How to Overcome Personal Obstacles With Ronnie Dickson

One amputee is on a mission to show the world that climbing is for everyone.

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This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue in our print edition. 

Rock Climbing Amputee Ronnie Dickson Bouldering
Ronnie Dickson, pictured on lowtide (V6) in Joe’s valley, Utah, spends his time traveling the country and teaching adaptive climbing clinics. Photo: Julie Ellison 

“Climbing was a fluke thing for me,” Dickson says of how he got started in the sport more than eight years ago. After battling a congenital bone developmental disorder called Trevor’s disease his whole life, Dickson had just chosen to have his leg amputated above the knee instead of going through a dozen more surgeries. He was sitting in his prosthetist’s office (the person who built his prosthetic leg) when he saw a picture of rock climbing in an ad for the Extremity Games, an event for people living with limb loss. He went home, Googled “rock climbing in Tampa,” where he was living at the time, and was in the climbing gym a few days later. “I absolutely fell in love with it,” he says. “There are doors that open in your life, and you make the decision whether you want to walk through them or not. I just kinda went running through this one.”

Countless successes and setbacks later, Dickson jokes that his biggest obstacle isn’t having a prosthetic leg; it’s the fact that he lives in Florida. “I never learned to climb with two legs, so I’ve only known climbing like this. Having one leg is just another technique,” he says. As a founding member of USA Climbing’s Paraclimbing Committee as well as one of the first adaptive climbers to represent the U.S. in international competition, Dickson has been a major player in growing the sport of adaptive climbing in America, including establishing the first stand-alone USA Paraclimbing National Championships in July 2014. “I found that it did such great things for my self-confidence as a person living with a disability, and I wanted to share that with other people,” he says. When he’s not designing and building prosthetic limbs for elite-level athletes in Orlando, the 27-year-old travels the country holding adaptive climbing clinics and pushing his own personal climbing boundaries. “I have gotten to watch hundreds of people get hooked on climbing. How great is that?”

In 2012, Dickson was one of two U.S. climbers to go to the IFSC World Paraclimbing Championships in Paris; he finished sixth while fellow American Craig DeMartino finished third. Two years later, the U.S. took 14 athletes to the same World Championships, and seven of them took home medals, including Dickson’s silver in the leg amputee category. Other categories like neurological disorders, upper and lower extremity, seated, spinal cord injury, and visual impairment mean that anyone and everyone can participate, no matter the disability. “It’s such a great experience to see the sport of adaptive climbing grow so much and push the bar higher and higher,” he says. “The level of competition is getting to the point where there’s way less discrepancy between typical pro climbers and adaptive climbing athletes.”

On April 14, 2015, 50 mph winds blasted through the desert of Joe’s Valley, Utah, and fat snowflakes started to fall from the night sky as Dickson and five friends gathered under the area’s ultra-classic V10: Resident Evil. Dickson had worked the problem for several days over the course of two seasons, calling it “a fun, engaging, and frustrating experience,” and if he sent that night, it would not only be his hardest personal send, but it would be the hardest ascent by an above-the-knee amputee. Around 8 p.m. on that blustery Tuesday, Dickson pulled on with a renewed sense of determination, proceeded to float all the moves, and finally stood on top of the huge boulder. He let out a primal scream as the wind whipped around him and his support crew cheered from below. After taking a moment to himself on top, he climbed down to more cheering, high-fives, and hugs. “It’s a really proud moment for me,” he said, “but I can only hope that another adaptive climber will come and smash this record.”

Rock Climbing Amputee Ronnie Dickson Bouldering
Ronnie Dickson works his two-year project: resident evil (V10) in Joe’s valley, utah. Photo: Julie Ellison 

How to Overcome Personal Obstacles

1. Take a Step Back

It’s easy to get super-frustrated that you can’t do a move or complete a climb. Take a deep breath, zoom out from the immediacy of it, and look at what you’ve already accomplished. Once you’ve removed yourself from the moment, look at what you need to do to make the next move. That little breather is sometimes all you need.

2. Create a Support Crew

I feed off others’ energy; that’s when I’m having fun and bouldering at my best. Assemble your own little band of misfits, people who will push you and support you in your climbing pursuits, but people who aren’t afraid to give it to you straight when it’s time to stop being a pansy and just get it done.

3. Maximize Your Style

Try to be analytical about it, figure out what your personal style is—mine is the path of least resistance and a little bit thuggy—and then capitalize on it. That said, if the feature or climb is inspiring, then screw being analytical and just go for it. That’s when you’ll have your best and most fun experiences.

4. Build a Base

Think about your climbing like a pyramid. Let’s say you’re a V5 climber. You’ve done a few V5’s, a lot of V4’s, even more V3’s, and so on down to V0. If you’re trying to do more climbs at the top of your pyramid and getting shut down, take the time to go back and do more climbs at the bottom of your pyramid to build a wider base. 

5. Never Give Up

It took me four years to send my proudest line yet: Slashface in Joshua Tree, an elusive V3. Trying it again that fourth year was frustrating, but when I went back to camp to relax and eat, I started to think about how beautiful the problem was, more than a mile out there in the desert with nobody in sight. Once I let it not be a big deal, I sent.