by Executive Director Doug Sandok
As any climber can tell you, climbing is always about more than the athleticism of climbing a rock with your hands and feet. It’s also about who you get to share a rope with, the environments that we become intimate with, and being in a community that celebrates risk and elective challenge. It’s an ideal community and sport in which to challenge perceptions of what is possible and assumptions around ability and disability.
Paradox Sports (based in Boulder, CO) and Earth Treks Climbing Center in Golden, CO have been partnering for the last few years to develop the adaptive climbing community on Colorado’s Front Range. Adaptive is the term often used for sports and activities that are “adapted” for people with disabilities. Climbing is an ideal sport for people with disabilities because it’s adaptive in its very nature: climbers have developed the tools and techniques to adapt to the vertical environment over many years, whether that’s on rock, ice or snow. In the last decade Paradox Sports has been among a small group of adaptive climbing organizations pushing those tools, techniques and most importantly the mindset, so that anyone of any ability can experience the life changing benefits of climbing.
Adaptive climbing – or Paraclimbing as it’s known in the competition climbing world – is a relatively new phenomenon in the US. Some people may remember Mark Wellman’s ground breaking paraplegic ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite in 1998. This ascent and his follow up climb of Half Dome was really the start of a movement that has radically changed people’s perceptions in the last 20 years of what’s possible. As recently as 2005, almost no one with a disability was climbing at a high level nor were there many climbing gyms where a person with a disability really felt accepted into the community and could train for competition. In 2015 the landscape for adaptive climbers has changed dramatically because of disabled athletes like Craig DeMartino and Ronnie Dickson who have worked for over a decade to bringing new people into the sport through increasing exposure and opportunities for disabled climbers.
Right now we are in the midst of a sea of change in climbing: adaptive climbing is growing and bringing many new climbers into the sport at both gyms and crags across the US. For the last 3 years the US Climbing Team has included adaptive climbers, and the World Cup also has disabled divisions in its international competitions. Though they are a relatively new part of Team USA our American paraclimbers have been cleaning up on the international circuit. Craig Demartino, Ronnie Dickson, Maureen Beck and others have been taking home medals for team USA in a field that has a lot of teams from many other countries with more years on the competition circuit.
This radical change isn’t limited to the competitive circuit. More and more gyms are seeking out trainings so that their staff can facilitate adaptive climbing. Private gyms, recreation programs and Universities across the country are opening their doors to new climbers with disabilities of all sorts and creating vibrant climbing communities.
Ronnie Dickson explained, “Ten years ago opportunities like this didn’t exist. The fire was lit by a few different organizations and climbing gyms that have been involved with adaptive climbing for 3 or 4 years and it’s really setting the tone for the community and the enthusiasm has started to spread exponentially.”
Right here in Colorado we have one of the greatest concentrations of high level competitive climbers with disabilities, and they are proving themselves in competitions and on podiums across the US and on the World Cup circuit. Craig Demartino explains: “Nationwide they’re gathering steam: Mesa Rim in San Diego, Momentum in Salt Lake City, ABC and the Boulder Rock Club in Boulder, Miramont and Inner Strength in Fort Collins are all very Pro-adaptive. Earth treks is a great example: Chris (Warner) asked ‘what do you need’ and opened up their doors to us from the beginning. They said, ‘lets get this thing running’, and have now supported adaptive climbing for a long time. When the athletes that train there go to Nationals and do well, they are a part of that which is great for everybody.”
Chris Warner, owner and Director of Earth Treks says, “At that time there were maybe two dozen commercial gyms. There were very few people doing it (Adaptive Climbing). You have to recognize the role of Mark Wellman – he was such an inspiration to all of us. We’ve been open to it from the beginning because of my long interest in changing people’s lives. I summited Kilimanjaro with an above the knee amputee – lost due to cancer. We’ve been involved in some level of outdoor rec for 35 years. It has made such an impact on our lives we are always looking for ways to impact others’ lives.”
Earth Treks Climbing Centers have been a strong supporter of adaptive climbing not only here in Colorado but also in their climbing centers in Maryland and DC. He explains that, “One arm Pete (Davis) was a member of Colombia (Earth Treks Center in Maryland) in 1997. And I’ve known Malcolm (Daly, Co-founder of Paradox Sports), from the very earliest days of this whole idea.”
Currently, Paradox Sports and Adaptive Adventures organize the monthly Front Range Adaptive Climbing Club and its related team of adaptive climbers looking towards the competition circuit. These teams and the climbers are deeply supported by Earth Treks and train in Golden a few times a month. Earth Treks is also excited to be hosting a climbing camp for the US Adaptive Team in Golden in June 2016 – The US team is training up for the US National competition in Atlanta and the World Championships in Paris in 2016. Last year, the FRACC and FRACT (Front Range Adaptive Climbing Team) sent 6 climbers to Nationals – all of whom placed! It was the largest attendance for the National adaptive competition ever. And of the World Championship in Gijon Spain in 2014, Dickson says: “Never in our wildest thoughts would Team USA go to the world championship with 14 climbers!”
In addition to this important support for many years, Earth Treks is offering a generous matching donations to Paradox Sports at the end of 2015. Earth Treks will match all money raised between December 27th – 31st dollar for dollar up to $5000! Paradox Sports will be promoting the partnership between Earth Treks and Paradox with the hashtag #FindYourAbility on social media. Join us online and post you own updates as to what’s happening in your adaptive climbing community and to spread the word about adaptive climbing. And keep an eye out for the amazing achievements in 2016 of the Front Range adaptive climbers, and others across the country who are training hard to climb hard and compete at the World Championship in Paris in 2016.