A Baltimore County native and two friends take on the first all-disabled ascent of El Capitan

Baltimore County native Pete Davis and two friends scaled Yosemite's daunting El Capitan in the first all-disabled climb of the rock formation.
(Mikey Schaefer/Duct Tape Then Beer, handout photo)

El Capitan is an intimidating granite formation in California's Yosemite National Park, popular with climbers because its 7,573-foot vertical face presents such a challenge.

Pete Davis has done the four-night, five-day ascent twice, which is an accomplishment in itself. And he did it with one hand.


The native of Phoenix in Baltimore County was born without an arm below the elbow, but as he shows in the short climbing film "The Gimp Monkeys," he'd rather have "one hand and a good attitude" than two hands and a bad outlook. The film is one of the features of the Banff Mountain Film Festival, which comes to Loyola University Maryland on March 20,

"It's never really slowed me down," he says from his home in Ridgeway, Colo. "I've always had some basic know-how of how to 'improvise, adapt and overcome.' I hate to steal that from the Marine Corps, but it's true. You have to do a lot of that as an amputee daily; every day, you have to figure out how to do things."


The Gimp Monkeys are three disabled men who are credited in the film with the first all-disabled ascent of El Cap.

Davis, 33, who works as a geologist on an oil rig in Utah, got the climbing bug at age 12 when he visited Colorado on a backpacking and rock-climbing trip. "I was pretty much instantly hooked," he says, and when he returned home to Maryland he forged a small community of new climbers among his friends. A few of them are still at it.

When he turned 18, he began attending Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., where promising peaks are easier to find than in suburban Baltimore. But he still has a local favorite that he returns to when he visits his mother, Sally Barker of Phoenix, and father, Dr. John Davis of Catonsville. .

"Rocks State Park transformed us into real climbers," he says of the park in Harford County. "I've traveled around the world climbing, and when I go back there I'm having a great time."

The local climbing scene has changed a lot since he was a youngster. In fact, "there was no scene when I was growing up. You had Clipper City Rock Gym, but that burned down in 1995."

And now?

"Earth Treks gyms has single-handedly created a huge climbing scene," he says of the local business with gyms in Timonium, Columbia and Rockville. "It's been really interesting to see. It's packed, and people are training; people are way into climbing in Maryland solely because of Earth Treks climbing gyms. If you want to get started [in climbing], that's your best bet to learn skills."

Naturally, fitness is vital to a climber but Davis isn't a gym rat. "I really don't have a training regimen," he says. "I just climb. I try to get out and do something every day, like running, skiing, bike riding. Being outside is my No. 1 thing. But the best training for climbing is just to climb."

And as for diet, "I'm probably not the best model," he says. "I try to minimize processed foods, I try to eat a balanced diet. With plenty of Guinness for strength.

"The most important thing is being active, and that allows me to sort of fudge the diet a little bit. The mountains have a way of kicking your butt into shape."

Davis is presenting "The Gimp Monkeys" at the film festival, and he says "it's been interesting to see how this film has taken off. People find it inspiring, and it's humbling to be in that position."

The other Gimp Monkeys are Craig DeMartino and Jarem Frye, whom Davis met during an X Games-like event for amputees called Extremity Games. One of the most alarming scenes in the film comes when DeMartino and Frye attempted to scale El Cap the year before and Frye's prosthetic leg fell off mid-climb. The attempt was abandoned at that point. (Davis was not on that climb; he joined the next year.)


Luckily, nothing like that happened on the next climb. Or did it?

"They missed a few big falls — taken by me," Davis says. "And on the last day, we had a near-disaster with the 200-pound haul bag [containing supplies and climbing equipment] that basically destroyed our rope. Everything turned out OK, but we narrowly averted breaking our rope and sending the haul bag back down to the ground. Which would have been very scary for the people climbing below us."

If you go

Baltimore county native Pete Davis will introduce the eight-minute film about three disabled friends who climb Yosemite's El Capitan, as part of the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour.

When: March 20, 7 p.m. (doors open at 6)

Where: Loyola University Maryland, McGuire Hall, Andrew White Student Center

How much: $20 in advance ($16 for students with school ID), or $22 at the door ($18 for students). Advance tickets available at Earth Treks in Columbia, Timonium and Rockville, Princeton Sports in Baltimore, and REI in Timonium.

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