Press

Continue

Interview for CLIMB Magazine in the UK

JEFF VARGEN INTERVIEW – ASSAULT ON EL CAPITAN

Monday, 17 February 2014

In 1982 23-year-old Richard Jensen and 20-year-old Mark Smith made the first ascent of Wings of Steel on El Capitan in Yosemite. Over the course of 39 days they endured personal attacks and death threats while establishing what became known as Yosemite’s most controversial route. Wings of Steel would wait 29 years for a second ascent, by Ammon McNeely – the El Cap Pirate – and his partner Kait Barber. The story of Wings of Steel is told by filmmaker Jeff Vargen in Assault on El Capitan. We caught up with Jeff to find out more about the climb and the film.

How did the idea for the film come about? Was the catalyst Ammon’s drive to make the second ascent, or did the idea for a film inspire his climb?

The film actually came about rather organically. I was in New York in July of 2011 when I received a text from Ammon saying he was on his way to Yosemite and wondered if I was coming to the Park in the next few days.

I said ‘no’ and asked what he was doing. He said he and Kait were going to do a route on El Cap. That’s certainly not uncommon. That’s what Ammon does, climb El Cap. He’s climbed it 75 times. He said he was going to do Wings of Steel.  I actually laughed. It’s July and very hot in Yosemite, very few people climb El Cap in midsummer. And, to compound that, he was going to climb a route that had not been done in 29 years and was universally understood to be a horror show. Not just the climbing but the 85-degree slab that radiates and reflects the sun.

This is typical Ammon, he went up there on this mythical route that the entire climbing world – at least Yosemite climbing world – would be really excited and interested in knowing about and he was doing it in relative obscurity. He didn’t tell anyone. It finally came out when he was on the route and people saw his Jolly Roger flag and texts and calls started come in.

When he got down, he called me and said he had some really good pictures and they shot some video, and Kait was going to make a little YouTube video. I went over to their place, looked at the pics and then the video and they were really excited about making a little movie about it. I told them that maybe we could do something a little more. So the film began to take shape. Initially we were going to just talk to some of our friends about the climb and make maybe a 15-minute YouTube piece. But it quickly snowballed as we began so see the potential for a longer and more in depth film

Were Richard and Mark willing participants in the film, given the hostility they experienced during their ascent?

When we started it was just going to be a film about Ammon and Kait and their ascent. We assumed that everyone who cared knew the back story. It had been discussed on SuperTopo for years and again we started small. I don’t think it occurred to us to call them.

But once we decided to make a longer more comprehensive piece I knew that they had to be a part of it.

I had not met either one of them and had no idea if they would be interested in appearing on film.  But I sent a couple of emails and I think talked to each one on the phone once and within a week they were on flights to Yosemite. It really was an incredible thing for them to come. I did not tell them what questions I would ask, who was in the film, what side if any I was taking in the controversy nor how I planned to use them or the interviews. It was a courageous thing for them to walk out in a meadow, stand in front of my camera and just start talking and ask them to respond. They also never asked how I was going to cut the film. They never asked if I had an agenda or what side of the controversy I was on.  They were gracious kind men and I am grateful to them. Richard did not see the film until we premiered it in Yosemite and Mark waited a month after that. In hindsight we would have had no movie without them and their generosity.

The film does a great job of introducing people to Ammon – you could say the film is partly a biopic of him. Was this the plan from the start, or did it evolve?

I have known Ammon a long time and the thing I always say to him is people never really get to see you the way I see you. They see BASE jumps, bold climbs, big falls and a very large persona. But the Ammon who sits on my couch or around campfires is a mellow, relaxed warm human being. He is without question the kindest most big-hearted man I have ever met.

So yes, as we developed the film we wanted to explore a little of his background and try to give a glimpse of the real guy, not the guy people may have seen portrayed in other films. But that ultimately became a challenge; he is such an interesting man, the film at one point was becoming the Ammon McNeely story. We constantly had to reel ourselves back in to stay true to what our story was, which was the ascent and controversy of Wings of Steel.

The appearance in the film of climbers such as Ron Kauk and Chris McNamara really add to the context around Yosemite climbing, ethics and the history of significant ascents on El Cap. Were Ron and Chris specifically sought out because of their experience?

Yes both Ron and Chris were first on my list of people to talk to even before we decided to expand the film beyond a 15-minute short. With everyone we spoke to we had one criteria and that was that they had to have a special relationship with El Capitan. Each of the people in the film has a strong history and relationship to El Cap.

Chris is such a great guy, so smart, articulate and with this amazing ability to synthesize information. He is GREAT [to] interview.

Chris and Ammon are old climbing partners; they have done a lot of bold things together on El Cap. Chris is also the one who taught Ammon how to BASE jump. So they go back a way. I had met Chris and would not say we really knew each other so he too was incredibly trusting in what we were going to do with the footage we shot.

I have known Ron on and off for years. I spend a lot of time in Yosemite and if you spend any time in Yosemite you will run into Ron and if you are lucky enough to have a conversation with him, he will change your life. I am not exaggerating. He is such an inspirational person. When I called Ron initially I just asked him if he would be interested in doing an interview with me on camera. He did not hesitate, his only response was ‘when do you want to do it?’ I love Ron’s part in the movie because he has such a sense of history and brings it all down to just what it is which is people trying to be themselves in a world where no one wants that to happen. He was very kind and sent me a very nice email after seeing the film. I could go on and on about Ron Kauk.

Despite Ammon’s conclusion about Wings of Steel at the end of the film, there’s still a sense that some climbers aren’t happy with the events of 1982. Did you as filmmaker encounter any lingering tensions or hostilities when making the film?

That’s an interesting question. I can’t pretend to say I suffered anything approaching what Richard and Mark suffered. But when word leaked out that I was going to do this film there was a bit of chatter on climbing forums in the US and a couple in Australia and I think strangely enough attacking me a bit. There were a few people who said some unkind things and tried to stop us from making the film.

Some people tried to convince climbers not to talk with me on camera, and bully me into not shooting in some areas.  Obviously that didn’t work. Of course none of these people talked to me directly and all hid behind internet pseudonyms.  After the film came out I heard some criticisms about who I interviewed but no one questioned the facts or the content. When I looked further into personal agendas of certain people, it turned out they were upset that they were not asked to be in the film.

Ron Kauk sums the events of the first and second and second ascents up well: ‘what have we learnt?’ What do you think the Yosemite community has learnt from the story of the first and second ascents?

I asked Ron that question. I think that in some ways young climbers can’t believe this stuff happened over a climb. But at the same time [they] are trashing this climber or that climber for an ascent or an ethic. So in some ways it hasn’t changed but the climbing landscape has changed. I have seen and heard some nasty stuff in climbing gyms.

During the time of the first ascent of Wings of Steel there were only a couple hundred climbers in the Valley at any one time, now there are thousands. It would be impossible to be so territorial now. There are still those people out there who lay claim to areas but they are in such a minority that if they have issues they are said quietly. The sport has exploded and it can no longer be dictated by a few people.

But, people are people, and jealousy anger and competitiveness still are powerful themes in Yosemite.

How has the film been received by American and Yosemite climbers?

The film has done great over here. Even some of the people on the forums who were negative from the minute they heard about it admitted they liked the film. The screenings we’ve had have all be sold out. We’ve had rooms full of non climbers which to me as a filmmaker is satisfying. I always saw this film as an adventure film about adventurers rather than a climbing film. The perspective on each scene is so much different for non climbers vs. climbers. It’s so much fun to watch with an audience.

We are putting the dates together now for the spring tour of the film which will take us across the US. We will do Q&As at those screenings and those are always fun.

What’s next for Jeff Vargen and Accidental Productions?

That is the question I have even asked myself. I have several projects right now that are being developed and will be ready for production this year. I just found a story this week that is amazing and we might actually start shooting that story in March. At the moment though I’m touring with the film and enjoying watching people react to the work.

For the time being I will stay in the climbing world with the next couple films and personally you will find me on El Cap doing a few routes this year.

——–

FEAR AND LOATHING IN YOSEMITE VALLEY

Assault on El Capitan

Produced by Accidental Productions, written and directed by Jeff Vargen

USA 2013, 68 minutes

Reviewed by Tony O’Donnell

FILM REVIEW

November 10th 2013

IN 1982, two young climbers, Richard Jensen and Mark Smith, showed up at El Capitan, the spectacular 3,000 foot high granite wall in California’s Yosemite Valley, the heartland of rock climbing in America.  They spent the next 39 days pioneering a new route up the face, which they would eventually name Wings of Steel.  Along the way they would be subject to verbal and physical harassment so severe as to be considered threatening to their lives.  Their route, or rather the manner in which they were alleged to have climbed it, is the stuff of climbing lore, and sparked a controversy that has persisted for 30 years. Jeff Vargen’s Assault on El Capitan tells the story of the route, and of the long-awaited attempt at a second ascent by renowned and respected climber Ammon McNeely.

A note of explanation for non-climbers is perhaps appropriate.  When a climber succeeds in ascending a previously unclimbed line on a rock face, in a manner governed by a particular code of ethics, he or she is said to have “put up” the route.  These ethics differ from place to place, from rock type to rock type, and from one style of climbing to another (for example, the ethics governing free climbing, where only hands and feet are used to propel oneself up the rock face, are different from those in aid climbing, where the climber uses artificial aids such as rope ladders hooked onto the rock to gain height).  In essence they are an unwritten code of conduct for climbers, and have been developed during the history of the sport in the interest of preserving its integrity.  Climbers fall out, sometimes badly, over real or imagined breaches in ethics.  For example, it is considered a grave breach of ethics to chip a hold into a rock face where there was none before in order to be able to climb that which is considered otherwise unclimbable.  One day there will be another, the logic goes, who will be able to claim the line “as is”; and if not, just leave it be.

The “first ascensionist” of a new route earns the right to name it and grade it for difficulty. Again, grading systems differ from place to place and between types of climbing.  Some new routes attract particular attention from the climbing community for their level of difficulty, daring or both; often they are “problems” that have previously repelled other skilled climbers.  For such routes the second ascent is almost as important is the first, in that it will validate (or not) the grading from the first ascent, and sometimes might also “put right” certain ethical considerations.  It’s the climbing world’s peer review system.  It is not unusual for particularly difficult routes to go many years without a second ascent.

So it was with Jensen and Smith’s Wings of Steel, which after three decades had yet to see a second ascent.  Assault on El Capitan is effectively two films in one, in that it tells the story of the first ascent by Jensen and Smith, and the attempt at the second ascent by McNeely and his girlfriend Kait Barber 30 years later.  After some nicely framed scene-setting shots of the spectacular Yosemite scenery accompanied by musings on this “crucible of American climbing” by various as-yet-unidentified climbers, it’s straight down to business.

The first ascent of Wings of Steel is largely retold by the best means available, that is to-camera interviews with the main players in the story and other observers with varying degrees of neutrality on the subject.  There is no film footage of the 1982 climb, though we do see photographs taken by the young climbers during the first ascent.  The appeal of the line that was to become Wings, explains the now fifty-something Jensen, was simply its apparent difficulty.  While not an aesthetically attractive line or one that had been subject to the attentions of local climbers, it ascended a geologically “unusual formation”, a notably bare slab (a section of rock face that is steep rather than vertical).  In his recollection of events, he and climbing partner Smith arrived in the Valley, kept themselves to themselves and got on with the job of tackling the climb as best they could. Unfortunately, they ruffled the feathers of some of “the locals”.

Step forward Steve Grossman, climber of some repute, Yosemite climbing historian and lead detractor of Jensen and Smith and their alleged methods.  He is candid from the off about his feelings for the pair: “[It is] the lack of honest and forthright disclosure on preparation, execution, methods… [that] has gotten them into trouble… I don’t have anything good to say about them.”

What Jensen and Smith stood accused of is this: while the drilling of holes to enable them to climb through unclimbable terrain was not unusual in aid climbing at the time, they are alleged to have lied about the number of these interventions.  In the eyes of their critics, the route had been reduced to a so-called “bolt ladder” where they had simply drilled their way to the top.  This, of course, was a retrospective denunciation, in that it could only have been made after the route had been completed; not that anybody had any evidence to back the claim up.  But these two apparently inexperienced interlopers were perceived to have disrespected the local climbing fraternity, not to mention Yosemite tradition.  What else could they have been doing up there for all that time, other than getting up to good?

Their difficulties started from the moment they left the ground.  As well as verbal harassment and physical intimidation from local climbers, they found their equipment to have been defecated on and had bags containing human faeces thrown at them from neighbouring lines.  While the Yosemite climbing scene of the late seventies and early eighties had more than a little anarchy about it, this is pretty appalling behaviour by any civilised standard.

During the film, Richard Jensen acknowledges that he was probably naïve at the time, but still seems quite bewildered at what he and Smith had to put up with three decades ago: “We just never would have imagined that it would have mattered to people this much.” The pair say they thought they were doing the right thing by keeping themselves to themselves, not meeting and greeting the locals (a “big mistake” according to Grossman), not proving themselves worthy of virgin Yosemite granite.  Steve Grossman darkly reveals there was talk that in the event that Jensen and Smith found themselves in difficulties and called for rescue, none would be forthcoming.  “That’s pretty harsh,” he says.  Two human beings are considered deserving of death over a perceived misdemeanour in sport.  Harsh?  It’s more than that.  It’s obscene.

AMMON McNeely is known as the Yosemite Pirate, a nickname he acquired in his younger days when he would salvage climbing gear left behind on the Valley’s big walls. Now in his early forties, he is a climber with a formidable reputation.  He has climbed “El Cap” 75 times by 62 different routes, including 11 one-day ascents.  In to-camera interviews, he and his brother Gabe recall their Utah childhood and their first adventures on the local sandstone crags.  He acknowledges that “fear is… a part of the big wall equation,” but doesn’t seem to be troubled by it too much.  According to Gabe, he doesn’t have a pain threshold either (which isn’t too difficult to believe – as I write, McNeely is recovering after a recent BASE jumping accident.  Incredibly, despite an appalling injury he calmly talked to his own camera as he awaited rescue.)  When it becomes known that, with the assistance of his girlfriend Kait Barber, he is to attempt a second ascent of Wings of Steel (a previous attempt by another team in 2006 had failed), as a neutral party of impeccable standing and integrity he is widely acknowledged to be the man for the job. For Jensen and Smith, this goes beyond the validation a second ascent is normally expected to provide.  It’s more like vindication.

The climbing segments of Assault on El Capitan, a video diary of the second ascent, come from raw hand-held footage taken by McNeely and Barber.  They offer an interesting insight into day-to-day life on a big wall.  Climbers say that above about 50 feet it doesn’t get any scarier, as any ground fall is likely to be fatal, but hundreds, even thousands, of feet above the deck, nerves are subject to a special kind of shredding.  While McNeely appears pretty much impervious to fear (even pausing at one point to whack a dislocated shoulder back in place), Barber clearly isn’t enjoying the experience so much, in part because it is she who has to take the impact of her partner’s frequent “whippers”, or falls (as the slab is at an 80º angle, McNeely doesn’t so much fall as slide at great speed – he calls them “cheesegraters”).  There is a palpable tension in some scenes where McNeely is cajoling Barber into action; in McNeely’s own account he reveals that as well as dealing with the anxieties of the climb, she was under considerable stress due to family problems. If anything, there is too little time devoted to interplay between the couple on the wall, which is a pity.  Whole films have been made out of individual ascents, of course, but here McNeely and Barber’s climb is part of another, bigger story.

“IT’S COMMON for an outsider to be treated with a little disrespect” says Yosemite aid climbing maestro Eric Kohl to camera.  Respect, and the lack thereof, are a constant theme in Assault on El Capitan.  Jensen and Smith disrespected the locals and Yosemite tradition; for their part they were disrespected simply because they weren’t locals, and as Gabe McNeely reasonably points out were mightily disrespected when they had shit thrown at them.  More than once, the comparison is made with that most territorial of sports, surfing.  To the outsider looking in, it might seem like little more than a monumental lack of perspective on the part of all involved.  Even within climbing there are those who see it all as a little over the top.  On one of the numerous (often heated) internet discussions devoted to the Wings of Steel saga, one climber pithily observes “Who feckin’ cares?  It’s rockclimbin’.”  That particular thread runs to over 3,500 posts, which is indicative of how Wings continues to fascinate the climbing community. So does the Yosemite Pirate top out on Wings of Steel and bring vindication to Jensen and Smith? At the end of the film, do we find Steve Grossman shaking hands and having a beer with his erstwhile nemeses?  Those with an interest in the story will know the answers to those questions, but you won’t find any spoilers here.

Assault on El Capitan is no adrenaline-fest.  There is no place here for helicopter shots, time-lapse or GoPro.  But in its simple and measured way it tells a story, a fairly epic story at that; and in the space of a little over an hour it tells it exceptionally well.  Special mention must be made of the skilful editing of the interviews to develop the narrative.  Is it a climber’s film?  Well, given the subject matter and the opacity of much of the jargon used, yes, but surely that was always the intention.  For the aficionado, it’s an essential slab of climbing history.  Non-climbers will find it a curiosity piece, a strange tale of egos bruised and grudges nurtured.  They might find it interesting, even entertaining in its absurdity, but they won’t “get it”.  But Assault on El Capitan wasn’t made for them. Really, it was made for Yosemite.  The film’s protagonists are now men in late middle age, and Assault might serve to reopen old wounds (certainly, online discussion of the affair has been stimulated by the film’s release); but equally, it may prove to be an important part of a healing process.  As climbing legend Ron Kauk observes to camera, “Controversy comes into it, competitiveness comes into it, ego comes into it… these are all things that as human beings we’re challenged with.  Maybe a film like this can be a good thing, because what we’re really trying to look at is, what have we learned?”

———

NYC Bouldering

THURSDAY, MARCH 13, 2014

ASSUALT ON EL CAPITAN: WINGS OF STEEL

In 1982, two young guns, Mark Smith and Richard Jensen visited California’s Yosemite Valley with the dream of establishing a first ascent on the global climbing stage of El Capitan

After a record breaking thirty-nine days on the wall, they succeeded in pioneering a new route up the southwest face, naming it Wings Of Steel. The route journeyed over the infamous Great Slab, a glassy 1,000ft of featureless rock considered unclimbable by many.

The battle to climb the seemingly unconquerable route was fought on many fronts. The climbing aside, Mark and Richard were the subject of verbal harassment, threats of violence and sabotage to the climbing safety equipment from the territorial locals who were less than welcoming.

The route went unrepeated for almost 30 years while the bitter controversy rumbled on. Disputes about the route would appear in online forums where climbers would speculate the ethics of the ascent. A handful second ascents was attempted, but failed before summiting, unable to overcome the difficulties of the route on its lower pitches. Yet the critics would continue to slander Mark and Richards efforts, denouncing it to be little more than a convoluted “bolt ladder”.

Some three decades later, Yosemite veteran Ammon McNeely took up the challenge to repeat the route. Drawn to the climb by its mystery, he would lay to rest the rancorous stories that litter the internet. For Mark and Richard, Ammon’s ascent would be the vindication they had desired for all these years.

Along with climbing partner Kait Barber and videographer Jeff Vargen, Assault on El Capitan tells a candid history of the routes establishment and the difficulties each team faced on their journey to the top. Featuring interviews from the key players in the story including climbing legends Ron Kauk and Steve Grossman, the film is more narrative than action thriller!

While the film does a great job at shedding light on the Wings of Steel debacle, it’s clear that this film is made for the climbing community that has significant interest in the happenings of the valley. Non-climbers can also enjoy the film, being wowed by much of the portaledge footage, asking the regular question of “Do they sleep up there?” and finding humour in the ridiculousness of the ego’s squabbling over “a piece of rock”.

It’s truly embarrassing to be part of a community that would carry out many of the atrocious deeds they did to a fellow climber when viewed through the lens of a human and non climber. With this film, Jeff Vargen has achieved a compelling and educational insight into the climbing world that I hope will finally lay to rest the personal grudges between everyone involved and begin the healing process for the future of the sport.

 

Assault on El Capitan

Produced by Accidental Productions, written and directed by Jeff Vargen

USA 2013, 68 minutes

Reviewed by Gaz Leah

———–

St George News

Ammon McNeely talks about his recovery from near-fatal BASE jumping accident

Written by Drew Allred on November 19, 2013 in Life, News, Outdoors,

Editor’s Note: This story contains content that is graphic in nature. It may not be suitable for sensitive viewers, reader discretion is advised.

  1. St. GEORGE  − Ammon McNeely recently survived a near-deadly BASE jumping accident near Moab and was released from the hospital Thursday. Seven surgeries later, McNeely talks about his hair-raising hospital experience that included a second close call with losing his leg. He is now wiggling his toes and optimistically discussing “the prospect of a new life with a different foot,” in an interview with St. George News from his home.

Just a few weeks ago, after careening down a 350-foot cliff, McNeely found himself stranded in the desert on an intermediate cliff ledge, with one leg broken straight in half, and death looming from blood loss. After an incredible rescue, he found himself in the hospital, still fully believing that he would never feel the sensation of wiggling his toes again. McNeely was mentally preparing himself for a leg amputation.

Seven surgeries

Successive swelling in Ammon McNeely’s leg almost stopped the blood flow to his foot following a BASE jumping accident near Moab, Utah. St. Mary’s Hospital, Grand Junction, Colo., Oct. 25, 2013 | Photo courtesy of Ammon McNeely, St. George News

On the day of his Oct. 25 accident, McNeely was transported by Classic Lifeguard helicopter to St. Mary’s hospital in Grand Junction, Colo. In the emergency room, surgeons immediately went to work attaching two completely severed calf bones, his fibula and tibia. First, they reattached his fibula by drilling metal plates and screws into it. To combat excessive swelling in McNeely’s leg, surgeons also had to cut open lengthy incisions in his connective tissue that surrounded his leg muscles — a procedure called a fasciotomy.

During this first surgery, and through most of the successive surgeries, doctors constantly used a surgical vacuum to suck out fluids and keep the open wounds clean. McNeely’s second broken calf bone — his tibia — wasn’t repaired for another week because doctors had to perform two successive cleaning surgeries in a four-day period after his fibula surgery.

During cleaning surgeries, to remove fluids and tissues from his open wounds and incisions, one of his arteries gathered a big blood clot. Doctors feared he might lose too much tissue to salvage his leg but blood thinner miraculously cleared the clot and his system barely got blood flowing through his leg before he came near to losing it a second time.

Once McNeely’s blood was flowing again, surgeons had to move fast to remove more bundles of dead tissue from his wounds.

An X-ray of Ammon McNeely’s leg after it was reconstructed using metal plates. St. Mary’s Hospital, Grand Junction, Colo., Nov. 2013 | Photo courtesy of Ammon McNeely, St. George News

Ten days after arriving at the hospital, McNeely’s tibia — his other severed calf bone — was finally repaired. With his wounds and incisions still left open 13 days after his first surgery, doctors performed another wound-cleaning surgery with the vacuum.

Right before his final surgery – and to his distress he said – McNeely found out that surgeons needed to remove up to 5 inches of muscle from either his abdomen or his thigh to replace muscle lost in his calf. This would substantially decrease the strength and mobility from whichever muscle they took it from. After such a miraculous recovery so far, McNeely said he was devastated to find out that he would be losing muscles from other parts of his body.

Remarkably, once the surgery started, surgeons found enough muscle left that they downgraded the surgery to a skin graft surgery, and ended up leaving his other muscles intact. McNeely still had skin grafted off of his thigh, which he said was the most excruciating pain he felt the entire time in the hospital. He was in intense pain for about 18 hours after this final surgery, he said. No amount of  medication removed the pain. However, he said he was overjoyed that this procedure was much simper than first anticipated.

Over all, doctors told McNeely it is a miracle that they even saved his leg at all, he said. It’s an even greater miracle that there wasn’t more damage done throughout the surgery process, McNeely said. The surgeries went better than anyone expected.

Stranded in a hospital bed

Being confined to a hospital bed for three weeks sounds like a bleak task for an extreme athlete like McNeely. But he has been in good spirits, drawing strength from many things, particularly that this could have been much worse.

“I thought for sure … on that ledge … that I was going to be an amputee,” McNeely said. “I just constantly count my blessings … I just feel so fortunate and lucky.”

Ammon McNeely in the hospital before being released. Nov. 14 2013 | Photo courtesy of Ammon McNeely, St. George News

McNeely has received tons of support and love, he said: “People are constantly wishing me well, and that also really helps a lot.”

More than an extreme adventurer

McNeely’s close friend and business partner, Jeff Vargen, has seen McNeely through several of his past injuries. McNeely never complains and somehow manages to keep an optimistic attitude even when going through traumatic injuries, Vargen said.

“There have been several times that things went horribly wrong in climbs or jumps,” Vargen said, “each time (McNeely) has told me about them, he describes the event but never places blame or makes an excuse.”

McNeely doesn’t only adventure; in fact, he said he has many other passions he will be pursuing during this down time. Vargen, who worked with McNeely on a climbing documentary called “Assault on El Capitan,” completely disagreed with what he called a misconception about McNeely: that is, that he is obsessed with adventure. Not so, Vargen said.  A large part of their friendship has been spent not adventuring, he said, but doing many other things they both enjoy.

The most meaningful of McNeely’s other passions are painting and writing. “Ammon is an amazing painter and gifted writer,” Vargen said. Both of these activities have been filling much of McNeely’s down time since his accident.

Besides his love for watercolors and writing, McNeely also plays drums and guitar. “These … really lift my spirits,” he said.

“For me,” McNeely said, “outdoor adventure is the No. 1 thing that I am passionate about, but I do have many other aspects of my life, like music and art, that … I couldn’t live without.”

An ethical dilemma over charity

While McNeely’s been in the hospital, he has been watching helplessly as a fundraiser for him has been gaining speed. The fundraising webpage “Help Ammon” reports that all donations will go directly to getting McNeely a new setup for BASE jumping since his is current setup is worn out. The fund currently has $2,105.94 in it as of Nov. 19.

McNeely had nothing to do with starting the fundraiser and said that he has had an ethical dilemma about the fund since its inception.

“I was taught as a kid that if you want something out of your life,” he said, “you’ve got to go out and earn it yourself, people can’t just hand you stuff.”

Ammon McNeely reconstructed leg, in the hospital before being released. Nov. 10, 2013 | Photo courtesy of Ammon McNeely, St. George News

Despite his conflicting feelings, he does appreciate the people who started the fundraiser: “I really really do appreciate it, but I just didn’t ask for it.” The last thing he is worried about right now, he said, is having new BASE jumping gear.

“It’s hard, I don’t know what to think about it,” McNeely said. “On one hand I don’t want the money, … but on the other hand I ask myself, is it rude to say: ‘Thanks, but no thanks’?”

When the time comes for it, McNeely said he isn’t worried about finding a way to make money to update his gear. He has already made money off the video he posted, and he’s in discussions with the hospital to help them with a video ad campaign that could substantially lower his hospital bills.

Moving forward with hope

Now released from the hospital and recuperating at home with friends and family around him, McNeely expects to get the majority of function back in his foot and hopes to be off crutches and walking in the next six to eight weeks.

“I can sleep most the night, plus I’ve got freedom to do what I want again,” he said; he’s been moving about the house, gone to the movies, and he often gets sun in his backyard.

Although he doesn’t expect to perform at the same levels that he once did, he said he will certainly BASE jump and climb again. He said:

A big part of what drives me anyway is the unknown, finding that out … is going to be part of the fun when I get back at it.

Ammon McNeely in the hospital before being released. St. Mary’s Hospital, Grand Junction, Colo. Nov. 14 2013 | Photo courtesy of Ammon McNeely, St. George News

Ammon McNeely’s leg after a fasciotomy treatment in the hospital. St. Mary’s Hospital, Grand Junction, Colo., Oct. 2013 | Photo courtesy of Ammon McNeely, St. George News | Photo courtesy of Ammon McNeely, exposed wound blurred by St. George News out of deference to sensitive viewers

Doctors work to save Ammon McNeely’s leg after it was nearly severed in a BASE jumping accident near Moab, Utah on Oct. 25. St. Mary’s Hospital, Grand Junction, Colo., Oct. 30, 2013 | Photo courtesy of Ammon McNeely, exposed wound blurred by St. George News out of deference to sensitive viewers

Successive swelling in Ammon McNeely’s leg almost stopped the blood flow to his foot following a BASE jumping accident near Moab, Utah. St. Mary’s Hospital, Grand Junction, Colo., Oct. 25, 2013 | Photo courtesy of Ammon McNeely, St. George News

Ammon McNeely’s reconstructed leg, in the hospital before being released. St. Mary’s Hospital, Grand Junction, Colo., Nov. 10, 2013 | Photo courtesy of Ammon McNeely, St. George News

An X-ray of Ammon McNeely’s leg after it was reconstructed using metal plates. St. Mary’s Hospital, Grand Junction, Colo., Nov. 2013 | Photo courtesy of Ammon McNeely, St. George News

Ammon McNeely laying in his hospital bed after seven surgeries to reconstruct his leg. St. Mary’s Hospital, Grand Junction, Colo., between Oct. 19 and Nov. 24, 2013 | Photo courtesy of Ammon McNeely, St. George News

The view our Ammon McNeely’s hospital room window. St. Mary’s Hospital, Grand Junction, Colo., between Oct. 19 and Nov. 24, 2013 | Photo courtesy of Ammon McNeely, St. George News