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Don't Call it a Comeback

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An amputee’s tips for smarter, smoother movement

AS AN AMPUTEE (I’m missing my right leg below the knee after a 100-foot fall ultimately claimed the limb), the way I climb has changed in several ways.

For one, I’m forced to use my feet more precisely than before. But other things have changed, too. During my seven-year return to the sport, I’ve used four basic concepts — constant flow, economy of movement, finding my center, and using my entire body — to refine and redefine the way I move. One limb or two, three or four, I think you’ll find these ideas helpful in focussing your movement over stone — no matter how many limbs you have.

Don't Call it a Comeback

Keep It Flowing

For us climbers, it’s important to stay clearheaded and in motion on strenuous terrain, where the pump clock never stops ticking. I use two tricks:

1. Scope It

— Climbing with a prosthetic has taught me to move quickly and to exploit each rest. From the ground, I’ll scope the whole route for the biggest (often most-chalked) holds, running a mental connect-the-dots as I look for key sequences and rests. Then, with this as my template, I’ll try to guess the best path to the rests, planning on not stopping till I reach them and on moving smoothly between each stance. I’ll often visualize the best way to recover at these waystations, too.Because I can’t use my prosthetic well on bulges, slabs, and small overhangs — with their “invisible” feet — I often have to find alternate rests. Toe or heel hooking with my prosthetic is super solid, and as long as I don’t pull too hard (my leg might fall off — creepy!), I can catch a rest at a corner or lip. You should try these unconventional rests, too.

2. Be Present

— Part of my rehab was learning how to handle chronic pain, so I learned to focus on a point of light and visualize “bending” the pain into that point, to make it go away. In climbing, you can do the same with fear by focussing it into a similar point — say, a lichen patch in the rock. This anchors you in the present moment, as does concentrating solely on the hold you’re on, instead of any prior stumbling blocks, such as moves shakily executed, poor holds that felt barely there, or hard clips nearly bobbled . . . or those to come.

Economy Class

The second principle is economy of movement, which in crux situations often means using a handhold the first way you grab it. The same holds true for footholds. Many times I’ve tried to reach a faraway foothold and, strenuously, had to tap/ootch out to it. Instead, find the foot and paste your shoe in a single motion, and then push with authority, limiting unnecessary fussing. (Tip: by applying the edge of my sole a micron higher than the hold and letting the rubber settle, I get a more secure platform.)

Find Your Center

Some days, I can hardly tell I have on a prosthetic. Others, its seven-odd pounds seem to pull me off the wall. To get around this, I forcefully recruit my center — my core — and other extremities for counterbalance. I’ll use my abdominal muscles to initiate swinging or jumping movements (similarly, you can “hop” around a pumped arm or the “disability” caused by a poor hand or foothold). And I also tend to flag my leg — my fake one — much more than I did before, because I can use its weight for counterbalance, letting me lean higher on my real foot to reach the next hold. You can also try the same with a flesh-and-blood limb — play with the balance point to see what works for you.

Don't Call it a Comeback

Use It or Lose It

Finally, don’t be shy about using all your body parts — shoulders, belly, elbows, knees. My prosthetic climbing leg is covered in Evolv TRAX XT-5 rand rubber, which allows me to use the knee to rest or move up. You can do the same by placing your kneecap lightly onto a ledge/hold and weighting it as you bring your other leg up for the next move — there’s no shame in knee-to-rock contact!Also, doing such improbable movements, where I might suddenly slip, has helped me get past my post-accident fear of falling. On safe routes, I climb till I fall — the lobs help me see the hard spots, as well as fi nd the rests I’ll need for the redpoint. So don’t be afraid to use the rope and the systems we all trust.

Craig DeMartino, an editorial photographer, also finds his center in his hometown of Loveland, Colorado, near some of the state’s best Dakota sandstone boulders.

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