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Paradox Sports - Adaptive Climbing Clinic

posted Mar 7, 2014, 11:33 AM by Carol Fittell   [ updated May 12, 2014, 4:40 PM ]
One of my absolute favorite things about Rock Climbing is how accessible it is to everyone. In general, I think people are capable of so much more than they give themselves credit for, and rock climbing is a perfect venue for demonstrating this idea. Attending the Paradox Sports Adaptive Climbing Clinic sent me home with new tools for helping people expand their horizons (literally!) while simultaneously expanding my own understanding of physical limitations. A special thank you goes out to Paul Chambers for bringing the event to the University of Central Missouri, and for diligently including me. Thanks Paul!


Pete Davis, Sean O'Neill, and Timmy O'Neill all flew to the Midwest to help spread the accessibility of adaptive climbing. Pete Davis is the Director of Curriculum for Paradox Sports and a badass climber who happened to be born without his right arm below the elbow. Sean O'Neill is an Ambassador for Paradox Sports and was one of the leading inspirations for forming Paradox Sports as his brother, Timmy, began including him in his crazy sport of rock climbing after the accident that left Sean paralyzed from the waist down. That leaves Timmy, a veteran rock climber who began dappling in adaptive sports as a way to involve Sean in his world of vertical rock. Together, these three make an infectious team of compassion and excitement for bringing climbing to the disabled world. 


To begin the clinic, the instructors split us into groups of four and had us take turns wearing a blindfold. Many techniques were discussed such as saying "hand out" after introducing yourself and offering out your hand for a handshake. In practice, it was surprisingly easy to find an extended hand even without your sight! Group members took turns leading the "blind" person around by offering their elbow or shoulder as they lead them around the room. Another technique included holding the blind person's pointed finger and describing aspects of the space while pointing at them. After describing the room, the climber was lead to the wall and asked to reach out to feel the texture of the wall and the shape of the holds.

When it was my turn to wear a blindfold I found it easy to tie my own knot since I have tied it so many times, but thinking about not knowing the system and how it works was terrifying. That really emphasized the importance of explaining the system and what's going on before asking someone to take a vertical step into space. Sitting on the rope while still on the ground and the use of a power belay are two ways to help ease the terrors of trusting an unknown system.

When climbing, I found it helpful to slide my foot up the wall to feel the holds, but even more invaluable was the commentary from my group down below. In a noisy gym, a side-climber can be invaluable as they can help the climber find holds as well as keep calm. Side climbers can also physically manipulate the climbers body to aid in the ascent, but permission to touch and help should always be granted before acting. 

One thing a gym can do to help the climber is to set a route that keeps all other routes out of reach. This will enable the climber to succeed at a single route with guaranteed types of holds rather than climbing whatever they can reach which makes it easy to move into difficult territory. While totally not necessary, this is a simple tool to help set the climber up for success. Another tool for encouraging success is to use a power belay where you keep tension on the climber at all times so a fall looses little to no ground. Of course, this might be unwanted help from the climber, so adjust accordingly.


Next we moved on to helping a climber with hearing loss. While at first it may seem incredibly simple, we soon realized it's incredibly important to develop a clear communication system with the climber since climbing commands cannot simply be spoken. A suggested communication technique involved attaching a tag line to the climber so a set number of tugs on the line replace commands. There is currently no set protocol so it's important to define the rules with each climber. One option recommended the tugs match the syllables in the commands such that:
  • 1 Tug  = 1 Syllable  = Slack
  • 2 Tugs = 2 Syllables = Tension
  • 3 Tugs = 3 Syllables = On/Off Belay
This system requires that the belayer also has contact with the tag line so that the climber can communicate with the belayer as well as the belayer communicating with the climber. Since both On Belay and Off Belay have the same number of syllables and therefore tugs, context must speak for which command it means. Of course, this is not a perfect system as it requires the climber to have a hand free when communicating commands, but it is a tool that can be used for easing the difficulties of climbing with a hearing impairment. 


There are a few factors that effect how an amputated limb might effect a climber that are useful for the helper to know. 
  • Arm vs Leg
  • Above the Joint vs Below the Joint
  • Surgical Amputation vs Birth Defect
  • Prosthetic vs No Prosthetic
Obviously, the difference between the use of a residual limb of the arm is going to be much different than that of the leg. Secondly, above or below the knee or elbow joint makes a huge difference in usefulness of the residual limb (or in less pc terms, the stump) as mobility at the joint can make many motions much easier. Thirdly, a surgical cut tends to leave an incredibly sensitive stump while those born with a residual limb tend to be less sensitive and can often use their stump more directly. Finally, the use (or not) of a prosthetic is also going to change the methods of climbing. 

Skin Health

One thing that's consistent across all of the differences listed above is the need for skin care. Cognizant attention to the health of the skin of the residual limb while climbing is of utmost importance for the continual independence of the climber. Sores, raw, or broken skin on the residual limb can drastically limit the use of that limb. For someone with a leg prosthetic, this could mean weeks without the prosthetic, returning the climber to crutches or a wheelchair during the healing process, considerably affecting their health, comfort, and independence. 


Even for someone who constantly wears a prosthetic, the unusual movements and forces of climbing can create new hot spots that need to be addressed. If the climber chooses to wear their prosthetic for climbing, it's very important to make sure the prosthetic is attached to the climber in case it falls off. A prosthetic can be a dangerous falling hazard to everyone below, and damage to the prosthetic during a fall is also possible. 

For climbers who choose to climb without a prosthetic, wrapping athletic tape around the stump might reduce the sensitivity enough to use the residual limb while climbing. 


Actually climbing with a residual limb can be very difficult, but with a little creativity options multiply. The use of a prosthetic will also change methods the climber will use, but getting them on the wall is the best way to find out what works and what doesn't work. As a helper, it can be useful to practice climbing with a pretend residual limb to better understand what may or may not work for the climber. The helper can also aid the climber with a "power belay" by keeping a bit of tension on the rope so the climber doesn't loose ground if they fall. A power belay can also help them make dynamic moves when the residual limb is having difficulties getting purchase on a hold. 


While it might seem like the climbing adaptations for paralysis would be similar to that of amputation, it is significantly not so! Skin health continues to be of utmost importance as the climber will not be able to feel the pain associated with sitting for too long in one position (assuming paralysis of both legs). Pressure sores can develop from sitting too long in one place. These sores can easily become infected which becomes quite dangerous when mixed with poor circulation which causes increasingly delayed healing. According to Wikipedia, Christopher Reeve died of cardiac arrest from reacting to an antibiotic administered for a festering pressure sore. Point being, pressure sores can be very dangerous to the climber!

To help prevent pressure sores, make sure the climber is moving and adjusting regularly. To gauge how long is too long to sit in one position, think about how long you yourself can sit in one position before feeling the urge to adjust. The lower down the spine the paralysis, the more capable the climber will be to move themselves around. When waiting on the floor it's good to sit on a special pad that helps reduce pressure sores, and to roll over, from hip to hip, to change things up. Strong climbers might even lift their body up for a moment, resting on their arms instead. 


Since skin care is so important, dragging the legs up the wall while campusing the holds is definitely out. Instead, climbers are going to make progress using an ascender on either a fixed rope or a pulley system. For someone with paralysis, using their own power to raise themselves above the ground can be incredibly exciting, scary, and rewarding. 

A strong climber may be able to easily lift his body weight and simply ascent a fixed rope with an ascender. This setup still requires a backup belay to be used to keep the climber safe. Another helper is useful for keeping tension on the tail side of the fixed rope so the ascender easily slides upwards.

A weaker climber, or a strong climber warming up, may need a pulley system to lift themselves off the ground. Remember, the top doesn't have to be the goal! For some, simply getting off the ground will be a huge, rewarding feat in itself. Others might aim for halfway up the wall, or a certain number of pulls. Talk to the climber about their goals to better help them achieve them. A five-to-one pulley system will enable the climber to ascend with only 20% the force, although they will have to perform 5 times as many pulls. I'm not going to talk about the actual rigging for the pulley system, as that would become very complicated without detailed drawings and pictures! 

Practice has shown that a five-to-one pulley system is about as easy as it gets. Adding more pulley's beyond that tends to not be worth it. A climber who starts on the five-to-one pulley setup, might with practice increase with strength to move on to a four-to-one pulley system, then three-to-one, then two-to-one, and finally the one-to-one, simply ascending the rope! With all systems, it's important to remember to backup the climber with a regular top rope belay. 


Special harnesses are currently being made by Misty Mountain for climbers with paralysis or neuromuscular disease. They generally involve a rigid seat with special padded protection against pressure sores. One harness provides minimal lumbar support for climbers paralyzed lower down the spine, while another harness provides support all the way to the top of the head and includes a plastic cage up above to help keep the climber from scraping against the wall. The helper keeping tension on the tail end of the ascent rope can also use it to direct the climber away from the wall and keep them from spinning. 

Another aspect of harnessing a paralyzed climber (or leg amputee) that's important to consider is the change in weight distribution. Unused legs (or a lack of legs) drastically changes the center of gravity of the climber. With light legs (or no legs), it's difficult for the climber to stay upright in a harness as their center of gravity wants to flip them over. To counter this it can be helpful, and sometimes imperative, to also use a chest harness or full body harness to keep the climber upright and attached to the rope. This will also put less strain on their abdomen as they try to keep their head above their waist. 

Protective Equipment

Most climbers don't wear helmets indoors, but for the average gym climber the risk and complications of head injury don't justify wearing one. For someone with paralysis, however, even small bumps and bruises can become complicated injuries. A helmet is essential protective equipment for some climbers and should be offered to anyone who it might benefit.  

Another piece of protective equipment includes padded pants. For a strong climber like Sean, rugged, padded pants help protect his legs when they scrape against the wall. This minimizes dings and bruises, enabling him to climb multiple days in a row without damage. As this is an incredibly unique and individualized piece of equipment, simply keeping the climber from dragging up the wall is often the best practice for protecting their legs. 

Neuromuscular Disease

Climbers with Neuromuscular disease may need a five-to-one pulley system to climb, or they might be capable of climbing on their own. Capabilities vary drastically based on their condition and the progression of the disease. Talk to them about how well their extremities feel, work, and what sort of symptoms they might experience when climbing to help them protect themselves while reaching new limits. 

Remember: People are capable of so much!

Once again, I want to thank Pete, Sean, and Timmy for an amazingly educational, involved, and inspiring clinic. They blasted away my preconceived notions of what is possible and handed me tools for being even more inclusive in sharing my passion for the sport of rock climbing. You guys truly are amazing individuals and I feel incredibly fortunate for the opportunity to learn from you. I'm super stoked to put all of this to use!

For more pictures, head on over to the Gallery!

Happy Trails!
Carol Fittell