ROD THOMPSON / RTHOMPSON@STARBULLETIN.COM
Pennsylvania resident Sean O'Neill, shown here munching on a pear during preparations Thursday, was described by his brother Tim yesterday as "a fierce athlete."
Wheelchair adventurer nears top of Mauna Kea
The wheelchair athlete nears the Mauna Kea summit after a day and a half
The first man to attempt scaling Mauna Kea in a wheelchair was in his grueling final push to the 13,796-foot summit last night.
Sean O'Neill was 2 1/2 miles from the summit at the 13,000-foot level at about 9 p.m., Mauna Kea rangers watching his progress said last night.
"This is the toughest part because it's the steepest part and it's the highest," said David Byrne, manager of the Mauna Kea visitor center.
If O'Neill makes the final 796 feet in altitude, it will be on the steepest grade of his 43-mile trip from sea level and with 40 percent less oxygen in the air, Byrne said.
It was about 38 degrees, with clear skies and light wind, "a nice night" for Mauna Kea, Byrne said.
Though the final climb was expected to be "brutal and unrelenting," Tim O'Neill predicted yesterday that his 40-year-old brother would finish what he started on Friday at 8 a.m.
"He's a fierce athlete and he'll make it," Tim O'Neill said by phone from Boulder, Colo., where Sean O'Neill recently practiced mountain climbing in his wheelchair for several weeks in the high altitude.
His brother took numerous short breaks throughout the day yesterday and a "power nap" of a few hours early yesterday morning, Tim O'Neill said after talking to his brother by cell phone at 2 p.m.
Mauna Kea rangers, who were bringing the wheelchair-bound Pennsylvania man snacks and encouragement through the afternoon and evening, agreed.
"He's in high spirits. He's got good morale. He's laughing his way up to the top," ranger Kimo Pihana said at 4:30 p.m. after taking O'Neill some coffee and bananas at about 12,000 feet.
"He'll probably be up there somewhere late tonight," Pihana predicted.
Ranger Shane Fox said O'Neill covered 2 miles between 5 and 9 p.m., a rate of about a half-mile an hour.
That's by sheer arm-power on up to 17-percent grades, at an altitude that makes some people feel woozy without any exertion. And five of the last 8 1/2 miles of the journey were on unpaved road.
O'Neill is accompanied by Big Island friend Raul Perena and resident Dan Beardsley, who heard about the adventure and pledged to help out.
When interviewed on Friday afternoon on Saddle Road, O'Neill insisted he was "a tourist," not an athlete.
Yesterday other tourists driving up Hawaii's highest mountain were stopping to take O'Neill's photo and cheer him on, Pihana said.
Sean O'Neill doesn't use gloves on his hands, which are covered with "some tough callouses," his brother said. "His hands are like a hobbit's foot or somebody that goes barefoot."
Most hikers take five hours to get from the visitor center at 9,200 feet elevation to the top, Pihana said.
"Luckily, today we had some rain, so the unpaved road was well packed," not dusty as it can sometimes be, Pihana said.
O'Neill, a metal sculptor from East Landsdowne, Penn., has been paralyzed from the hips down for 15 years, since jumping from a bridge in Memphis, Tenn., into the Mississippi River.
He started climbing mountains in his wheelchair last year in New Hampshire.