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.

Climbing in Calanque de Sormiou – Antécime

This was my first experience climbing on limestone, so it made sense for Yves and I to do a “warm-up” route. Yves selected Calanque de Sormiou for its amazing views and setting. This was also my first experience climbing right on the Mediterranean, or the sea for that matter. All these firsts have been incredible; it is difficult to convey the joy that was bursting from my chest as I climbed on great rock, in a spectacular location, with a wonderful person and partner in Yves. Maybe it is apparent from my smile in these pictures. I think these experiences mean so much to me because for a long time, I thought that they were no longer options for me after my climbing accident.


View of the small village and calanque on the approach to the route

Morning sun

Morning sun

Antécime was a great introduction to climbing in Les Calanques. The rock is very featured, and because we were right by the sea, pitted and weathered; quite different to the relatively blank slabs of granite I am used to. It might also be apparent in these pictures the feeling of home hanging off rock is for me.

Yves getting us off to the right start

Yves getting us off to the right start

My favourite place/position in the world

My favourite place/position in the world (Photo: Yves)

And the smile to prove it

And the smile to prove it (Photo: Yves)

Yves on pitch 2

Yves on pitch 2



View from the top of the route (Col du Lui d'Ai) of Île de Riou

View from the top of the route (Col du Lui d’Ai) of Île de Riou

View of the small beach and village in Calanque Sormiou

View of the small beach and village in Calanque Sormiou


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.

Paris: MurMur, Le Marais

It is only Monday but we have had such full and tiring days that it seems like we are further into the trip.

This morning

This morning

Scott sneakily took this picture of me this morning

Scott sneakily took this picture of me this morning (Photo credit: Scott McKay)

To keep things loose, I wanted to stretch out a bit at a climbing gym. My friend Yves very kindly procured a day pass for me to climb with him at Mur Mur, a climbing gym located outside the Peripherique. It took us about an hour to get there via metro and walking. It was interesting to see neighbour hoods outside the Peripherique. Mur Mur’s seems heavily North African. The gym itself is fantastic. It has really interesting routes on all sorts of topography. The variety and features of the walls was particularly impressive. I also like that you have to lead to put a rope up (and Mur Mur has ropes you can use) rather than just have all these top-ropes hanging.

Part of the Mur Mur lead area

Part of the Mur Mur lead area (Photo credit: Scott McKay)

Mid-afternoon sustenance:

Raspberry Millefeuil with Yuzu cream filling. This is how Millefeuil should be. And a chocolate eclair.

Raspberry Millefeuil with Yuzu cream filling. This is how Millefeuil should be. And a chocolate eclair.



After a break at home to let outside temperatures cool down a bit, we headed to the Marais. The architecture is nice but, frankly, the pricier shops/chains were pretty boring.

We had dinner at Cafe des Musees in the Marais, mostly because they are open on Mondays (most French establishments are not), and it got good reviews online. We were, yet again, surprised by what amazing food could come out of a bistro kitchen.

My appetizer: "Notre spécialité : Champignons de Paris farcis aux escargots." The escargot stuffed mushrooms are covered in simple clarified butter, garlic, parsley, some kind of spinachy/herby puree.

My appetizer: “Notre spécialité : Champignons de Paris farcis aux escargots.” The escargot stuffed mushrooms are covered in simple clarified butter, garlic, parsley, some kind of spinachy/herby puree.

Paris, arrival!

We arrived! Our journey from Boston to CDG was uneventful, and the taxi ride from the airport to our apartment was perhaps the fastest I have experienced (it was a Sunday morning I guess). It’s a bit hard to characterize exactly what neighbourhood we are in. We are in the 12th arr. near Bastille, a short walk to marche d’Aligre, right near the Ledru-Rollin metro. Maaaaybe the edge of Canal St. Martin? Feels more like Bastille to me. I already love the area. It is full of real people.

Our apartment on Avenue Ledru Rollin

Our apartment on Avenue Ledru Rollin


We are on the 4th floor (U.S. 5th floor)

The bas reliefs in the entrance way of our apartment building are really beautiful.


his is ete (summer).


Hiver (Winter)


Printemps (Spring)

Automn (Autumn)

Automn (Autumn)

To my pleasant surprise, the apartment has a lift. Not having to trudge up five flights of stairs (the ceilings of each floor are very high too) will save me a lot of energy. The lift is very small and without ventilation. I sure as hell would not like to be stuck in it.

The lift is very small one and without any ventilation. Myself and those two bags are the maximum it can hold. Just Scott and me is pushing it too.

Myself and those two bags are the maximum it can hold. Just Scott and myself is pushing it too. (Photo credit: Scott McKay)

The apartment was larger than expected. It is so great to have a welcoming and comfortable place to have as home base for the next fortnight.

Home for the next 2 weeks!

Home for the next 2 weeks!

View down from our apartment down to the street. It is very important to have a cafe at every possible corner.

View down from our apartment down to the street. It is very important to have a cafe at every possible corner.

Keeping in line with the building's shape

Keeping in line with the building’s shape


Our breakfast balcony

This is a teeny-tiny "bedroom" in the apartment. Probably where you send your child into banishment. Yes, even being 5'1" with a negative ape index, my arm-span is wider than the "room"

This is a teeny-tiny “bedroom” in the apartment. Probably where you send your child into banishment. Yes, even being 5’1″ with a negative ape index, my arm-span is wider than the “room” (Photo credit: Scott McKay)

We managed to get to the marche d’Aligre before it closed early on a Sunday. The market is just a 5 to 10 minute walk from us, meaning we have access to ridiculously good boulangeries, pâtisseries, fromageries, produce and vegetable stands, fish, and meat. It is, conveniently, somewhat on the way to the Accor Arena where the climbing competition will be held.

After a much needed break in the apartment, we headed to the place de la Bastille. It looks like a pretty happening neighborhood which we will explore more later.


Colonne de Juillet, place de la Bastille

We took another slight detour to walk through the place des Voges.


place des Voges

The topiary in the place des Voges is pretty cool

The topiary in the place des Voges is pretty cool

One wonderful thing in Paris is the unexpected courtyards hidden behind closed doors. At first I thought the facade of this gallery was some kind of industrial looking store-front, but upon walking in, we discovered this cool space.


A totally unexpected art gallery in an industrial courtyard. Here I am looking quite disheveled and tired. (Photo credit: Scott McKay)

All the walking took a toll on my back and left leg, so I was very happy to eat at the well-regarded bistro our apartment sits above. The bistro surprised us with their incredibly interesting, well-made and well-presented food.

A lovely close to not even a first full day.

Sunset from our apartment. Notice the cool mammatus clouds, which I rarely see (at least in the U.S.)

Sunset from our apartment. Notice the cool mammatus clouds, which I rarely see (at least in the U.S.)

It’s getting real…

My USA Climbing kit arrived today. It feels a bit strange…one of the reasons why I am drawn/suited to climbing is that I thrive on being high up on a rock and alone for the climb. Now, I am only just starting to feel like I am going to be competing as part of a team. As usual, I am nervous about the competition and my ability to on-sight a route well. I may not be climbing as well as I did this time last year, but I am reminded that I came back from nearly dying to being close to full-strength.

I guess it is official.

I guess it is official.

World Championship bound

Well, I can parallel park (both sides) like a champ again, so I must be fully recovered!

The World Championships in Paris are just over three weeks away. Since the last World Championships, the various categories have changed, mainly to discretize formerly broad groups into smaller groupings that better represent different ability levels. This applied to my category, which is basically the “you don’t fall into any of the other categories, so we will just plop you here.” This meant that my category was the largest and most competitive in the competition (men and women). This year, my category was broken down to better separate climbers of very different abilities. Some competitors do not have any apparent impediments. Others have minor ones, such as having one leg slightly shorter than the other, but with full muscle function. I was probably the most “disabled” and would have fallen into the “less able” category this year. However, because the minimum number of participants was not met, I will be competing with the big group. The competition this year looks even fiercer and larger. All the women stand a good 5 to 10 inches taller than me!

Short (5’1″), negative ape-index, gimpy. I picked the perfect sport!

Tickets have been purchased, accommodation has been arranged, the list of food destinations is long.



I had been extremely worried and upset about possible permanent cognitive damage that may have resulted from the sepsis (getting very upset about a lot of things was probably one of the effects too). As recently as 1 to 2 weeks ago, I just felt so dumb. I knew I had come a long ways from being easily distracted and aphasic, but I was still having difficulty absorbing information and just generally not my usual sharp self. I was getting constant headaches from tensing my head muscles hard all the time, trying to comprehend concepts that are not usually difficult to me. I had difficulty writing up thoughtful and clear analyses for work; my memory was still impaired. There were a few times where I would be staring at my computer screens and start crying. It was hard to feel like I could not tell anyone at work about all this. I felt like tasks were taking longer than they should, and this affects the project budget. “Ummm, could I bill part of my time to Temp Project – Stupid from Sepsis?” Fortunately, my work space is quite private, so I could wipe away the tears without anyone noticing.

My handwriting had morphed from its usual small, fairly neat font to highly slanted, large, messy handwriting, which scared the shit out of me. If I concentrated really hard and wrote slowly, I could write close to my normal handwriting, but it was not natural. It made me think of the stories you hear of stroke victims speaking a foreign language post-stroke. My parallel parking skills had totally gone to shit and I was now either bumping the curb in parking spaces as big as a boat, or having to pole vault from the car to the side-walk because I had parked so far away (and totally not parallel) with the curb. I was petrified that dendrites had just been decimated, that I would not be able to get back to my “normal” self.

I decided I needed to make a concerted effort in neural regeneration. For example, by concentrating on writing how I used to until it became natural again, and taking as many opportunities as I could to parallel park. It seems like the effort, and just time perhaps, has paid off and I think I am back to my whip-smart self again :p I have to say though, the idea of losing even bits of ones cognitive abilities and personality was one of the most upsetting things I have felt in recent memory (ha, but since my memory isn’t as good, this must cover a very short time-period. Yes, I can still make un-amusing quips :))

I have certainly noticed progress physically, as has my partner. I think a certain activation energy needed to be overcome before I could put on muscle as easily as I usually do again. I am pushing/pulling considerably heavier weights than even just a fortnight ago. My shoulders are no longer bony; my biceps are approaching their usual Popeye size; my back muscles are bigger. I have basically added on a significant amount of muscle-mass. Obviously, a lot of hard work has gone and continues to go towards this. But it is slightly gratifying (and at the very least reassuring) to see the effort paying off. The question is, am I progressing quickly enough to put on a good show of things at the World Championships in September? August is going to be very condensed, training-wise, which is far from ideal. I will not be able to do proper periodization, and will have to smush a lot of things e.g. strength-power-endurance all together.

A very very small part of me does think it would have been nice for me to have defended my US National Paraclimbing Champion title for the third year running. However, I knew that I would not be well prepared for this competition, but did stand a good shot of being decently prepared for September’s competition. More importantly though, I knew that I would benefit much more from continuing with my training versus having to take time to travel to and take part in this past weekend’s competition. I am fortunate to have received USA Climbing’s blessing for me to be on the US Team in September despite not competing yesterday, based on my very strong track-record and this freak health thing that appeared out of nowhere.

I am going to continue doing the best I can to prepare for Paris, while also reminding myself to enjoy the experience no matter how well (by my standards) I climb. My partner noted this morning that I “clearly did not have the killer instinct,” in response to me saying something like how I was not interested in competing if my competition was not strong. It was hard not to feel a bit dismayed about this, as if this was a failing of mine. His point was, if I did have this highly competitive instinct, I would show no dismay whatsoever in taking advantage of a weak field, or a rival’s off-day etc. But I have to acknowledge that Scott’s assessment is indeed true. I do not possess this trait, and never have. It is why I know free-skiing is what nourishes me versus hurtling down ice, around gates, in spandex so that I could beat other people. It has always been about pushing myself as far as I can, and being disappointed when injuries/circumstances/whatever prevented that. Sure, one can think about pushing oneself locally (i.e. against a current situation) versus globally. But for some reason, I have a difficult time with the former. Thus it will, and does, take a very conscious effort to remind myself that I went from almost dying in June, to competing at a World Championship.

I think it is essential to have purpose (which is a major reasons why I have been struggling with life the last while). But I am only just learning that maybe muddling ahead, putting one foot in front of the other slowly and unassured, is not incompatible with intention and objective. This seems to describe the lives of the overwhelming majority of Earth’s population, who by just “continuing on” show tremendous courage.

Why comp climb?

My win at the 2015 Paraclimbing Nationals was surprisingly anticlimactic. Not winning would have felt worse, but I was still surprised by how much of a post-win comedown I felt. My partner says this is natural and that his approach is to move onto the next milestone. I argued this makes life seem like one endless stretch of toil; he replied that his strategy was not necessarily the healthiest one.

I have expressed my ambivalence before about these competitions; I definitely struggle with why I choose to compete in the comps. Is it because I am “good enough” to place well and therefore feel like I should do it? Does competing bring my story to more people’s attention and therefore increase the potential impact my story/journey might have on other people? I struggle with the term “adaptive” and the negative connotations it holds for me, because I while I climb differently to “normal” folks, I don’t climb in an inferior way. I don’t climb well for a disabled person; I climb well period.

Part of it stems from my slightly negative opinion of competition climbing in general, but these are my personal biases. While I feel like sport climbing indoors is a great way to train and get strong, I think there is/can be narcissism involved when one decides to be a competitor. But there is ego involved in both sides, even choosing not to compete. Of course, some people use these competitions as a reason to train. I think I am “guilty” of both reasons. The relatively small field of competitors means that the number of categories and discretization of disability/ability is very coarse. At last year’s World Championships, the “Physical Disability” category I was in was split into two groups, and even then, the line was very blurry between the two. I was right on the border and ended up in the more “able” category, even though arguably, there were competitors in the second category that had more (climbing) function than me. At Nationals, it was just one category.

Climbing is also a deeply personal thing for me. I love sharing the company of a close friend/climbing partner but also being high up on a route, alone and being the master of my thoughts and experience. I don’t like cragging and large groups of people so much  because I think that being all social can lead to unsafe situations and inattention, and also because I am quite introverted. Competition climbing is the exact opposite of long-route climbing outside. You are suddenly thrust into the spotlight, all eyes on you as you “perform”.

Some people do these competitions because they feel a camaraderie and kinship with the community. While I have met a few people I respect and like a lot, I do not have that kind of relationship with most folks. I think it is because my heart lies outside and spend more time there, whereas the vast majority of folks in the adaptive climbing community do not lead and climb indoors exclusively, out of necessity, accessibility issues or because they just don’t want to – which is totally fine! But yet another reason why I don’t connect with many people there.

I have a good while to decide whether to take part in 2016 Paraclimbing Nationals, which will serve as a qualifier for the 2016 World Championship which will be held in Paris – a rather nice place to visit in the Fall. I think it will come down to how much I feel competition climbing deviates from my true self and my reasons for climbing. And maybe competing might allow me to develop new skills, such as performing under pressure with all eyes on me.

Achievement unlocked: 2015 US Paraclimbing Nationals

Well, I am pleased to have defended my title of top US Paraclimbing female, by winning my category, being the highest scoring female, and in the top-3 among Men and Women across all categories.

Apologies for crappy resolution.

Apologies for crappy resolution.



I like this pic very much, as it shows me and the top-placing Male, gimpy left leg and all.

I like this pic very much. It shows me and the top-placing Male, similar left leg and chalking technique, it seems.

Now, back to outdoor season!