yosemite Lodge at the Falls. Then have an ice cream cone. River swimming isn’t for everyone, and parents may feel more comfortable swimming with small children in a pool environment. One of the best kept secrets at Yosemite Lodge at the Falls? The Cone Stand located at the entrance to the pool provides old-fashioned summer fun with ice cream cones for extra cooling after a dip. And the pool really is limited to lap swimming only at the beginning and end of each day.
http://www.yosemitepark.com/yosemite-lodge-guest-services.aspx

3. Stargaze at Glacier Point. No doubt about it, Glacier Point is one of the most popular sights in Yosemite and on a summer day it may feel like every single visitor in the park has congregated there to goggle at Yosemite Valley 3000 feet below. But what is magnificent during the day is just as striking – and much less crowded – at night. Watching the sun set from Glacier Point is truly wonderful, but just wait until night falls and Yosemite’s night sky fills with millions of stars. Star Parties are hosted on select summer weekends with regional astronomy clubs where park visitors are welcome to take a look through club telescopes after dark. Yosemite Valley lodging guests will enjoy catching the Stargazing Tour – a bus tour that departs and returns to Yosemite Lodge at the Falls after a stargazing program at Glacier Point.
http://www.yosemitepark.com/stargazing-tour.aspx

4. Check last minute availability at the High Sierra Camps. If you are a spontaneous traveler with a yearning to experience the High Sierra, last minute availability at Yosemite’s High Sierra Camps may be just the lodging for you. Open for a short summer season, the first reservations are acquired by entering a lottery in November the year prior. Once the lottery dates have been awarded over the winter, any leftover dates are posted on yosemitepark.com in spring. The available dates are often sporadic, but they do exist. If you can throw your backpack in the car for a last-minute hiking trip, you may be in for the experience of a lifetime.
http://www.yosemitepark.com/high-sierra-camps-availability.aspx

5. Visit the Merced and Tuolumne Groves of Giant Sequoias. Yosemite is home to three groves of Giant Sequoias, though Mariposa Grove is by far the most famous. Due to the restoration of the Mariposa Grove in 2015 and 2016, these giants may not be accessible at this location. Luckily, both the Merced Grove and Tuolumne Grove require only a moderate 2 mile round-trip hike to view Giant Sequoias – which are found only in California’s Sierra Nevada. Both groves are located near the Crane Flat junction of CA 120 in Yosemite.

6. Order a sandwich at Degnan’s Deli in the AM and hike to the El Capitan picnic area. The made-to-order sandwiches at Degnan’s Deli in Yosemite Village are deservedly popular at lunchtime, but did you know that sandwiches are made at Degnan’s all day long? Arrive in the morning and order your sandwich wrapped to go for a day hike to the west end of Yosemite Valley following the Valley Loop trail. Sights along this route that follows the flat terrain of Yosemite Valley include Yosemite Falls, Camp 4 rock climbers campground, a stretch along the Merced River, and of course, El Capitan. Once you’ve arrived at Yosemite’s most famous granite monolith, look for the Ask-a-Climber program on the El Capitan Bridge. Equipped with a telescope, one of Yosemite’s local rock climbers will give you the scoop on climbers currently ascending El Capitan.
http://www.yosemiteconservancy.org/visitor-services/ask-a-climber-1

7. Take Part in the Great Yosemite Family Adventure. Visitors will find a wide range of family activities in Yosemite, but only one activity gives your family a chance to demonstrate their love for Yosemite as a team! Using a GPS unit and information about history, nature and geology, this scavenger-hunt-style program traverses roughly 3 miles of Yosemite Valley with clues, puzzles and riddles to solve for family members of all ages.
http://www.yosemitepark.com/yosemite-family-adventure.aspx

8. Buy a Fishing License in Yosemite. California’s fishing season gets underway in April, but summer allows access to all of Yosemite’s prime fishing environment – including High Sierra lakes. California fishing licenses are sold in Yosemite Valley at the Village Sport Shop, and in Tuolumne Meadows at the Tuolumne Meadows Store. You can purchase a license for the season or just for the day or week during your visit to Yosemite.
http://www.yosemitepark.com/yosemite-sport-shops.aspx

9. Kayak the Merced River in Yosemite Valley New designations have opened a much larger stretch of the Merced to non-motorized vessels, though the river conditions may make this trip feasible only for kayaks. As of April 2015, kayakers can run the Merced from Stoneman Bridge near Curry Village to Pohono Bridge at the west end of Yosemite Valley. http://www.adventure-journal.com/2014/04/yosemites-merced-river-opens-to-kayaking-and-rafting/

10. Take a guided hike, bike and rock climb with the Yosemite Mountaineering School. Yosemite’s local guides do it all: day hikes, bike-to-hike-tours, overnight backpacking trips, and of course, rock climbing lessons.
http://www.yosemitepark.com/hiking-camping.aspx
http://www.yosemitepark.com/rock-climbing.aspx

Favorite Yosemite Spots: Climbing the Leaning Tower

As part of an ongoing series, we feature the favorite places of Yosemite community members and park visitors. The Leaning Tower, a granite feature located next to Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite Valley is a favorite spot of Marta Czajkowska, who lives and works as a photographer in Yosemite Valley.

“One of my most favorite places in Yosemite Valley is the Leaning Tower. Frequently overlooked, the Leaning Tower rises to the right of Bridalveil Fall. A stupendous overhanging tower of flawless granite. The tower is known to climbers as the “The steepest wall in North America”. That steepness is what makes it so remote. There is no hiking trail and advanced technical rock craft is required and tested if you want to conquer it. The lower part of the Tower overhangs an average of 110 degrees, while the upper section averages about 95 degrees – making it one of the world’s most continuously overhanging granite cliffs. It’s just a little too steep and a little too long to be an easy day climb.

Climbing a rock that’s that overhanging means three things:

1. Exposure. More often than not when you are climbing the Leaning Tower you are hanging in space. There is little below you but air.

2. Hard work. The less contact with the rock, the more physical it is to climb. This is when we start talking about Gravity with a capital G. You can REALLY feel it.

3. Safe Falls. If you happen to be falling down, it’s best not to encounter anything on your way. Overhanging cliffs are the safest for falling.

The magic of climbing the Leaning Tower is that the route starts already half way up the face. It’s like a shortcut. The other thing is that these extremely hard and overhanging sections are interspersed with huge and lavish ledges. One of them is so big and comfy, that it was christened “Ahwahnee Ledge” – encountering a ledge that size feels as luxurious as staying at The Ahwahnee. Right before the real summit there is another huge ledge, called “Dano Ledge” after Dan Osman, a climber known for his boldness and vision. Hanging out on Dano Ledge, watching a sunset – life does not get any better!”

The Leaning Tower has been named since 1883. At 6500 feet elevation, the tower rises 2500 feet above the floor of Yosemite Valley. Across the valley from Yosemite’s giant stone monolith, El Capitan, the tower was also known as “Tu-tock-ah-nu-lah’s Citadel”, based on the Native American name for El Capitan.

Marta also wrote about her climbing experience at the Leaning Tower on The Cleanest Line blog for Patagonia in 2013.

Favorite Yosemite Spots: Higher Cathedral Spire

View from the summit of Higher Spire, looking toward Yosemite Falls (left) and Sentinel Rock (right).

View from the summit of Higher Spire, looking toward Yosemite Falls (left) and Sentinel Rock (right).

The “Favorite Spots” series features the favorite places of Yosemite National Park community members and park visitors. Theresa came to the park on an extended rock climbing vacation in 2003, and still hasn’t left. Although she also loves to hike and explore the Yosemite backcountry, it’s no surprise that wild, airy places are among her favorites.

“Whenever someone asks me what my favorite spot in Yosemite is, the first place that comes to mind is usually the one that I’ve been to most recently. The fresh memories are so vivid and clear, and Yosemite is full of jaw-dropping places. Still, if pressed, I’d have to admit that over the years, the summit of Higher Cathedral Spire often ends up rising to the top of the list.

If you look across the meadow from El Capitan, there are two long slender fingers of rock rising up to the left of Middle Cathedral Rock, Lower Cathedral Spire, and above that, Higher Cathedral Spire.

Middle Cathedral with Higher and Lower Spires to the left.

Middle Cathedral with Higher and Lower Spires to the left.

Part of the appeal is that this summit is challenging to get to. Unlike the summits of more vaunted cliffs like El Capitan or Half Dome, there are no hikers’ trails to the summit. Technical rock climbing skills and gear are required, which means my partners and I have almost always had the summit all to ourselves.

On the other hand, it’s relatively accessible and only a moderately difficult climb. The easiest route to the top is 5.9 on the climbing scale where beginners often start out on 5.6 and the hardest climbs in the world are currently going at 5.15c.

From the top of the spire, you get a magnificent birds-eye view of Sentinel Rock, the top of Yosemite Falls, Royal Arches, and of course, El Capitan. The summit is also the perfect size. Big enough that you can relax, walk around a little, and even take a nap, yet still small enough to give you the feeling of being on top of the world.”

Climbing on Higher Cathedral Spire

Climbing on Higher Cathedral Spire

Higher Cathedral Spire was first climbed in 1934 by Jules Eichorn, Bestor Robinson and Dick Leonard, in the era when climbers were just beginning to explore Yosemite’s cliffs with ropes and gear.

Veterans Commemorate September 11 in Yosemite

Cody Elliot on Royal Arches

Cody Elliot on Royal Arches Photo: Paradox Sports

In the days leading up to September 11, Yosemite proudly hosted some of the most “can-do” people you could ever meet. 15 veterans from across the country came together in Yosemite to challenge themselves, to find community, and to honor those that have served our country during the events of September 11, and beyond. Paradox Sports, an organization dedicated to helping people discover what is possible post-trauma, led the way, supported by partnerships with the National Park Service, Yosemite Search and Rescue (YoSAR) and DNC Parks and Resorts at Yosemite.

During their visit, different veterans participated in a number of significant ascents and activities in Yosemite, including visits to the summit El Capitan, Royal Arches, Ranger Rock, Sierra Point and many more. Afterward, DJ Skelton, one of the co-founders of Paradox Sports, and himself a disabled veteran, was generous enough to give us some additional insight into these significant ascents.

We’re so excited to have Paradox Sports make the trip to Yosemite! Can you tell us why you chose Yosemite for this special September 11 climb?

Paradox Sports was founded by two rock climbers, Timmy O’Neill and myself. It seemed fitting that we did an event based on climbing/hiking in one of our National Parks. There is really only one park in the US, or world for that matter, that is iconic for rock climbing, Yosemite National Park. Although we provide opportunities for ALL types of disabled Americans, we wanted to dedicate a series of events to disabled veterans. When looking at what date to pick, we thought it was fitting to do an event on the anniversary of Sep 11th, 2001. That day and our Paradox Sports have a lot in common. The tragic events that occurred on Sep 11, 2001 involved some horrific scenes that caused permanent damage to both lives and communities. However, that day, despite the tragedy, fostered an environment that bonded our Nation stronger than it had been in decades. A positive growth occurred in the aftermath of the traumatic wake. Paradox Sports thrives on building communities based upon that post traumatic growth that occurs in our disabled athletes. One can become stronger in spite of the traumatic event rather than the negative outcomes so prevalently found in media stories of disabled and wounded warriors.

Paradox Sports veterans and volunteers met with National Park Service Rangers prior to their ascents.

Paradox Sports veterans and volunteers met with National Park Service Rangers prior to their ascents.

The trip is about so much more than just summiting Half Dome. What are some of the other activities you participated in, for example some of your collaborations with NPS?

Not everyone enjoys climbing. Although climbing tends to be the focus of many of our events, we enjoy helping people set all types of goals in the outdoors. In Yosemite we climbed, hiked several classic hikes (Sentinel Done, Taft Point and Sierra Point), swung off of the Alcove Swing on El Cap, swam in the Merced River, and enjoyed the hidden gems that Yosemite nature has to offer. We also have a couple special events that capitalized on the impressive support from the NPS, DNC, YoSAR [Yosemite Search and Rescue], and local population of the park’s residents. DNC hosted a meet and greet with the park’s leadership and key volunteers to meet our Paradox participants on our first night in the park. It was held at the Curry Lodge Pavilion. It was such a warm welcome to our crew and it really solidified feeling like family…part of a larger community. Our last night, the evening of the 11th, we held a campfire celebration of everyone’s successes at our campground at Yellow Pines. Many of our guides, YNP officials and leaders, DNC employees and friends of Yosemite gathered for an evening of celebration, war stories, and reflection of the days’ trials and tribulations. Paradox Sports also ties in stewardship to our event to respect and honor this incredible National Park. We equip participants with gloves, trash grabbers, and trash bags to pick up litter on every hike and approach to the climbs that we visit.

Are there special logistical considerations that you have to take into account when organizing a trip like this one?

There are many. Approach hikes to the rock walls and descent paths from the summits tend to be more our crux than the climbing itself. In fact, it’s sometimes easier to do the climb for our disabled participants than it is to hike in and out. Heat is also our enemy, as it is for most people who play in the outdoors. Sweaty stumps for our amputee population causes discomfort and hardware issues with the prosthetic limbs. Prosthetic limbs and eyes falling off during a climb also poses a unique threat, not only to our climbers, but those climbing, hiking below. It is also getting harder to cook for this next generation. Everyone seems to have some special diet, gluten free, allergies to fruit and nuts, vegans, people who only eat meat…lol.

Veteran Timpson Smith leading high up on El Capitan Photo: Chris Guinn

Timpson Smith leading on El Capitan
Photo: Chris Guinn

Tell us a little more about what inspired you to co-found Paradox Sports and what the organization’s goals are.

I was severely wounded in Nov 2004. At that time, the hospital scene and rehabilitation environment was pretty grim. I saw these very active young adults, who once played hard in the outdoors, feeling trapped by their severe injuries. I wanted to create an environment that would inspire our wounded warriors and disabled Americans to get excited about playing outdoors again and setting goal-based activities. So many organizations were conducting adaptive sports events, but one would have to cater to the organization’s calendar of events. I wanted to create events that empowered our participants to define life on their own terms again. Paradox Sports would help them learn their new normal in outdoor activities, provide assistance in instruction and adaptive equipment, but most of all, provide unconditional inspiration and support to get back out in this thing called life and explore, grow, push beyond these perceived limitations. Come play once or twice, but then we don’t want to see you again. We want you planning family vacations on your own and going on hikes, climbs, etc with friends on your own timeline, not ours. Hah…not a very good business model, huh?!!!

The goals in Paradox Sports are simple, to build and sustain community-based adaptive communities that foster post-traumatic growth through goal-oriented outdoor activities. By goal-oriented I mean, not just go climb a rock, but to set a goal of climbing a specific route. To not just go kayak, but to kayak down the entire Colorado river at the floor of the Grand Canyon! As we hold ourselves to similar standards, we want our participants to continue to grow, and prosper in life however they wish to define success. Paradox Sports acts as sort of a stepping stone for these disabled individuals. Helping them gain confidence and get connected to the broader communities so they can eventually become self sufficient and independent again, regardless of the severity of their injuries.

Participant Cody Elliott works the crack at Manure Pile

Climbing strong

What is the most rewarding part of working with Paradox Sports?

The most rewarding part of working with Paradox Sports, for me, is watching this idea that I once had many years ago grow life and momentum and move in directions that could never have been conceived in the beginning. Seven years later, every event creates this energy that inspires and ignites the human spirit of all involved and changes people’s lives. It absolutely changed my life and attitude on dealing with traumatic events with permanent lasting effects in my physical and mental state. To see that impact and the enthusiasm of our volunteers, who make accomplishing our mission possible, is emotional for me, the most positive kind of emotion!

What are some of the other events or activities that you have coming up? And how do people get involved with your organization?

Paradox Sports’ has three Paradox Rocks events in October. They are weekend programs with camping and rock climbing at the Shawangunks (aka the “Gunks”) in New York Oct 3-5, Rocktoberfest at Red River Gorge in Kentucky Oct 10-12, and Shelf Road in Colorado Oct 17-19. We also have an ongoing adaptive climbing club we run at three different climbing gyms in the Boulder and Denver areas. There are several ways to stay up to date on our events:

– Sign up for the Paradox Sports monthly newsletter
– Check our calendar
– Follow us on social media: Instagram | Facebook
– Follow our blog
– Check our individual program pages

Yosemite National Park Facelift Yields Over 20,000 Pounds of Trash

Approximately 1,150 Yosemite Facelift volunteers collected approximately 5,000 pounds of litter and 15,000 pounds of concrete, asphalt, and other large trash, at the ninth annual Yosemite Facelift event in Yosemite National Park.  Dozens of miles of roadway, riverbed, and trails were cleaned.  The annual event was held in the park from Tuesday, September 25 through Sunday, September 30, 2012.

Over the past eight years, Facelift volunteers have made a huge impact on significantly eliminating small trash throughout Yosemite National Park. The areas that have been regularly cleaned during each past event have
yielded less and less small trash.  Therefore, this year, Facelift volunteers were able to focus on a number of large-scale special projects throughout the event.

“The annual Yosemite Facelift is an event we treasure, and look forward to each year.  Since Facelift began, we have noticed that there is incrementally less litter accumulated each year.  We feel this is a direct result of the park’s educational program and efforts through Facelift and we are extremely proud of this,” remarked Don Neubacher, Yosemite National Park Superintendent.

One of the special projects Facelift volunteers focused on was cleaning trash and other items from the base of the Half Dome Cables and along the side of the dome where the cables are installed.  Throughout the year, hikers climbing the cables accidentally drop hundreds of water bottles, shoes, cameras, and other small items.  Many of these items cannot safely be recovered and remain on the side of the dome.  Facelift volunteers skilled in technical rope and high angle skills were able to successfully collect hundreds of pounds of small trash from this hard to reach area.

Another special project Facelift volunteers were able to complete included picking up trash that had accumulated along the steep cliffs adjacent to the Tunnel View vista in Yosemite Valley.  Throughout the year, hundreds of pounds of trash and other items have collected along steep cliff sides lining the famous view of Yosemite Valley.  Much of this trash could not be removed without protective gear due to the steep angle of the cliffs. Facelift volunteers successfully removed all of the trash along a quarter mile stretch at Tunnel View.

Other special projects included removing old culverts from Lower Rivers Campground in Yosemite Valley, cleaning up at the base of popular rock climbing routes throughout the park, assisting in removing invasive plants throughout the park, and removing old telephone wires in Yosemite Valley.

Yosemite Celebrates National Public Lands Day

El Capitan with Merced River and Fall Leaves

On Saturday, September 29, 2012 Yosemite National Park will celebrate National Public Lands Day. In commemoration of this special day, the park will waive park entrance fees for all park visitors.

National Public Lands Day is the nation’s largest hands-on volunteer effort to improve and enhance the public lands American’s enjoy. In 2011, 150,000 volunteers built trails and bridges, and removed trash and invasive plants on public lands across the country.

Yosemite National Park’s major emphasis for the day will be the Yosemite Facelift. This volunteer effort begins with an evening program on Tuesday, September 25 and volunteer efforts begin Wednesday, September 26 and continue through Sunday, September 30. Last year, this massive cleanup effort yielded 4,295 pounds of small trash, and 411,447 pounds of old asphalt and concrete. Over 1,300 volunteers assisted during the Facelift effort.

Fees being waived for National Public Lands Day include the park entrance only. All other fees associated with camping, lodging, or activities within the park are not waived. The fee waiver is good for National Public Lands Day only.

Other federal agencies participating in National Public Lands Day include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Forest Service.