He Conquered Demons To Win On The Wall
How Ben Mayforth became a world class and world cup competitor.
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There was a time, in the summer of 2017, when the climber and the demon were inseparable. On the ground below, slanted rocks clawed up from the earth in sharp geometry. In the sky above, gray clouds brushed a gaping Maryland sky. This was the scene, but it was not the scene. Meaning, there were other, more populated bouldering areas in the eastern United States, hotspots where climbers were congregating and sipping tea from tumblers and sharing style and stoke in casual coolness. Here, the story and the scene were just this climber and his demon, together on a lone wall, between the ground and sky, struggling to make a move. The route was a long traverse that Ben Mayforth—the climber—admits was “tall enough off the ground to get hurt,” meaning a fall at the time could have been catastrophic, especially with no crash pads and nobody around to help. Mayforth’s home, in Bel Air, was only 15 minutes away from this bouldering nook in Rock State Park, yet even 15 minutes would have seemed like an eternity under those circumstances. But Mayforth wanted it that way: High stakes, for in the recesses of his mind perhaps he hoped to fall; it’s hard for him to admit now, a small part of him “didn’t really care” if he slipped and suffered the dire consequences—anything might be better than his current situation.
Mayforth has spina bifida, “a birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly,” according to the Mayo Clinic. The CDC estimates that approximately 1,500 children are born with spina bifida in the United States each year. For Mayforth, the condition limits feeling below the knees and curtails the range of motion in his legs, although he is still capable of walking. His climbing style during the time of the long bouldering traverse in Maryland entailed a lot of campusing: “Pulling hard is awesome; I think it’s so much fun,” in his words.
Most importantly, by 2017, Mayforth had had a few friends offer him hard advice about the dangers of bouldering alone, but Mayforth says he was at his mental and emotional “rock bottom” and ignored them. Or maybe that was the demon taking control. The line between climber and demon was blurred to the point where they could not be separated, not then and there, so high off the ground without room for error. Mayforth would, in time, become one of the United States’ leading climbers on the paraclimbing World Cup circuit, and gain a legion of vociferous fans at events around the world. But in that moment he was all by himself, just as he preferred.
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It was not always that way, meaning that bouldering alone in the rugged Maryland wilderness was not always a vague type of death wish for Mayforth. In fact, there were times in his past when climbing occupied only the farthest reaches of his mind, as it was just an activity that his father and uncle did in ragged jeans and Chuck Taylors. Mayforth heard climbing tales as a kid, regaled like family fables of Alaskan ice-climbing adventures, southern Illinois scrambles, and trad-climbing epics. Aside from all those extravaganzas that his uncle and father had done, Mayforth was indelibly connected as a youth to broader outdoor pursuits. “We always had an adventurous spirit in our family,” he says now. “And even [though I was] born with a disability, my parents were definitely very pushing of different outdoor experiences; we were always camping, we would go hiking, we would go to the beach. All of our vacations were centered around being outside.”
Yet, if Mayforth’s parents were prodding him into certain experiences as a result of his condition, their efforts were matched by those of Mayforth himself. His first athletic love, though, wasn’t climbing, it was basketball. Because of his condition he was eligible for and played wheelchair basketball, starting at age 12 in 2006. His talent was evident immediately. Growth-spurting into a huge wingspan (and an ape index of +10) as a teenager helped, and although such incredible reach would later be seen exclusively as a climbing asset, it was an advantage first when it came to shooting baskets over opponents on the court. This physical prowess could have caused Mayforth to coast, but he instead trained, working on shoulder mobility, antagonist weights, endurance, anything physical. Grip strength, too, which would eventually morph into another climbing asset, was at first solely a physical gift for basketball. “We trained grip strength in wheelchair basketball because we had to grip our wheels,” Mayforth says. “So, I’ve always had grip strength.”
College scouts took notice of his talent and relentless devotion to training, and Mayforth was recruited to play wheelchair basketball at the University of Missouri in Columbia. The demon was present back then too, not only in the multi-hour weight-training sessions, but also in the basketball games themselves. “My intensity was insane sometimes,” Mayforth remembers. “That’s just been my repertoire for how I perform as an athlete—I run on intensity.”
Mayforth excelled, scoring an average of 10 points per game as a guard while steadily building a local following. But with the burgeoning fame came conflict, particularly as Mayforth began to take on more of a leadership role with the team. “Our coach was a very good coach,” he says. “We just had some disagreements about how to coach different personalities. And I was one of those personalities that didn’t exactly always get along with the coaching staff.”
Fissures that began to appear were worsened by substance abuse. Mayforth was drinking a lot, and, he says, at times he grappled with insomnia and there was a string of suicide attempts.
Not surprisingly, Mayforth’s grades began to slip. “I really wasn’t in a healthy space,” he says. The eventual result was that he left the university’s basketball team. However, not long before his departure from the team, a college acquaintance urged Mayforth to go bouldering at the local climbing gym, and Mayforth became hooked. “From the start of my climbing, I could tell it was something I was supposed to do,” Mayforth says of the foundational moment. “From the second I pulled on, I was like, ‘OK, I think I’m’ supposed to do this.’”
Climbing was a convenient calling, as Mayforth quickly found that a lot of the antagonistic training and fitness principles of wheelchair basketball easily applied to bouldering. He was able to graft the intensity from his former basketball practices onto his new love of climbing, and by the time he graduated from college, his grades had improved markedly too. But he moved back to Maryland still beholden to a drinking habit, still “doing stupid stuff all the time,”—and in “quite a bit of an identity crisis, trying to figure out who I was as a climber, who I was as a person, and who I was outside of wheelchair basketball.”
At some point in this post-collegiate character vortex, Mayforth was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This added to the confusion. “I was trying to figure out how to deal with the intensity of emotions that I was facing,” he says. This introspection occasionally led to his mind going to dark places, and this is when he began bouldering outside, alone and without crash pads. “I would just go and do all the V1s and V0s—stuff that I knew I could do and not fall. And by then I had enough training to know what I could fall on and what I wouldn’t fall on, and it was a lot of traverses; it was kind of just one of those things I had to do for some of my feelings, just being outside and climbing.”
On one of those outings Mayforth encountered a stretch of rock he maybe couldn’t do, but he possessed fantastic campus strength and was able to pull through the crux on the precarious boulder without falling. But there was a small part of him that knew that highballing in such a bleak headspace wasn’t smart. His friends were right, of course, and he began to accept the fact he was being dangerous. He says he knew he had to change.
It took time—a year, to be exact—but things started to evolve in 2018. First, it wasn’t necessarily the conversations about risk with friends that started to alter Mayforth’s thinking and pull him out of the depths. Rather, and with a degree of irony, it was his love of climbing. “I realized that I had to slow down for a moment and I couldn’t be doing this stuff because I’ve got friends that need me around, [and] I thought that was the big thing, if I got hurt, I’m out of climbing for however long,” he says.
So, Mayforth began shopping around for crash pads, but money was tight. Eventually he acquired an old Franklin pad and a used Pusher pad from a friend at a climbing gym. Mayforth also met another local Maryland climber named Paul Amsel, and the two of them became fast friends. Mayforth is careful and deliberate about his social sphere, but Amsel—who is about the same age as Mayforth—seemed like a kindred climbing spirit.
Buffering this budding social change in Mayforth’s life was a desire to compete in climbing, as the aggressive fire within him had been unsatiated since he quit college basketball. He decided to take part in the adaptive climbing festival at Alabama’s Horse Pens 40, a large gathering organized by famed climber Ronnie Dickson and coordinator Andrew Chao. The result was that Mayforth got “plugged into the adaptive climbing community,” meeting several people who soon became mentors. There were big-name athletes at the festival, such as Maureen Beck, Paraclimbing World Champion in 2014 and 2016. Beck says that Mayforth’s drive was evident right away: “It was like, wow—here’s this guy who’s already a climber and didn’t need adaptive programming to get started; he just saw it and he did it, which is sick.”
And there were also administrative influencers, such as Scott Baird, the Chair of USA Climbing’s Paraclimbing Committee. “Having them say, ‘We have competitions—you don’t have to just boulder outside,’ was awesome,” Mayforth says. “I wanted to compete because that’s always been part of me.”
The festival at Horse Pens 40 was followed by another bouldering competition at the Earth Treks gym in Rockville. Mayforth was all-in now, climbing steadily taking over every aspect of his life. The same week of the competition, he got a job at Earth Treks, belaying for kids’ birthday parties. And he continued to refine his training, realizing that the grip strength associated with wheelchair basketball didn’t equate to finger strength. So, he strategized hangboard routines and employed more weightlifting—chest exercises, back workouts, triceps sets. It all builds, first, to a Paraclimbing National Championship at the Vertical Adventures gym in Ohio, where Mayforth placed second but was the highest-placing competitor who was not a foreign national.
Then, in 2018, Mayforth was invited to Innsbruck, Austria, to compete in the Paraclimbing World Championships. It was the biggest competition of his life, and one of the most significant climbing competitions in the world. Given such gravity, one would think Mayforth might have been satisfied with being the tenth best in the world—his eventual place in the RP-2 (“RP” designating a limited range of power) category at the event. But for Mayforth says the solid result brought only frustration.
After the event, Mayforth grabbed a beer and a pretzel and climbed onto the roof of an Austrian castle. It was a moment of high reflection by Mayforth, grazed by the same sense of aloneness as his former days of highball traversing in Maryland. Atop the castle, he was “pissed off,” but at what, exactly? He hadn’t been wholly familiar with the international rules of climbing competitions; for example, he hadn’t known about the plus and minus scoring system. He also had not strategized much, and instead had just pulled onto the route and climbed. Those were mistakes, but Mayforth reasoned that any blame for the tenth-place performance targeted something deeper within him.
The fact was, Mayforth was no longer happy simply competing; he wanted to win. The moment atop the castle prompted immediate change—no more drinking, no more smoking, and all energy going forward will be put into the job at the gym and training to be better at competitions.
Mayforth turned 25 years old on the day of another adaptive climbing festival, this time in Arkansas, in 2019. It was a scene—people have traveled from around the country to attend and revel. There were snacks and yoga and technique clinics, in addition to climbing.
Soon, there were more competitions and a steady progression up the ranks for Mayforth. There was a Paraclimbing World Championship in Briançon, France, in 2019, where Mayforth advanced to the finals for the first time at the international level. Throughout, Mayforth exuded a lighter, happier demeanor. He joked with Maureen Beck, who was also competing, while milling around the crowded event grounds. In more quiet areas, he slipped into periodic meditation as a way to “cope with some of the stresses” of the high-intensity scene and the lofty standards that he had set for himself. In fact, during the climb in the finals, Mayforth went into a flow-state and blanked out, coming to about three holds from the chains when he realized he was about to top the route—the elusive victory was within his grasp. But he tied with another competitor (Behnam Khalaji of Iran) who also topped, and it was only in a countback to the qualification round that Mayforth was beaten. Placing second equated to a gut-punch of a loss, but Mayforth saw that progress had been made in his climbing over a measurable period of time. Inspired, he returned to the United States more determined than ever. He even decided to host a few local bouldering competitions for the adaptive climbing community near his hometown in Maryland.
Mayforth continued to work at the climbing gym as well, 25 to 30 hours a week before the COVID-19 pandemic wallopped everything and prompted staff furloughs. But even in the resulting malaise of the pandemic, while stuck at home, Mayforth opted for an intense approach and introspection. He built a home climbing wall so he could continue to train, and the days felt fuller than ever. When all the competitions were canceled or postponed for the remainder of the season, he bouldered outdoors with his best friend, Paul Amsel. “2020—a shit year, but I had a blast,” Mayforth says. “I think I needed a year…to help realize what I wanted to do,” he says. “And a year without competitions, I was like, ‘I really miss that feeling—I thrive on that feeling.’”
Yet it wasn’t a stagnant year for Mayforth. He enrolled in graduate school, seeking an advanced degree in sports psychology and performance enhancement from California University of Pennsylvania. It was primarily a pursuit he hoped would make him a better coach, inform him of academic concepts that underpin athletic betterment and achievement. As he strove to become a better coach himself, he evolved into an improved pupil, appreciating more than ever the value of the competitive paraclimbing community that is scattered and separated. Mayforth says that this period helped him realize “how much being at the gym and climbing and having a good support community around me was a good, constant baseline.”
Baseline has been important for Mayforth ever since his bipolar disorder diagnosis. He references his emotional and mental swings in accordance with it, saying that his struggles entail having a great baseline that is followed by an emotional spike, then “an extraordinary low and then a slow build up back to baseline.”
Much of Mayforth’s self-improvement during this pandemic year had to do with continuing to live with his disorder and learning how to keep a more constant baseline, without the detrimental peaks and valleys. In addition to taking medication, Mayforth began going to therapy—every week at first, and then every other week. He tried therapy in the past, but he particularly enjoyed the telehealth and teletherapy that the pandemic prompts: There was no commute to the therapist’s office. A few times Mayforth even stayed in his pajamas for the Skype therapy sessions. Other times he sat in his truck and connected with his therapist over the phone.
In 2021 competitions finally returned en masse, and so, too, did a hectic work schedule. Promoted from the local gym’s birthday party belayer to a more substantial coaching role, Mayforth soon became responsible for rebuilding the gym’s entire youth team program—dozens of kids, all needing unique exercise regimens. This coaching role evolved into Mayforth becoming the Assistant Team Manager, which produced new conflicts. Case in point: Mayforth’s participation at the next Paraclimbing National Championship fell on the same day that many of his youth team kids were to participate in their own competition—a USA Climbing youth regional event. Unable to watch the kids compete in-person due to this scheduling conflict, Mayforth wrote each kid a personalized note of motivation and encouragement, “a letter to remind them who they are as climbers and who they are when they train.”
It wasn’t long before Mayforth also began coaching other adult adaptive athletes, some of whom would end up taking part at the same Paraclimbing National Championship. For a while, particularly at the onset of a massive national event in Salt Lake City, the many allegiances and obligations caused Mayforth to be an “emotional wreck.” But this emotion subsided when he approached the wall for his climb, adopting that intensity that had become his calling card to competition observers and onlookers. The ritual is Mayforth taking a few deep breaths, chalking up, and clapping his hands. This indicates that he is ready to compete, but to friends and fellow competitors, the ritual has earned another moniker: The activation of Ben-Hulk-mode. “It feels like I’m pulling a demon out of me when I’m getting ready to do a finals climb,” Mayforth says. “It’s my style and it’s how I climb. It’s just authentically me; if you’re not climbing authentically you, it’s going to be hard for you to really find the pure joy in it.”
At the national championship, Mayforth channels such joy to flashing five routes in an hour and a half—a remarkable achievement by measure of quantity, in addition to the routes’ difficulty. In the final round, Mayforth onsights his route, progressing upward through the smooth-edged handholds without a single pause or moment of repose. If a showcase instance can be extrapolated, it was when Mayforth perched atop one of two spherical volumes, standing on his left leg while his arms crossed through the edged holds that signified the upper part of the finals’ route. In fact, it turned out to be no crux for Mayforth and he sailed to the top.
With that, Mayforth clinched a championship victory. His coach, Emmett Cookson, labeled the win “a culmination of everything,” and was particularly impressed by the mastery that Mayforth showcased. “It didn’t feel very close,” Cookson says about Mayforth’s performance. “Even during qualifiers, it was obvious that [Mayforth] was ahead of the field.”
The audience was frenzied, with the magnitude of the moment and the whole story aptly encapsulated on the commentary of the championships’ broadcast: “The gym is going wild. [Mayforth] came here, he did what he knew he can do; what we all knew he could do.”
Where and how the climber and the demon separated is open to interpretation. Perhaps it was in the initial meeting with other climbers at Horse Pens 40, or perhaps it was atop the castle in Austria. Maybe it was more recently, during one of the COVID-19 pandemic’s countless homewall sessions. The fact that Mayforth was able to pull that demon out and separate himself from the beast speaks to a larger chronicle. “Through coaching and climbing, I was able to find who I really, really am—and I love using my personal experience from the World Championships, the World Cups, with my team kids. I love using that stuff as an example and using what I’ve learned from those experiences to help better prepare them for their competitions.”
And who Mayforth really is, of course, remains complicated. “What I love about Ben is he gets angry—he does get angry; he’s not just there for a good time,” Maureen Beck says. “It’s not summer camp for him. This is his life-force every time he competes.”
The story of the climber and the demon does not stop with a gold medal performance at a national championship. There are other scenes to be explored: Mayforth places second at the ensuing Paraclimbing World Championships in Moscow and then fourth at the Paraclimbing World Cup in Los Angeles, the first-ever Paraclimbing World Cup in the United States.
Mayforth also becomes the subject of a documentary, Topping Out from director Alexis Barone. The film follows Mayforth’s competitive journey and, in that, Mayforth’s personal arc. “You only have a certain time frame within a documentary,” Barone explains. “So, it’s like, how do you do this multifaceted and incredible human being justice? He’s such an interesting character because on the surface it feels like it’s just boy-wants-gold. But it’s so much more—there’s the mental health, there’s the drive to be the best community member he can be, there’s all of those things that really make him stand out as a member of this community.”
At some point there is downtime and Mayforth reviews film footage of previous competitions. He notes that his footwork has improved significantly over the past few years. “I don’t want to have blown-out shoulders at 32, at 36 [years old],” he says, referencing potential physiological collateral damage from his former habit of campusing every route. “That’s something you take into account with a disability. My style has changed because I know I have to change. But it’s still the same style—even with [footwork], it’s still trashy, it’s still throwy, it’s still fun.”
Mayforth has ambitions of continuing to climb and notes that he wants to make sure he’s “preserving [himself] for the long run.” This is a decidedly different outlook than he’s had at times in the past, during the lowest points, and he admits that he is in a much healthier mental space now. Most recently, he placed fifth at the first Paraclimbing World Cup of the 2022 season, in Salt Lake City—a place that brought a tinge of disappointment, but that was not without some positive takeaways. “Can’t complain too much,” he reflects on his performance and his place in the results. “I was in control for all of my climbing, and that’s been a struggle at times. Really proud of how I handled missing the finals.”
Mayforth’s ambitions are aimed exclusively at a future of competing and coaching. If climbing is someday included in the Paralympics, which is a hope and goal of both the national and international climbing federations, Mayforth will absolutely set his sights on competing there too.
So, whenever Mayforth does decide to finally call it a career, years or decades from now, someone will sit down and attempt to write about him. They will try to tell his story, starting with the demon. But that will be wrong because the demon will be long gone by then. In many ways it already is.
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