No giving up — Paralysis fails to slow down Sean O’Neill who receives prestigious climbing award
By Allen Crabtree
Special to The News
BROWNFIELD — Local rock and ice climber Sean O’Neill was awarded the prestigious Excellence in Climbing Award at the June 2017 meeting of the American Alpine Club in Denver.
The 2017 Hall of Mountaineering Excellence (HoME) award was presented to Sean and his brother, Timmy O’Neill, for their work with Paradox Sports, an organization that encourages handicapped individuals to get involved in outdoor activities and overcome the limitations that their handicaps have imposed on them.
Sean explained that his climbing and working with Paradox Sports is “a deadly serious opportunity to have a sense of wellbeing and help take care of myself. I might not take as good of care of myself if I did not have this connection with other people. It feels wonderful to give back.”
Sean has been paralyzed from the waist down since a tragic 1991 accident in Memphis. He began climbing at the invitation of his brother and pro-climber Timmy O’Neill, and has since pushed the limits of what is considered possible for disabled climbers.
Philosopher Robert Tew once said, “It doesn’t matter what happens to you. What matters is what are you going to do about it. Are you going to complain and shrink or are you going to step into your greatness?”
This could well describe Sean O’Neill’s approach to life. When he was 25 years old and became a T-12 paraplegic — unable to walk and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life — he could have just given up. Sean is made of sterner stuff, however. With the encouragement of his rock-climbing brother, Tim, and dozens of friends, since his accident Sean has achieved prodigious athletic feats that continue to conquer new horizons and open new doors for fellow paraplegics by his example.
Sean has climbed the hills and mountains of New Hampshire and Colorado in his wheelchair unaided, on his own power. His summits included Mount Washington via the Auto Road, a long and difficult solo climb. In October 2006, he became the first person to climb 13,803-foot Mount Mauna Kea in Hawaii on the road that stretches from the ocean to the summit. It took 40 hours of unaided and grueling hand and arm pushing, but proved to Sean and to the world that his infirmity was not going to hold him back from what he wanted to do.
Sean has developed specialized climbing devices to allow him to participate in, and then lead, difficult technical rock climbs. He assiduously worked to improve his upper body strength at his home in Brownfield, till he could do thousands of pull-ups in one session. He has climbed the local Mount Washington Valley cliffs. With his brother, Tim, and other climbing friends, he has climbed Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, Castleton Tower and Tombstone Tower in Utah, El Capitan in Yosemite (three times), and numerous other New Hampshire, Colorado and California challenges. Sean became the first paraplegic to climb frozen 365-foot tall Bridal Veil Falls in Colorado. This difficult and dangerous eight-hour ice climb added yet another first to his long list of accomplishments as an ice and rock climber. A few years ago, he became the first paraplegic to lead climb. He also develops equipment that helps paraplegics climb.
At a party hosted by his friends at the Denmark Congregational Church recently to welcome Sean home from receiving his awards he said, “We climb to feel alive, to know what being alive feels like.” This is Sean O’Neill’s mantra for life, and he shares this passion with others.
He is a frequent teacher and mentor at workshops and gyms for the disabled, demonstrating his climbing techniques and devices for others.
“I am able to assist other wheelchair users,” Sean said, “because people are looking at me now and I can say, ‘Hey, look what we can do.’”
“From crisis comes opportunity, and this represents an opportunity for him to live as fully as he can imagine,” brother Tim commented on his brother Sean’s accomplishments. “Really, what we are looking for is profound experiences that are created out of the raw materials of one’s courage and vulnerability, and he is a ‘courage smith.’”
In awarding their Excellence in Climbing Award to Sean, the American Alpine Club and his peers have recognized the amazing things he has accomplished since becoming a paraplegic. Sean is truly inspiring and is the living embodiment of the motto, “Things happen — but you don’t give up.”