Sean O’Neill
Climbing into His Greatness

by Allen Crabtree

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 since he broke his back in a tragic 1991 accident in Memphis and lost the use of both legs. He was 25 years old when he became a T-12 paraplegic, unable to walk and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Some people would have just given up at this point, but Sean is made of sterner stuff. 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 spent time getting his body in shape, road climbing the hills and mountains of New Hampshire and Colorado in his wheel chair, including summiting Mount Washington. He assiduously worked to improve his upper body strength till he could do thousands of pull ups without stopping. Then 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 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. Since then, Sean has developed specialized climbing devices to allow him to participate in, and then lead, difficult technical rock climbs. He has climbed the local cliffs and with Tim and other climbing friends, have climbed Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, Castleton Tower and Tombstone Tower in Utah, El Capitan in Yosemite (three times), and numerous New Hampshire, Colorado, and California challenges. Sean’s latest triumph was the 8-hour ascent of frozen 365-foot tall Bridal Veil Falls in Colorado on February 26, 2014.

“From crisis comes opportunity, and this represents an opportunity for him to live as fully as he can imagine,” Timmy 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 ‘couragesmith.’ ”

Sean is active with Paradox Sports, an organization founded by his brother Tim to encourage handicapped individuals to expand their horizons by being involved in outdoor activities that encourage them to 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 well-being 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 is a frequent teacher and mentor at workshops and gyms for the disabled, demonstrating his climbing techniques and devices for others. “I’ll 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.’ ”

On Sunday March 9, 2014 Sean held the congregation of the Denmark Congregational Church spellbound as he talked about his climbing experiences and the amazing things he has accomplished since becoming a paraplegic. He was truly inspiring, and is the living embodiment of the motto “Things happen – but you don’t give up.”

He will giving his illustrated talk again at the International Mountain Equipment store in North Conway (2733 White Mountain Highway) on Saturday, March 22, at 7pm. Suggested donation is $10. FMI call (603) 356-7013.