Let’s face it, the outdoor adventure community has a long way to go when it comes to creating accessible spaces. Sarah’s experience of climbing with a disability has had plenty of ups and downs, but she’s managed to find her place in the outdoors and the climbing community.
I always wanted to try rock climbing, and it took me far too long to actually give it a go.
What if I was turned away?
Laughed out of the gym?
Would my presence make everyone feel awkward?
Why was I so worried about this? Well, it’s because I have one leg (technically it’s more like one and a half, but you get the gist).
I’d watched all the climbing documentaries (Valley Uprising, The Dawn Wall… you know the ones), stalked climbing gym websites, and followed industry brands on social media. But I’d never seen a disabled person climbing. And yet, there was an ‘adaptive’ climbing community quietly growing in my city, and it was only a matter of time before I found them.
If there’s one thing Australia loves, it’s sport. So the idea of overcoming disability through sport is pretty highly valued. Chances are if you can name one public figure with a disability, they’re probably a Paralympian (and it’s probably Dylan Alcott – no shame, we all love Dylan). So growing up disabled in Australia, that’s the narrative I felt pushed towards.
The choices of ‘parasport’ programs at the time were swimming, athletics, or wheelchair basketball, and specialised sports prosthetics and adaptive equipment weren’t really a thing yet. So I became a swimmer. I was around 13 years old and well on my way to qualifying for the Australian para-swimming team, when I decided I’d had enough of the endless laps, and dropped it entirely.
I was at the beginning of high school and desperately wanted to fit in. But I hated my body, and hated my disability. These feelings dominated the next ten of my life, and dictated the relationship I had with my body and the rest of the world. So the fact that I’m now a climbing athlete – it still blows my mind.
To get to this point, I had to completely change my mindset.
I eventually realised that my disability is not something I needed to overcome, but something I needed to embrace.
I decided I’d become the person that a younger version of me would’ve loved to see growing up. I’ll ‘wear the damn shorts’ and even when I’m struggling, I know that by accepting myself I’m allowing others to accept themselves and embrace their differences too.
One day, I was sitting outside IKEA with my friend eating $1.50 ice cream cones, and we were lamenting about our lack of fitness, when one of us asked, ‘If you could do any sport, what would it be?’. And both of us answered rock climbing!
Before this point, I don’t think I’d ever even said that out loud, and might never have worked up the courage to go to a climbing gym on my own. But now I had a partner, and a new gym had just opened nearby – and so I was introduced to the world of bouldering.
Ah, bouldering. It’s an awesome way to get into climbing. The gyms are buzzing with atmosphere, the climbs are dynamic and aesthetic, there’s coffee, and all you need is a pair of shoes.
Turns out, bouldering is also inherently inaccessible when it comes to disability. It could be as simple as not being able to get on the mat, for me and many others, it’s the risk of falling and not being able to land safely in the absence of ropes.
But I was having so much fun, I failed to consider the risk of what would happen if I took a bad fall – which is exactly what happened.
I’d just bought my very first pair of climbing shoes, I was invested and over-confident in how sticky they felt compared to the rental shoes. I was sending climbs in that session that I’d been trying for weeks, and the wall decided I needed to be taken down a few pegs. Just as I was coming up an overhang, my feet swung away from the wall and the momentum completely pulled me off.
I landed on my feet with my knees completely straight. No gentle bend to soften the blow, and crack – my ankle was broken.
I got myself on the ground, closed my eyes and pressed my lips together, hoping that with a few deep breaths, the pain would disappear and I’d be fine. But that wasn’t the case. I ended up with a type A fibula fracture on my left leg – which is apparently ‘the best type’. But when you’re a right leg amputee, any type of injury to the opposite leg (what I casually call my ‘meat leg’), is pretty devastating.
One day I was taking a photo of my feet propped up on the coffee table in my new climbing shoes, and the next day, a moon boot. I spent the next three months not being able to walk at all, losing all my confidence along with all the muscle tone in my left (meat) leg.
With the wisdom of hindsight, I now know that I absolutely cannot fall (or jump) from a bouldering wall, and that being able to climb down a bouldering route is just as, if not more, important as being able to climb up. That means taking less risks, which when it comes to climbing, is definitely not as fun.
Luckily for me, this lesson was the catalyst that led me to find the adaptive climbing community and take my climbing to the next level (from approximately 4 to 14 metres, to be specific).
Understandably, I wasn’t super keen to get right back to bouldering once my ankle healed. I’d been searching online to see if there were any other amputee climbers out there that I could learn from, and ended up coming across a group called Adaptive Climbing Victoria (ACV) – a completely volunteer-run group that supports and provides opportunities for disabled people in climbing.
And as it turns out, climbing on ropes is a great activity for people with disabilities, because with skilled volunteers and specialised equipment, it can pretty much be adapted to suit anyone.
And I quickly learned that adaptive climbing (or paraclimbing, as the competitive sport is often called) is growing steadily worldwide. The International Federation of Sport Climbing has been hosting paraclimbing competitions since 2006, and there are some amazing adaptive climbing groups across the US and UK that host social climbing days, outdoor trips, athlete training camps, and even rope-assisted adaptive bouldering!
So it was with a lot of hard work, and a lot of rigid strapping tape, that I finally got back to climbing (on ropes), with the help of ACV.
In doing this I not only found a whole new aspect of the sport I’d begun to love, but I found a new community. A group of people, from all walks of life, in all sorts of bodies, that loved climbing, and wanted to help build the sport and make it more accessible.
This was a cause I could get on board with.
As a sub-committee of Sport Climbing Victoria, ACV helped establish the presence of ‘para’ categories in State-level Open Lead competitions, beginning in 2018. In 2020, I succumbed to gentle peer pressure to compete for the first time, and I won! And then COVID happened, and all momentum was lost again – but this time I had the support of the adaptive climbing community to get me through.
In Melbourne – one of the world’s most locked-down cities – we went through over 250 days of lockdown between 2020 and 2021. And like most climbers, when we weren’t killing our sourdough starters, we were trying to figure out how to set up pull up bars and hangboards in our rental homes. I climbed when I could at outdoor bouldering walls around Melbourne, and trained at home with just a pull up bar and a pinch block.
I was lucky enough to make it to Sydney for the 2021 NSW/ACT State Lead competition, which drew a total of five paraclimbers – three of us being from the amazing Victorian adaptive climbing community
I’m excited to get back into competitions this year, and since we haven’t had a national competition for the past two years, this’ll be my first opportunity to try to make the Australian paraclimbing team. But one of my biggest goals for this year is to gain more independence and confidence in climbing outdoors.
I’ve always loved being in nature, and climbing can be such a special way to connect with it. But gaining independence in the outdoors can be tricky, even for non-disabled climbers to approach. And the doubts started again.
Who’s going to teach me?
Would someone even offer to take a disabled climber outdoors?
If I ever get to that point, what do I need to buy?
A trad rack costs how much?!
Over time, as I engaged more with the climbing community, I put myself out there and eventually found my people, all with their own outdoor goals that I can learn, grow, and have the most fun with. And we found people and places in the community that could support us too – like Women Uprising, Climbing QTs and Affinity Initiative, who both work to help under-represented communities get climbing outdoors.
And so my outdoor journey began. I started the new year with my very first trip to Djurite / Arapiles, a memorable event for any Australian climber. I got to experience slowly slipping down my tent while sleeping on the slope of The Pines campground, almost losing a shoe on the scramble approach to the back wall at Bushranger Bluff, and had fun seconding and learning to clean routes.
On my second trip I learned to build anchors, led my first trad route, and got to spend this beautiful time with my friends as we all tested our own limits climbing in the outdoors.
These things might seem minor in the grand scale of climbing achievements, but they feel massive to me and I’m so excited for where I can go from here. The idea of not being able to do something because of my disability is now on its way out the window.
Since I was sticking my nose in all of ACV’s business anyway, I figured it was about time I pulled my weight by joining the board. Behind the scenes, we’re working hard to build and support adaptive climbing in Victoria, and to forge stronger bonds with the broader climbing community, including gyms, brands, and other affinity groups. Most of us on the board are also adaptive climbers, working on our own goals and supporting each other along the way.
We envision a time where every gym is excited to get on board with supporting adaptive climbers (yes – even bouldering!), where every climbing competition has a para category, and every outdoor brand has disabled athletes on their sponsored teams.
We dream of the kind of support and representation where disabled people would never have to worry about not being able to access their local climbing gym, or not fitting in, like I did in the beginning. Where we have established pathways for people of all abilities to reach their goals in climbing – whether they be recreational, competitive, indoors, or outdoors. And we hope that all types of people in all types of bodies are able to see themselves represented in the community and in climbing media.
In getting outdoors, one of ACV’s first steps is to increase the outdoor climbing skill base of the adaptive community by taking part in skills workshops and courses ourselves. We want to learn how to build top rope anchors and brush up on our rescue skills. Our aim is to be able to facilitate outdoor climbing trips for people with disabilities, and help them become more independent outdoor climbers.
So while I’m working on my own outdoor skills and building up confidence in that space, I’m thinking about how to make outdoor climbing physically, financially, and socially accessible for other disabled people – a group who are often excluded from the outdoors altogether.
As I’m scoping out the local crag, I’m thinking,
Would my friend with cerebral palsy be able to make this approach?
What about a wheelchair user?
Are all terrain wheelchairs available to borrow in this area?
Every new opportunity presents new challenges, but I share the challenge with my friends at ACV and our supporters. Climbing is for everybody, and everybody deserves to enjoy the benefits of the great outdoors.
Read more: Summitting Mount Kosciuszko in a Wheelchair
I’m excited for the changes I see in diversity and inclusion in climbing and the outdoors. While we still have a long way to go, I think society’s idea of what a climber looks like is slowly changing, and I hope that both the community and climbing industry will continue to make climbing spaces more accessible and inclusive to people with disabilities. So if you think the crag or climbing gym isn’t the place for a disabled person – it’s time to think again. Because if climbing is anything, it’s adaptive.
Feature photo thanks to @bravetravels
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