No mountain too high, no valley too steep Eleonora’s ascent

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The motto is never give up

Even though her legs are paralyzed, it never stopped Eleonora Delnevo from doing what she is most fond of: Going out into the wild and climbing mountains.

Eleonora Delnevo
Eleonora Delnevo

I was born near Bergamo 39 years ago. As long as I remember, I have always loved nature and the mountains. For many years, I did all sorts of mountaineering and climbing: from classic rock climbing at high altitudes to ice falls.

In March 2015, during a mixed rock and ice climb, the part of the rock face, on which my two partners and I were standing suddenly crumbled. There was no escape and we fell – thirty metres through the air and then into a snow-covered gully that somewhat cushioned my landing and saved my life.  One of the guys was largely unharmed and managed to get help. However, it wasn’t a good outcome: The other guy suffered numerous fractures and was in an induced coma for 5 days, while in my case, my legs were paralysed immediately.  After my surgery four days later the diagnosis was already definitive: as a result of the spinal cord injury, permanent paralysis of my legs and 100% disability.

Adapting to new needs – making everyday life work

Despite everything, I did not give in and, even with the knowledge that I would never walk again, I was immediately encouraged by friends to return to the outdoors, and go back to the mountains.  During rehabilitation I had to face numerous challenges: learn how to move, find my balance, rehabilitat the muscles to work in new ways, etc.  In terms of the practical aspects, I had to adapt my house to live independently, redo my driving license, get a car that would allow me to drive and, finally, start working again! 

Striving for a lofty goal - the El Captain

Luckily, I was supported by fantastic people. My sister Laura was great, launching the crowdfunding campaign “Loli Back To The Top”. There were even T-shirts printed to raise money.

Eleonora with her friend Diego Pezzoli

In September 2016, a little over a year after the accident, I managed to fulfil the dream of scaling a rock face again. Together with a dear friend and climbing partner, Diego Pezzoli, I climbed one of the most famous rock faces in the world, El Capitan in Yosemite Park, California, a 1,000 meters high monolith with a vertical wall. 

We adapted the equipment to my needs, copying from other disabled sports. In particular, we used a paragliding harness that was custom-made for me, ultra-light and carried the weight of my legs and allowed me to have my arms free to climb. In addition to Diego, I was accompanied by Angelo Angelilli, an Italian who had been living in California for several years, and Franco Perlotto, who made the first Italian solo ascent of Lurking Fear.

We adapted the equipment to my needs, copying from other disabled sports. In particular, we used a paragliding harness that was custom-made for me, ultra-light and carried the weight of my legs and allowed me to have my arms free to climb. In addition to Diego, I was accompanied by Angelo Angelilli, an Italian who had been living in California for several years, and Franco Perlotto, who made the first Italian solo ascent of Lurking Fear.

Try and try and try – to finally make it happen

My first attempt saw me only get halfway up the rock face, but in 2018 we tried again, this time planning the climb with another long-standing climbing friend, Gibe. Another reason to return was that this time I’d have Antonio Pozzi as my fourth climbing companion, an expert climber from Zurich. Antonio’s technique and tenacity proved to be the perfect combination: Before we started, he had already studied every step of the route. If we had reached the summit in three days, this would have been his achievement as he had covered almost all fifteen of the Zodiac pitches as first climber.

On 28 September, Diego and Antonio set up the first five Zodiac pitches, positioning the ropes that would serve us the next day. Practically the same pitches that we had covered in 2016. That same evening, Gibe climbed the stretch of the already set-up route and hoisted the two bags containing the material needed to climb the rock face, which could take three days or even longer. Not a small job, given that the first stop was at one hundred metres. Meanwhile, I stayed at the base.

We started together, and climbed the first six pitches of the route, which Diego and Antonio have set up the day before, smoothly and quickly. After a long second day, we’d reached the 9th pitch on the rock face. One night of rest, and then 24 hours of climbing began.

Unfortunately, the weather deteriorated and this meant we had to climb in the night to save time and avoid the rain on the rock face. By the time we reached the twelfth pitch, the sun was setting. We stopped near a beautiful embankment and initially thought of sleeping there, but the forecasts were definitely worsening and so we decided to push on. The final pitches were reached in complete darkness, with just the light of our headlamps. And Antonio proved an absolute star at supporting the last stretch of the ascent.

All that ends well – reaching the top

I was exhausted when we arrived back to camp at five o’clock in the morning, totally wrecked but elated. There was no shortage of emotion and hugs. The weather, however, had taken a turn for the worse. It started pouring, and we had to pack our things up and think about descending. The rain was too heavy to take our planned route. We had already organised things with the rescue guys, who were meant to have helped us with the last part of the descent. Unfortunately, that same night there had been a serious accident, and almost all of the rescue volunteers were busy. Suddenly we saw lights coming down from the top of El Capitan – two guys who had just finished the “Nose”. With them, we decided to prepare a single portaledge as a rescue stretcher in order to carry me to the bottom along the path that leads to Tuolumne Pass. It took much longer than we’d expected.

The climb to El Capitan

The most intense moments of the climb were those on the rock face, starting with the portaledge... For a few seconds, I felt myself hanging in mid-air, swaying like a pendulum, it was a feeling that lasted just a few moments and, of course, I was safe. However, the experience was terrifying. For me it was not a simple case of jumping; I had to wait for the right moment, to hoist myself onto the rope and let myself drop into the void. It's one thing to do it at the initial pitches, but when you’re hanging 300-500 metres above the ground everything changes.

Timmy O’Neil, a Californian climbing legend in the Yosemite Valley, and who I’d met two years before, helped me to reach the path, just below the rock face. The path to reach El Capitan starts off flat, but then you reach rocks and passes that make it unsuitable for wheelchair use. The guys on O’Neil’s team prepared a sort of sedan chair with a giant wheel that allowed us to proceed without ever needing to lift the stretcher. A brilliant idea! Their enthusiasm gave me the energy I needed to face the climb.

Going beyond the limits – you can do it, too

During the climb up El Capitan, we slept on portaledges (2 square meters in size) on the rock face; prepared our dinner and made a bivouac. One of the problems with staying on the rock face was the question of how to go to the toilet. No waste may be left on the rock face, let alone dropped into the valley: in fact, 100 metres below there are other people. Thanks to the ultralight Actreen® Mini Set, equipped with a collection bag, I did not have this problem. Another one of the products I used was Softa-Man® Viscorub, for hand hygiene; this, combined with the no-touch catheter technology, eliminated the possibility of contracting urinary tract infections, which would have totally compromised my goal.

Kayaking in Canada

Between my two trips to Yosemite, I went on a kayaking trip to Canada with two friends. I needed to get away and see the world, nature, mountains and wild environments. That’s why I started kayaking after the accident. Getting started wasn’t easy, but it is the sport that now enables me to be more independent when I’m out, and one that still allows me to be active and enjoy exciting outdoor sports.

„“You can go back to doing what you believe you can do, because technology helps you implement ideas… thanks B. Braun!”“

– Eleonora Delnevo