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A Dyslexic Who Has Been to the Mountain

September 19, 1985|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

YOSEMITE — Ever since she left the valley floor last Saturday at 7 a.m., Ellie Hawkins has been engaged in a mountain climber's fantasy--pioneering a major route that's never been scaled before.

As of Wednesday, the solo ascent of a 2,000-foot rock face next to El Capitan has gone well. But at some point before she's done--if past climbs are any indication--Hawkins will secure her rope to a carabiner (a metal device that clips to a bolt in the rock) and there will be an instant of distress. Where she thought she had fastened the carabiner, she will see nothing.

The rope will still be fixed to the rock. It's just that a learning disability called dyslexia will have caused Hawkins' senses to fool her.

Similar disappearing acts used to occur when the climber was in grade school. When the teacher accused her of being lazy because she skipped words in a sentence, she would go home and break furniture in her frustration. "I developed quite a temper," said Hawkins, 35, who lives with her husband in Bear Valley, which is northwest of Yosemite.

Perceptual Tricks

But on the granite face, there is no teacher and no parent to rail against. There's nothing in the 120-pound bag of gear that Hawkins hauls behind her that she can afford to destroy in a tantrum. If she is to complete this climb, Hawkins has to figure out her own way around the perceptual tricks played by dyslexia, which can be aggravated by fatigue.

If she succeeds in overcoming the vision reversals and vanishing hardware illusions, she'll christen the new route "Dyslexia" in order to draw attention to the condition. She expects to complete the ascent as early as Saturday.

There are no real cures for dyslexia, which affects as many as one in 10 people, interfering with their ability to read and write, and, in some cases, to listen and speak. Each dyslexic's challenge is to develop his or her own pathways for getting things done, according to the vice president of the Orton Dyslexia Society, Marcia Henry of Los Gatos, who came to Yosemite to see Hawkins off. The society is helping to sponsor the climb.

The methods of compensation for people with dyslexia are time-consuming. Hawkins, for instance, must check each knot she ties three times. If she's tired, a simple figure-eight knot may take her 10 minutes to execute. Although she can't move as quickly as other climbers, she still has managed to become one of the top female climbers in the world, according to Bruce Brossman, director of the Yosemite Mountaineering School.

She was the first woman to solo Yosemite's Half Dome, and the first woman to climb the North American Wall, a demanding route up El Capitan. In June of this year, she was the first woman to solo Never Never Land, another El Capitan route, despite a rope burn that rendered her left hand useless for the final 2 1/2 days of the climb.

'Major, Major Feat'

The dyslexia climb, if successful, will be a "major, major feat," Brossman said, because only a handful of routes in Yosemite Valley have ever been soloed on a first ascent.

In learning to live with a rather severe case of dyslexia, Hawkins has developed a tenacity that allows her to continue where other climbers might turn back. When the start of her current climb was postponed because of rain one morning early this month, she seemed no more disappointed than if she had to reschedule a dentist appointment.

Leaving her gear at the base of the mountain so she would be ready to go when the rain stopped, Hawkins slipped sweat pants over her pink climbing tights and retreated to the Ahwahnee Hotel for breakfast. Her trademark hip-length golden hair--which readily identifies her to those on the ground who watch Yosemite's big-wall climbers through binoculars--was braided into a rope and secured with a gold barrette.

Hawkins initially resisted publicity for her climbing feats. Her mother, Hazel Knepper, said in a telephone interview from her home in Portland, Ore., that when a newspaper reporter called after Hawkins climbed El Capitan at age 23, Ellie told her mother, "Mom, I don't want this attention from people."

In recent years, however, Hawkins has been speaking to grade school classes and showing slides of her climbs; she's granted television and magazine interviews in hopes that she can help adults and children who suffer because of dyslexia.

"It's something people hide, and more and more people I know are hiding it," Hawkins said of her decision to talk publicly about the learning disability. "Dyslexia is not a thing to be ashamed of. I think it motivates me."

Knepper remembers her daughter as a "skinny little girl" who received attention for her hair, which was long and blond even when she was a child. (Hawkins' father died when she was 18 months old; her mother raised Ellie and two brothers.) But when Hawkins got to school age, she began using her hair to hide behind, Knepper said.

'Figured I Was Lazy'

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