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Learning to Climb Through the Adaptive Climbing Initiative

Can you climb without your hands or feet? Sounds hard to imagine, doesn’t it? Well, it’s possible, and people do and make it happen.

This week I got the chance to go through a two-day Adaptive Climbing Initiative training course with Disabled Sports USA and Paradox Sports at Climb UP gym in Norman, OK. The training is part of the Adapt2Achieve program provided by Disabled Sports USA. According to their website, since 1967, the organization has focused on one goal: “To improve the lives of wounded warriors, youth, and adults with disabilities by providing sports and recreation opportunities.”

Climb UP, Paradox Sports, and Oklahoma City Veteran Affairs Health Care System partnered together to host the event. The courses are the first of its kind using a comprehensive adaptive climbing manual, systems, and resources. I think this event is an excellent opportunity for the gym to take part.

Day 1

An adaptive climbing shoe from Evolv.

On the first day, the overall goal of training is for attendees to learn how to teach adaptive rock climbing using specialized equipment and instruction techniques. In the morning, we start with an introduction to the course and its goals. Participants learn about the Paradox Sports Approach and etiquette. We want to go in open-minded and have a proper attitude towards the climbers.

We discuss adaptive strategies and health concerns, more precisely specific disability “need-to-knows” such as how to work with people who have amputations or impairments. We also talk about working with people with invisible disabilities such as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI).

Also, we have an equipment overview and teaching section on how to use the adaptive specific equipment. Later, we have a risk management portion covering adaptive climbing in an indoor setting. The group learns how to understand Mechanical Advantage Systems, how to explain, use, and build them.

April from Veterans Affairs tries out the easy chair setup.

First, we learn how to set up a block and tackle with ropes, knots, and specific pulleys. We pair off and build the setup, so we’re comfortable assembling it. It’s made to handle how much weight the climber wants to pull up with them. A 1:1 is full bodyweight, 2:1 is the climber is pulling 50% of their weight, and so on.

Then we learn how to put a full-body harness with a pad on a climber. There is a weight-assisted setup on another wall. Belaying and working together to lower the climber is also covered in the exercises.

As the day wraps up, we’ll talk about how tomorrow will go and what to expect.

Day 2

Steve climbing with the Mechanical Advantage System.

Today is when we get to take what we learned the day before and put it to use. In the morning we plan out the day, and cover participant needs. Afterward, we set up equipment before the climbers arrive. Once they do, the fun begins.

We have three veterans climb with us: Bill, Steve, and John. Both Steve and John have physical disabilities. Steve is in a rolling wheelchair and John is a below-the-knee (BK) amputee. I didn’t get a chance to interact with Bill, but he didn’t appear to have a physical disability.

John and Steve both use the setups we have for climbing. John also tries climbing without any assistance which means it’s him on his own on the wall with a belayer. Watching them climb is incredible, and you can tell they’re enjoying it. The vets climb for a good while during their time at the gym.

John climbing with the Mechanical Advantage System.

By coincidence, there’s a father and son pair that arrive later at the gym where the son is in a wheelchair. We get an opportunity to talk with them and ask if the son, Finn, wants to use any of the equipment to climb. Finn is hesitant at first. His dad wants to see if he’ll even want to put on a harness.

After some time, Finn wants the harness and wants to climb. Some of us lead Finn and his dad to a route on a vertical wall with good holds to grab. We attach a rope to his harness and belay him. Finn crawls out of his wheelchair and tries his best to get up the wall a bit. He succeeds and says he’s done.

Our group offers to let Finn use the Mechanical Advantage System but without the pad, because it was too big for him to sit. Finn seemed to like it and pulled up some ways up. Seeing the vets cheer him on was worth it. You can tell he was having fun.

When climbing is over, and the climbers leave, we provide feedback to the instructors and discuss moving forward with the training we learned.

What's Next?

My Adaptive Climbing Initiative certificate.

Since training has finished, I’m qualified to use and operate the equipment in the Norman gym. This location is ADA compliant, so it made sense to hold the course and have the gear there. When I heard Climb UP was hosting this event, I asked to volunteer. I didn’t realize that I would be going through the actual course. However, doing this class gives me the knowledge and allows me to help adaptive climbers in the gym. Hopefully, this can lead to helping expand the local climbing community and be more inclusive of people with disabilities.

Until next time, happy climbing!