Able Body: The Rise of Adaptive Climbing

Adaptive climbers are taking the “dis” out of disability with their boundary-pushing accomplishments, and there’s nowhere to go but up.
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Adaptive climbers are taking the “dis” out of disability with their boundary-pushing accomplishments, and there’s nowhere to go but up.
Craig DeMartino Adaptive Climbing Poopie Head Rock Red

Craig DeMartino climbs Poopie Head, a 40-foot 5.10c at the Red River Gorge, Kentucky. Photo: Mike Wilkinson

After four days on the route, I watch as Pete Davis pulls over the final lip of Zodiac and does the last mantel with ease, even after 22 pitches of flawless granite. The early afternoon light casts a long shadow on us, and the hulking silhouette of El Cap stretches across the valley in the cool September air. The swifts bomb my head and cackle with delight as they float around the smooth rock, riding the thermals and making me envious. The same thermals lift our ropes in a high arc and twirl them in a dance over the crack system we have just finished. Jarem Frye follows, pushing the jumars up and using his leg to stand in an aider. The struggle of these past four days shows in the strain of his shoulders and the sweat dripping from underneath his helmet.

Stoked on my fifth trip up El Cap, I jug and clean as fast as I can. As I approach the last lip, I swallow down a lump of gratitude and smile as the swifts bomb me one last time. I pull up, look at Pete, and give him a high-five. What Tommy and Kevin did on the Dawn Wall is amazing, especially considering Tommy is missing a finger. But our team of three is missing two legs and an arm. We all hug and soak in the fact that we are the first group of amputees to climb El Capitan unsupported. We are not just disabled or adaptive climbers—we are the Gimp Monkeys.

Fourteen years ago, Malcolm Daly wandered into my hospital room on an August afternoon. Covered in chalk and dirt, he introduced himself, sat down, took off his leg, and plopped his stump on my bed. I was still coming to grips with my accident from two months earlier. A 100-foot groundfall had me hospitalized for two months with a fused back, neck, shattered feet and ankles, and a new life of chronic pain and spinal cord injury. My fan blew the hot air around the room, and I could smell the faint scent of trees, fresh air, and the outdoors on him.

The first time I saw a stump was shocking. Every part of my body and brain wanted it gone, out of my room and out of my sight, but Mal’s infectious enthusiasm and logic kept me quiet.

Wayne Willoughby Adaptive Rock Climbing El Cap

Wayne Willoughby in June 2006 on the first adaptive Nose-in-a-day ascent, with Hans Florine. Photo: Courtesy

“Losing a leg isn’t that big of a deal,” he explained. “I do everything I want to, and you can do the same if you decide to amputate.” When he walked out a few minutes later, I felt all mixed up. My body was broken, scarred, plated, and screwed back together, but my desire to be back outside climbing with my wife and our friends was overpowering. I had the choice to amputate my leg and move on with my life, or deal with debilitating pain and a bum leg for the rest of my life. Only later did I learn that Mal’s nickname is the Limb Reaper for all the folks he’s talked to about amputation over the years.

Mal lost his leg after a climbing accident in Alaska where he spent a long time alone on a ledge. For 24 hours, he had to deal with the thought that he wouldn’t be the same after he left the ledge. His legs were broken very badly, but the time spent facing his new reality helped him come to peace with it and move forward. It’s the same for most amputees: You must be able to look at your body objectively. If it’s not working properly, and never will, are you content with what you have left or do you want more? There is no right answer, only a personal choice. That’s the part people don’t understand. How do you cut off a major limb to actually move forward? For me, watching my friends and family do the things I wanted to do was killing me, to see the colors in the mountains where I live, to see the cliff line vanish into the distance and wonder what it was like to climb up there, those were things I couldn’t let go.

After my accident and amputation, I faced a common post-injury question: Who am I now? I couldn’t imagine NOT being a climber; it has always been a huge part of who I am as a person. In 2006, the draw to be outside was overwhelmingly strong, and I was ready to see what my new “normal” was. For me, El Cap has always been the pinnacle of climbing. If you’re a core climber, then the Captain should be on your list. More than any route or boulder or formation, its iconic profile fuels the imagination of any climber, disabled or not. I met Hans Florine when I reached out to him for advice on a speed climbing competition I was entered in. He was gracious and kind, offering guidance to someone he didn’t know at all.

Craig Demartino Adaptive Rock Climbing Red

Demartino’s custom-built prosthetic leg cuts on Caustic Cock (5.11b), Red Rock, Nevada. Photo: Cameron Maier

Right from the start, Hans’ positive outlook and belief that anyone can do anything rubbed off on me. I adapted a piece of metal that was cut and bent into a gentle arc, covered it in Evolv Trax rubber, and took some spare rubber just in case I blew the foot out. As soon as Hans and I started the route, it all came rushing back to me. Being on El Cap again, moving fast, fighting fear, jamming cracks—it’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had as a climber, before or since my accident. With Hans’ help, I eventually became the first amputee to climb El Cap in under 24 hours via the 3,000-foot-long Lurking Fear (5.7 C2). I returned the next year to climb the Nose in a day, clocking in at 13 hours.

I didn’t feel like anyone but me would care, but people all over the world reached out to offer support and seek advice. Up until that point, all adaptive ascents of El Cap had been done with an able-bodied climber and a disabled climber—some climbed and some jugged lines depending on the person, but I had an idea that an all-disabled ascent of the Big Stone could work. Shortly after we finished the NIAD, Hans said, “You have all the skills to make it happen, just find the right crew and do it!”

Spinning in space 500 feet above the valley floor in 2007, Jarem stared at his leg tangled in a bright red sling and rested his head against the cool, gray granite. Looking at him from above, I could see that he was totally beaten down, a small speck of life in the sea of El Cap that doesn’t care about him, or his leg that won’t stay on, or any of us. He eventually reached the belay and looked at me with nothing but defeat in his eyes. He was done, and with that, so was our first attempt at an all-disabled El Cap attempt on Lurking Fear.

The next season, with the “never back down” attitude common to disabled climbers, Jarem agreed to give it another go with Pete and myself. Our goal to take an all-disabled crew up the Captain has nothing to do with not wanting help; we just want to be treated like any other climber out there, no better or worse. The three of us humped loads up the dusty trail to the base of Zodiac on the right flank of El Cap, and over the next five days, Pete and I traded leads while Jarem jugged lines between us and helped haul.

Aika Yoshida Adaptive rock climbing paradox sports

Aika Yoshida climbs at a Paradox Sports event in the Red Eiver Gorge, Kentucky. Photo: Barry Brolley

About halfway through the climb, we settled into the norms of wall life: enjoying the company, soaking in the sunrises and sunsets with our collective four feet hanging from the portaledges, and marveling in the granite that we were attached to—the embedded flecks of white and black can make it seem like no two pieces of stone are the same. The air was reminiscent of the other half-dozen times I was on that particular piece of rock with the clean, crisp smell of pine, granite, and happiness. Our prosthetics became an extension of us, like the aid gear we were using, each was just another tool to move upward.

After more than 7,000 pull-ups over the course of eight days in 1989, California climber Mark Wellman became the first paraplegic to climb El Cap—a feat previously thought impossible for someone in a wheelchair. With Tom Brokaw and a television crew covering their climb of The Shield (5.8 A3), the steepness of which would make jugging clean and fast, Mark and partner Mike Corbett were greeted by 50 news people on the summit. Post-injury life isn’t always that cheerful, though.

“It was gnarly, man,” Mark said of his seven-month recovery. “If I could have gotten to the window, I would have jumped. It was that grim.” During a 1982 climb with a friend on the Seven Gables route in the Mt. Whitney area of California, Mark fell while downclimbing some fourth class terrain on the descent. He slipped and rolled off a 100-foot cliff. His partner rappelled down to him, made him as comfortable as possible, and took off for the 20-plus miles to the ranger station. Mark spent a long, lonely night—about 10 hours—alone, waiting until he heard “the sweetest sound ever” of the rescue helicopter the next day.

After intensive rehab, Mark began to build his body back up and went on to become a park ranger in the Valley, where he met hardman Corbett. Together they hatched a scheme to climb El Cap. Over beers in the bar, they sketched ideas for gear, and soon enough, the training began. “We had a circuit we would do,” Mark said. “We lived and ate it for six months together before the climb.” They would move between formations, Reed’s Pinnacle, Manure Pile Buttress, and onward, until the system of jugging and climbing was as effortless as breathing. After two ascents of the Big Stone and teaching countless disabled climbers how to reclaim their lives, Mark is considered a grandfather of adaptive climbing.

Since Mark’s groundbreaking ascent of El Cap in 1989, it has been the proving ground for adaptive climbers. Wayne Willoughby has climbed El Cap 17 times with various partners, even though he suffers from post-polio syndrome, which leaves his body twisted with weak muscles and not working as it should. One of his climbs includes an ascent with Hans and Flyin’ Brian McCray in 1998, where they pushed Bad Seed, a notoriously hard A4 route on the right side of the Captain. They even beat the previous fastest time by 38 minutes, clocking in at 19 hours, 12 minutes.

Craig Demartino Adaptive Rock Climbing Poudre Canyon

The author on Inyerbuttkwa (5.10c), Poudre Canyon, Colorado. Photo: Cameron Maier

“I feel very good about what I have done so far, and I am eagerly anticipating writing the next chapter,” Wayne said about his accomplishments. “I’d like to do El Cap every month in a day, or at least in a push.”

I met Jarem and Pete at the Extremity Games in 2005. Billed as the X Games for amputees, the competition was outside on a cheap plastic wall that we had to scale faster than anyone else. With the humidity and sun working against us on the crappy, slick plastic holds, it was a bit weird being in the middle of what felt like a carnival, but the supportive vibe was empowering. Every climber was cheering for the next, and it didn’t matter if you fell in the first five feet or topped out, everyone was psyched. Over the next five years they changed it to a difficulty, redpoint-style comp, just like any other climbing comp, and while the climbers got better, it provided a wonderful spot for adaptive climbers to connect and find others who wanted to climb hard.

Returning to the comp every year was like going to a family reunion. Being disabled can make you feel like you’re in a vacuum, like no one else knows what’s happening to you. I am very lucky to have an amazing wife and family who support me, but unfortunately that’s not the case for everyone. These events served as a way for us to connect with other people who understand. Climbing can be painful, getting used to a broken body is weird, and overcoming obstacles can seem impossible. At these events, it was all about adapting, then thriving. You quickly learn that other people have the same pinching pain in their stump as you, that you share the same nerve disorders and medications and symptoms. It became our unique tribe within the larger climbing community.

Soon after those first comps, Paradox Sports was formed. There had been a lot of adaptive sports programs in the U.S., but this one focused on climbing. I got involved through my friend Timmy O’Neill, a crazy, funny, and energetic free spirit who called the Valley home for a long time. His brother Sean has racked up a long list of El Cap climbs, and he was the first paraplegic to lead a pitch using a tentacle system, a system of webbing that holds his gear placements and allows him to move upward in very small increments. I still remember seeing the pictures of Sean high up a cliff in Yosemite, with a perfect crack splitting the face in front of him as he dangled in his rig, and the valley floor stretching off into darkness. It sent chills up my spine.

Ronnie Dickson Adaptive Rock Climbing Joes Valley Bouldering

Ronnie Dickson climbs Lowtide (V6) in Joe’s valley, Utah. Photo: Julie Ellison

I began teaching clinics on adaptive climbing, trying to bring the psych back into peoples’ lives after heavy trauma. My first clinic was in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado, with a few military veterans and Mal. We took them climbing on the Bastille, and it was like herding cats. One of the guys kept sneaking off into the bushes to get high, and another shook so badly I questioned if he would ever be able to climb. Fast-forward a few years later and that same shaking climber has become a solid rock and ice leader. Chad Jukes has climbed El Cap, and in May 2016, he became the second combat amputee to summit Everest. (Charlie Linville summited the week before to become the first.) Chad epitomizes the attitude that comes with adaptive climbing. It’s not what you’ve lost, but what you’ve gained and still have. Not what you can’t do, but what you can.

USA Climbing started an adaptive chapter a few years ago, and in 2015 we took 15 climbers to the World Championships in Gijon, Spain, where we had seven podium finishes—the most of any country. Two years earlier at the Paris World Championships, there was only one, and that staggering amount of growth happened because of the people who have laid the groundwork and done the ascents that got the climbing community’s attention. From El Cap routes to double-digit bouldering to 5.13 sport, all of these are becoming more common in our adaptive tribe. My only hope is that it will continue to grow and evolve long after I hang up the shoe for good.

2,000 Pull-Ups

By Kennan Harvey

Bubs Williamson Adaptive Rock Climbing Black Canyon

Bubs Williamson climbing in the Black Canyon, Colorado. Photo: Kennan Harvey

Driving to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado for the first time provides none of the anticipatory visual cues of a typical climbing area—no distant spires or craggy ridgelines—just gentle hills dotted with sage and pinion. The rim of the canyon arrives so abruptly that if it were an ocean, Christopher Columbus would have sailed blindly over the edge.

And herein lies the adventure. A hidden canyon, deeper than it is wide, with sheer walls of dark granite interlaced with light-colored, crumbly pegmatite bands resembling dragons and snakes. Far below, the Gunnison River roars through an impassable, poison ivy–choked section of boulders and whitewater. The noise and constant breeze distract completely. If a climber does overcome the initial intimidation and chooses to descend into the dark depths of uncertainty, the only retreat is up.

Dave Penney and Danika Gilbert had invited me along to take beginner climber Bubs Williamson up these walls. Typically, the Black and novice do not belong in the same sentence, but our goal was to teach Bubs the systems necessary to attempt his goal of climbing El Cap, so we unceremoniously pushed him over the edge into instant exposure and descended 1,000 feet of Astrodog on the South Rim to a spacious bivy ledge. At dawn the next morning, we lay in our sleeping bags watching the thin ribbon of sky lighten the canyon rims above while the swallows played in delight.

The comfort and beauty was in sharp contrast to the unknown task at hand. You see, Bubs is also paralyzed from the middle of the spine down. A motorcycle accident from when he was an “arrogant and invincible boy” 25 years ago had claimed his ability to walk. After retiring from a Golden State Warriors wheelchair basketball team, he met Danika at an ice climbing event in Ouray and told her of his dream to climb El Cap. Dave had helped another paraplegic climb Kilimanjaro with a hand bike years before. After fixing ropes, lowering haulbags, and strapping Bubs into chaps loaned from Mark Wellman, which Mark used 20 years ago on El Cap, I arrogantly wondered, “Is this really climbing?” Well, it sure was adventure!

When practicing the day before, Bubs had jumared a single pitch and was totally exhausted. His top jumar was connected to a bar to hold and pull, while a smaller self-feeding cam was attached tightly to his harness. It was not particularly efficient, and we calculated the distance between Bubs and the rim was 2,000 pull-ups away. Although his tattoo-covered arms were strong, his legs stuck out awkwardly to the side, adding a lot of friction to his kit weight of almost 200 pounds. From an able-bodied climber’s perspective, I would have stayed in my sleeping bag, but there was a clear determination coming off Bubs. There was no question in his mind—he was going to the top.

Most climbers scour the internet prior to a climb, seeking info on the cruxes, topo, belay ledges, gear, and anything necessary for success. All legitimate info, but definitely an evolution away from climbing’s origins of venturing into the unknown. Bubs needed to tap into climbing’s primordial soup. His pathway was unknown and unlikely, ripe for discovery.

From my years photographing top climbers, I have noticed their unwillingness to quit is a huge contributor to their success. Watching Bubs pull up again and again that day, his face bursting from exertion, I witnessed a drive equal to any climber I know. What he lacked in mobility was overshadowed by an unwavering belief in himself. Pulling over the rim, Bubs was one step closer to his El Cap goal. On this day—the first day since his accident spent without his wheelchair—Bubs may not have been free climbing, but he was certainly free. 

Players in the Adaptive Climbing Game

Pete Davis

A very accomplished rock and ice climber missing his arm below the elbow. Living in Colorado, Pete has two El Cap ascents and lots of first ascents on rock. Pete is known for his quote in the Gimp Monkeys documentary: “The right attitude and one arm will beat the wrong attitude and two arms every time.”

Wayne Willoughby

Still climbing El Cap and still a training beast, at 60 years old, Wayne seems to defy not only his disability, but age itself.

Pete Chasse

A California-based all-around climber, Pete has climbed V10, 5.13, and not told a single person other than his wife and me, but only if I pry it out of him.

Hugh Herr

Lost his legs in 1982 as a result of frostbite and came back to do City Park (5.13d) in Index, Washington. After climbing, he focused on making prosthetics at MIT and invented the first bionic ankle that has revolutionized walking for amputees.

Chad Jukes

With an El Cap ascent, plenty of ice, mixed, and rock ticks, Chad summited Everest in May 2016 with U.S. Expeditions and Explorations (USX) to shed light on PTSD.

Sean O’Neill

Sean has climbed El Cap three times and is a certified Wall Instructor for adaptive climbing. He’s been a major proponent of growing our sport.

Ronnie Dickson

From Florida, Ronnie builds prostheses and is a strong competitive climber. He has climbed V10, is the current National Champion, and teaches clinics.

Pablo Frank

Pablo is a strong roped climber and boulderer, as well as a clinic leader for Paradox Sports.

Aika Yoshida

After breaking her neck doing yoga, she returned to climbing and teaches new athletes adaptive techniques.

Maureen Beck

Missing her hand, Mo is a strong rock climber who focuses on competitions. She won her division in Worlds in Gijon, helping raise awareness for women dealing with limb loss.

Craig DeMartino

Has five ascents of El Cap, two of them in less than 24 hours. He’s the two-time National Champ, two-time bronze medalist in Worlds, and five-time Extremity Games gold medalist. He teaches adaptive clinics for Paradox Sports.

Erik Weihenmayer

Erik is the first blind athlete to summit Everest and is a great rock climber and paddler. He recently kayaked the Grand Canyon.