Feature in Base Camp Magazine

I am always astonished by the people who happen to stumble across my blog. One such person was Cass Légér, the Editor of Base Camp Magazine. Taken by my life and stories, she reached out and asked if I could write an article about my accident and road to recovery and back to my life in the mountains. I am usually pretty prompt about attending to tasks and matters in my life but, for some reason, when it comes to writing about myself, I put things off till the very last minute. I know exactly why. So much has happened in my life; so much tragedy and joy, so many emotions and feelings experienced. The volume and enormity of these events and emotions are so overwhelming that the idea of attempting to convey even a sliver of it all is almost paralyzing (no awful pun intended).

I am really glad that Cass’s offer forced me to write this little piece. I do not think I find writing to be cathartic. But the process of writing always helps organize my thoughts and notice how I can go from being completely clinical about things to unexpected weeping. Writing for an audience who will quickly lose interest in a verbose, rambling article discussing every single detail forced me to prioritize and be selective about what I wrote about. I hope you enjoy reading the final article.

Quarterly Update – Another Round of Travels Begins

It has been four months since my last post :( Even I do not let so much time pass between posts. March, April, and May were the toughest times of my life; even more so than the process of being pieced back together, and acquiring a Spinal Cord Injury. The physical/health issues I was dealing with had me house-bound for much of March; I was desperate for an answer as to what/why I was experiencing such symptoms. Ultimately it was a self-diagnosis that got treatment going, even though my condition was/is tricky to treat. This period was also a reminder of how woeful our medical system is. Call after call, email after email, going from one specialist to the next, going to alternative medicine practitioners, rinse and repeat…now I am probably as proactive a patient as you can get and familiar with dealing with our health system. But this experience totally eroded me. It is ironic how I live in the Boston area, probably the densest concentration of medical professionals and hospitals in the country, and yet, had so much difficulty trying to be seen by the people I should be seen by. Things reached a nadir in mid-May; I was just done. Fortunately, I have been on an upward trajectory since then, after finally finding some doctors who actually help me.

Given my health issues, entering climbing competitions was the last thing on my mind. Earlier on, I firmly dismissed the idea of competing at the Paraclimbing Nationals competition, held at my local climbing gym. I didn’t just want to show up, and I knew I would feel bad for not being able to climb at my best/well. But upon seeing how fun the routes looked, encouragement from many people, I altered my itinerary and registered at the last possible moment. I actually had a blast, even though the top-rope format usually does not interest me.

A super fun climb. I am actually pushing off a hold with my left arm, not humping the volume. (Source: USA Climbing)

This was actually the first climbing competition where I was not super nervous because I did not have expectations about how hard I would climb, placing, etc. And it showed in my climbing!! I climbed loose and relaxed, having to dyno for many holds (I am very short), entertaining spectators with my moves, and climbing well. In short, I climbed with style.

I ended up placing; not bad for someone in really rough physical and mental shape a month earlier, who did not train at all. Unfortunately, I had to dash off before the awards ceremony because I had a long drive ahead of me to Acadia National Park. Ironically, I am currently climbing at my very best! I am climbing routes at a grade I would usually never touch, and actually climbing – not thrutching or hang-dogging at each clip. It is rather strange. I guess not being injured from overtraining (as in the past) helps.

Tomorrow I head to Lisbon, Portugal for a fortnight. Although the city does not have a rope climbing gym (?!!), and I don’t want to regress in my climbing abilities, I predict I will dig the place. I am glad to be spending a fair bit of time in Lisbon and fully exploring the city and surrounding area. It will be interesting to see how I fare with my Portuguese. Then, at the beginning of August, I head to Chile, and then likely back to Lisbon at the end of August. Given the depths of despair I was trapped in, it feels especially good to be back on my feet, exploring and experiencing new places again.

(N.B. I am trying out using the AP style guide for my blog post title, even though unnecessary capitalization annoys me; probably more than it should :))

Some thoughts on paraclimbing competitions

Let me preface all this by saying it is a tremendous honour and privilege to represent the USA in climbing competitions. The point of this post is start a dialogue about this, not express sour-grapes, or whatever the saying is.

As many people know though, my relationship with paraclimbing competitions is frustrating at times. In Paris, it was a lot of the time. I wrote down some thoughts about this right after the competition. What should “paraclimbing” be? Should it be a measure of how climbers with a “disability” (not all paraclimbers do) climb in absolute grades, or a measure of how paraclimbers have been able to overcome and accommodate their physical deficits?

On the one hand I feel very strongly about people not looking down upon paraclimbing as if we are not athletes who train hard. I may not be able to climb 5.14s in my sleep, but I am still a pretty darn good climber by any “normal” person’s standards. Sure, there are some people at the competitions who just to show up and enjoy the experience. There are others who take it a lot more seriously. The venue for the Paris competition was amazing, and the crowds were brilliant. However, I was quite upset at over a number of things related to placing climbers in their categories and route-setting.

Categorizing the climbers

The main principle needs to be to group people as “fairly” as possible, grouping each person by the impact of their deficit on their ability to climb. This could be done by replacing or augmenting the medical check-in with a quick test of abilities, maybe guided by a questionnaire which is completed before the medical check-in. Furthermore, each agreed-upon category needs to stay open; closing out categories (e.g., combining RP-2 and RP-3 (I was placed in RP-3 who had climbers with no discernible physical limitations climbing, when by the official IFSC characterizations, I should have been placed in RP-2) before all climbers have checked in should not be done. Combining categories should be done only as a last resort; at IFSC Paris 2016, RP-2 and RP-3 climbers were put into the same categories, which is no more appropriate than combining B(lind)-1 and B-2. Finally, a reasonable level of deficit needs to be set. The definition of being disabled for paraclimbing competitions is a 5% reduction in ability. What the fuck does that mean? 5% “less” is me after a bad night of sleep. For example, is a 5% deficit in strength a “disability” or just “normal” variation? What about a 5% deficit in motor control? What if person has both deficits? Another example might be a wholly missing limb vs a partly missing limb vs a shortened limb; are these categories defined well? The point is to be fair about how people are grouped.

Objectives of route-setting

For my first qualifying route, a number of competitors (other than myself) could not even get off the ground. That was how ridiculous the setting was. This is not a bouldering competition. A well-set route-climbing competition route will get progressively harder to separate people out, not shut them down at the very beginning. The objective of route-setting in paraclimbing is not to eliminate the “weakest” at the start of the route, but to present greater and greater challenges to weed out people based on the extent to which they have overcome their disability. For example, it is not appropriate to single out people who don’t have the use of the right arm, and then set routes with widely-spaced holds that trend sharply to the right. Should the objective be to measure how well adaptive climbers have adapted: how much skill have they developed, how much strength, how much stamina?

Setting the routes

Setting routes for paraclimbers is not the same as setting routes for fully able-bodied climbers. In particular, setting routes that have difficult sections with a single way to climb them is not appropriate(**). Whereas most able-bodied climbers are pretty much the same, this is not true of paraclimbers who, for example, can be very “asymmetric” (think single-limb lower- or upper-limb amputees, spinal injuries that affect a single side, etc). Para-climbing routes need to have options, especially at the most difficult points. For example, one thing that could be done is to set routes with “mirror images” at crux sections so that climbers can choose a route that runs either left or right based on their asymmetries. Of course, each direction should be equally difficult. I recognize the route-setting is a highly creative craft and that there will always be subjectivity involved, but there are additional measures of “fairness” that need to be taken into account when setting for paraclimbers.

(**) In my case, both qualifying routes involved mandatory use of a high left foot. Usually I can find a workaround, but in these routes, there was absolutely no other way to get beyond a certain point without full use of your left leg. Or both legs for that matter. Which a number of women in the category I was competing in did have.

Sold out Finals

(I will be writing about my own climbing soon.)

I went to watch the Mens Lead Finals this afternoon. The climbing was at such a high level; but I found the audience to be just as, if not more, amazing. The AccorArena was sold out. There were even people scalping tickets outside the arena. For a climbing competition! That would never happen in the U.S. Climbing, in all its varieties, is a much more recognized and appreciated sport in Europe, as are climbers of all kinds. But I certainly was not expecting so much energy and noise!

Amazing! You would never see even a fraction of this number in the U.S.

Amazing! You would never see even a fraction of this number in the U.S.

A lot can be, and probably has been written about why sport climbing competitions like this do not attract such numbers in the States, and questions asked about why climbing, of all varieties, is less visible/appreciated/attractive in the U.S.  Previously, I had asked a friend how much more do guides in Europe get paid versus guides in America. This led to my friend telling me that in Europe, Guiding as a profession is regarded just as well as any other profession; tailor, doctor, mechanic, white-collar jobs, etc. One reason for this is that for a long time, Europeans had/have to hire a guide to access mountains. Another one might be that climbing and guiding is so much more visible to the public, e.g. on television, non-climbing magazines, more competitions.

Anyway, I was able to watch some very very impressive performances by the finalists.


This photo shows the entire wall. The Italian in motion.

The finalists are introduced.

The finalists are introduced.

The Japanese climbing doing something like a Figure 4!

The Japanese climbing doing something like a Figure 4!

I really enjoyed watching Gautier Supper from France climb. He moved so elegantly. He eventually finished third.

He climbed to third place so beautifully.

He climbed to third place so beautifully.

Adam Ondra was the last finalist to climb.

Adam Ondra about two-thirds of the way up

Adam Ondra about two-thirds of the way up

The crowd went wild when he stuck a very difficult hold at the top and knew he was going to reach the top.

Adam Ondra nearing the finish hold, which he reaches.

Adam Ondra nearing the finish hold, which he reaches.

So that was a fun way to spend part of an afternoon. It felt weird to be sitting in the athletes section, dressed in jeans and a cardigan with a handbag. In some ways, I felt like the other non-paraclimbing athletes must be judging me. Maybe a few did, but it is likely that is just me projecting onto other people.