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

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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