Wampler's Ascent: Film Review

"Wampler's Ascent"
Although its inspirational story feels familiar, this loving documentary inspires nonetheless

Elizabeth Wampler's documentary chronicles her husband's attempt to climb a mountain despite his suffering from cerebral palsy.

The documentary Wampler’s Ascent concerns the attempt of Steve Wampler to climb the biggest rock face in the world, Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan. Achieving that feat, which one mountain climber describes as “a rite of passage,” would be achievement enough. That Wampler is afflicted with a severe case of cerebral palsy, is confined to a wheelchair and has limited use of only one arm makes it something of a miracle.

Since the film is directed by Wampler’s wife Elizabeth, it’s not surprising that it’s a resolutely feel-good portrait of his determined, six day effort, which was undertaken to raise awareness and funds for a summer camp for kids with disabilities. Any troubling questions about the advisability of the risky attempt are not surprisingly left unaddressed.

But there’s no denying the inherent emotional power of watching Wampler, aided by two experienced climbers, endure his arduous quest to climb a mountain twice the height of the Empire State Building. Hoisting himself up by his arm a mere few inches at a time, it took him six days to make the ascent, suffering from severe exhaustion, dehydration, hallucinations, and periods of unconsciousness along the way.

The filmmaking is extremely rough-hewn. The climbing segments, often painful to watch because of the strenuousness of Wampler’s ordeal, suffer from choppy visuals and poor sound quality. And the scenes in which his family anxiously watches his progress have a staged feel, especially in a heartfelt conversation between his wife and frightened young son.  

But Wampler, whose garbled speech is often accompanied by subtitles, is an undeniably appealing and inspiring figure whose determination to live a normal life despite his condition is surely to be admired. Among those singing his praises in filmed testimonials are such celebrities as Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres, Paul Reiser and Will Forte, Wampler’s lifelong friend, who’s joined by a silently goofing around Will Ferrell.

The filmmaker herself comments extensively and lovingly about her husband, at one point declaring, “I am not his nurse, I am not his caretaker, I am his wife.” And, as this loving film illustrates, she’s also his most ardent champion.

Opens Aug. 23 (Hollywood Locations Presents)

Production: Jacques Productions

Director: Elizabeth Wampler

Director of photography: Corey Rich
Editor: Jacques Spitzer

Composer: Harry Manfredini

Not rated, 76 min.