A Brief History of Adaptive Climbing

Photo: Andrew Chao

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It was June of 2006. I was standing alongside vendors in flat, hot, humid Florida looking at a large crowd of adaptive athletes. Some were missing limbs, like myself. Others were visually impaired. Still others had neurologic-related disabilities. Around and in between us, the smell of fried food permeated the air.

The sounds of the dunk tank and ring toss were a distraction as I tried to get my bearings on how this would all work. Despite the chalk bags and harnesses, it felt much more like a circus than a climbing comp.

I saw the orange Mohawk first, then realized the person approaching me was missing both legs and one arm. His gait was choppy, and he swerved between the masses of people.

Usually, this sight wouldn’t rock me, but missing this many things had to have a good story.

“I’m here to check out climbing, and I hear you know a lot about it,” he said upon reaching me. He smiled nonchalantly, further piquing my interest.

After introductions, I asked the thing I never ask: “What the heck happened?!”

As it turns out, he fell asleep on some train tracks and, well, you can guess the rest. Like me, he wanted to be around people who were dealing with similar challenges.

Walking from the vendors to the wall, other athletes and I prepared to compete in the first annual Extremity Games, which was the first adaptive climbing comp. Based on speed, the climbing comp took place on a portable wall made of clear plexiglass. The holds were slippery and it was hot as hell, but the support from the spectators for each and every athlete was amazing.

I could tell then I had become a part of a truly different group of humans.

Rand Abbott in Joshua Tree National Park, heading up to climb Equinox (5.12c). Abbott traveled over three miles in his chair just to reach the wall (Photo: Hannah Park).

The Early Inspiration

Adaptive athletes have been doing things in lots of different sports for years, but climbing was a bit slow to gain followers. It was Mark Wellman of Truckee, California, who finally got the public’s attention, in July of 1989.

Seven years prior, Wellman had survived a 100-foot fall that left him with a broken back and limited use of his legs. Resolved to move forward, Wellman not only returned to climbing, he became the first adaptive athlete to climb El Cap. He was featured on multiple news outlets, including “World News Tonight” with Peter Jennings. It was empowering for able-bodied and adaptive athletes alike to see Wellman give the middle finger to his injury and just get it done. His accomplishment spurred on many others, including me, as I grew up watching the Masters of Stone videos, in one of which he had a cameo on El Cap. Those videos, in all their rawness, fed the drive of a lot of adaptive and able-bodied climbers in the 1980s. “Go out and do it,” Wellman said on the ABC news clip. “If you feel you can go for it, go for it.”

In 1982, Hugh Herr, a kid from Pennsylvania, lost both his legs below the knee in a winter-climbing accident on Mt. Washington while climbing in Huntington Ravine. Herr and fellow climber Jeff Batzer were caught in a blizzard and got lost after climbing the ice route Odell’s Gully. They passed three nights in negative 20 degrees. By the time they were rescued, both climbers had severe frostbite and Herr’s legs were unrecoupable. He was 17 at the time.

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After months of rehab, Herr learned to walk again on prosthetics. He returned to climbing and eventually made special prosthetics for free climbing. He cobbled those feet together at his home as an experiment to see what would allow him to climb different features and crack sizes. His homemade quiver of prosthetics was viewed as cheating by some climbers, and by the time he worked his way up to the second free ascent of City Park (5.13d), a thin-tips crack at Index in Washington State, people were either happy for Herr or incensed at his craftiness. Regardless, to this day Herr’s tick list includes the FA of Vandals, a nails hard 5.13, which he did with Lynn Hill, Jeff Gruenberg and Russ Clune in the Gunks, New York; Ride the Valkyries, 5.12a, in Leavenworth, Washington; and Stage Fright, 5.12+ X, in North Conway, New Hamshire.

“When I lost my legs in 1982, I learned that a human being is never broken,” Herr said in an interview with Rock and Ice. “I [came to see] ‘disability’ as the result of inadequate technology. At the time, no one made prostheses for climbing. So I visualized and built the kind of devices I needed to climb again: narrow wedges for cracks and spikes for ice. My prosthetic legs helped me return to the rock and complete first and second ascents tougher than what I had previously climbed.”

Hugh Herr in 1985 on his thin and poorly protected masterpiece, Stage Fright (5.12+ R) at Cathedral Ledge, New Hampshire. Herr would go on to become a pioneer in prosthetic development, and head of the Biomechatronics group at the MIT Media Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts (Photo: S. Peter Lewis).

Comps Pick Up Speed

Competitions like the Extremity Games in Florida provided the model of what adaptive climbers could do on plastic, and the successful subsequent run of the Games, five in five years, began to foster a group of climbers willing to train and try hard in comps.

Ronnie Dickson, from Florida, found climbing in his early 20s after spying an Extremity Games poster in his prosthetist’s office. Dickson had elected to amputate his leg after wrestling a congenital bone developmental disorder. Shortly thereafter, Dickson gave climbing a go and was henceforth hooked. Watching him move, if you didn’t look down, you’d never guess he was missing something. He’s confident, strong, and it’s impossible not to get caught up in his psych.

“There is a certain amount of stubbornness that has to go around with being a successful rock climber,” Dickson told The Chattanooga Times Free Press. “You can’t back down to challenges. I have this limb difference, but you know what? That doesn’t really matter, and it won’t stop me from doing what I want to do. To have tenacity and character can go a long way in defining success versus failure.”

I was always excited to climb with Dickson as the comps shaped the adaptive athletes into a larger and larger presence at the national venues.

In 2008, two years after the first Extremity Games competition, USA Climbing got involved. USA Climbing was founded in 1998 as a way of organizing and giving a voice to competition climbers. The growth of local and regional comps fueled USA Climbing’s rapid expansion. Wanting to add an adaptive athlete category to the ongoing comps, the then president of USA Climbing, Kynan Waggoner, reached out to Dickson and me to lay out how adaptive athletes could fit into the comp framework. We discussed adaptive-athlete categories, which were based on the medical classification of the athletes, as well as technical logistics such as rules and staff training.

Justin Salas lost most of his sight at age 14, and went on to become a leading visually impaired climber, and the first to send V11, as seen here on Worm Turns, Joe’s Valley, Utah. Salas won gold at the 2018 IFSC World Championship, and has three golds from the USA Climbing National Championships (Photo: William Bazargani).

The next adaptive competition was at the Teva Games in Vail, Colorado, in June 2008. In front of fans and climbers, pros and able-bodied climbers all competed on the same walls. Climbing beside Chris Sharma was amazing and still stands out as one of the coolest things I’ve been fortunate to do. Having never been in front of a large group of people climbing, I found it was thrilling to be involved in a comp on such a grand scale in the cool, morning mountain air. Spectators yelled and cheered as climbers topped out problems or narrowly missed a throw to a finish jug.

“It was a humbling experience,” Dickson told Gym Climber. “Going back to Florida after that event I had so much motivation not only to training, but to try and get more people involved with us.”

What started as a few adaptive participants, about 20 in the first Extremity Games, became stand-alone comps with upwards of 60 to 70 climbers. We didn’t have prize money, as we had in the Extremity Games, but the community grew, and so did the characters who were a part of it.

In 2012, the World Climbing Championships were in Paris, and the decision to have adaptive categories for the first time was finalized. I couldn’t believe it. I booked my ticket, as did Dickson, and that year we were the only U.S. representatives. But by 2016, the U.S. Team would have between 15 and 25 athletes, all climbing in different categories.

Pushing the Envelope of the Possible

Maureen Beck, who I first met through an adaptive group in Boulder, was a hard-charging arm amputee among a growing group of plastic pullers. She was great at showing other women they were just as welcome as any guy on the circuit. Despite having been born without her lower arm, she was never treated differently by her friends and family, and this helped drive her climbing as well. As her skills grew, so did the comps she would win. At the World Championships in 2016, she nabbed gold by beating her competitor with a faster time up the finals route—thus capping a four-year competitive run and making her one of the most decorated U.S. adaptive athletes.

While the comp and indoor scene grew, other climbers outside of the comp world were doing amazing things. Wayne Willoughby, from Seattle, has climbed El Cap 24 times with different partners. In 2006, he was the first adaptive athlete to climb El Cap in a day. Being a polio survivor, Willoughby walks with a stumble—onlookers would never believe this man can romp up El Cap, but he does with style. On one such day, Willoughby, Timmy O’Neill and I climbed TheBastille Crack in Eldorado State Park. The descent from the top of the five-pitch Front Range classic is long, so we decided to lower Willoughby the entire length of the cliff, about 400 feet, back to the road. Most people with a disability would have balked at this idea. In fact, I think most climbers would. But Willoughby didn’t even blink, just butt-scooted to the edge and said, “Lower me slowly so my legs don’t get stuck. See you on the bottom!” His humility and strength are relentless.

Willoughby’s accomplishments inspired my own sub 14-hour ascent of El Cap, with Hans Florine in 2007. Up until then, El Cap ascents involving adaptive athletes had only ever happened with an able-bodied climber as a partner. Noticing the trend, I went on to change that with two other Extremity Games alumni, James Fyre and Pete Davis in 2012.

Maureen “Mo” Beck is National Geographic’s 2019 “Adventurer of the Year,” five-time national adaptive climbing champion, two-time Paraclimbing World Champion, and head of the USA Climbing Paraclimbing Committee (Photo: Kris Ugarriza).

Meanwhile, climbers in wheelchairs were also pushing the boundaries of what was possible. Sean O’Neill, Timmy O’Neill’s brother, became the first wheelchair athlete to lead Jam Crack in Yosemite, using a complicated system of slings and gear to make upward movement. Spurred on, and not to be passed easily, Rand Abbott, a wheelchair athlete, climbs and leads now on a regular basis. Abbott will even rope solo, which only adds to the amount of work, and skills, required. Abbott has led many 5.13s and 5.14s in Joshua Tree as aid climbs. This would turn a normal climb for able-bodied athletes into an A4 or in some cases, A5 horror show, but, to Rand, it all seems rather “normal.” “I really just want to climb” he told me in a phone conversation. Not adaptive climb, just climb. That’s the sentiment I see shared with so many adaptive athletes. I tell new athletes all the time, “Just be a climber, that’s the fun stuff, the podiums and medals are nice, but the climbing is what keeps us engaged.”

The Future

With the growth of the comp circuit and climbers pushing hard on the cliffs and areas around the world, new athletes have come in, and the different disabilities all blend into the supportive network that we enjoy.

In 2016 the first Adaptive Climber Festival happened at Horse Pens 40 where about 60 athletes came together to climb, camp and sit by the campfire. New to the scene was a blind climber, Justin Salas, who discovered climbing after losing his sight at 13. The year following the festival, he climbed Worm Turns in Joe’s Valley, a V11 established by Jason Kehl, making Justin the first visually impared athlete to do so. He began his competitive climbing journey as well, where he would dominate the blind category.

Along with festivals, the adaptive movement has continued to evolve. Adaptive Nights at local climbing gyms have become common and groups from around the country welcome new climbers and new trauma survivors to the climbing family. I work with a non-profit in Denver called Adaptive Adventures, where I set up and run these types of community-based climbing nights. Another group, Paradox Sports, has focused their energy on the training of gym staffs, thanks in part to a grant from The North Face. Paradox helps set up gyms to welcome anyone with a disability into the gym with zero weirdness. Many of these new climbers go on to buy vans and hit the road in true dirtbaggery.

The International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) has big plans for adaptive climbers around the world. At the 2019 World Championships, in Hachioji, Tokyo, the IFSC Plenary Assembly approved a plan that will lay the groundwork for paraclimbing’s development, with the goal of getting paraclimbing into the Paralympic Games.

Adaptive climbing, like all of our climbing, changes. The big difference I see is the lengths people will go to in order to get an adaptive athlete up to an objective. I have pushed wheelchair users through the woods, over rocks, and up scree fields to get them to a climb. To have a person trust you enough to do this, where the chair can slide (and has slid) down the hills, only builds on the community piece that makes adaptive climbing so great. It’s not about the number attached to the climb so much as it is the inclusive nature of this group of people that makes it fun. To be able to hear that others struggle with some of the same injuries and lifelong problems you have only makes that feeling last. And once the athletes and trauma survivors realize they have as much permission as anyone to climb, the sky’s the limit.

The author, Craig DeMartino, cruising in Whetstone Climbing in Fort Collins, Colorado. DeMartino has written about his own story in After the Fall: A Climber’s True Story of Facing Death and Finding Life.

Adaptive Climbing Supporters and Leaders

Misty Mountain Threadworks

Misty, based in North Carolina, has been at the forefront of adaptive climbing, making the harnesses we use to get wheelchair athletes climbing. The Misty Easy Seat and ARC Harness are essential tools to have an adaptive athlete climb safely with minimal risk to skin damage from a typical harness. These harness systems take the place of the wheelchair and provide a strong platform to sit on and disperse weight.

Evolv Sports

Based in California, Evolv has made tremendous strides in assisting the amputee climbing community with the invention and production of the Evolv Adaptive Foot (EAF). It can attach to any prosthetic leg and makes a huge difference in the climber’s experience. Most similar devices cost thousands of dollars, but Evolv’s president and owner Brian Chung has done it as a passion project, which has lowered the price point to $250 for the foot and shoe.

Paradox Sports

Paradox runs training programs around the country and helps gyms make setting inclusive through a grant from The North Face. Paradox was founded in part by Timmy O’Neill, who fell in love with adaptive climbing through his brother, Sean, an adaptive athlete. paradoxsports.org

Black Diamond

One of the largest hardware companies, Black Diamond has designed new gear to help adaptive athletes do different types of climbing, such as ice climbing and mountaineering. They have worked with individual athletes to design a one-of-a-kind crampon foot that allows lower-body amputees to ice climb.

Adaptive Adventures

One of the largest adaptive sport agencies in the country, Adaptive Adventures designs and implements community-based climbing nights all around the country. As well as providing introduction to climbing in gyms, and instructing gym staff and volunteers in adaptive-climbing techniques, the company runs outdoor trips to areas that offer single-pitch climbing with easy access.

High Fives Foundation

A non-profit based in California and Colorado that specializes in spinal-cord injury, this organization provides sport-specific grants for athletes who need equipment, training and coaching and are short on funds.

National Ability Center

With locations in Park City, Salt Lake City and Moab, the National Ability Center draws a national crowd of adaptive climbers seeking to participate in mentor-based indoor and/or outdoor climbing classes and programs.

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