Bouldering in Joshua Tree

Bouldering in Joshua Tree
Ronnie 15 feet off deck on the classic White Rastafarian.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Adaptive Climbing Clinic in "The Gunks" presented by Athlete's w/ Disabilities Network

This has been a really successful year for the clinics that I host here in the USA. I was able to host clinics at Joshua Tree National Park, Planet Rock, Brooklyn Boulders, and the amputee coalition headquarters. This was my 5th and last clinic for the year, and probably the one I have been looking forward to the most.

Group shot from Clinic

Cliff Line

I was able to team up with Andrew Chao of Peak Potential, a local adaptive climbing non-profit in New Jersey that works primarily with kids, and Kareemah Batts of NYC Adaptive Climbing to get the word out through the local community.

Me and Andrew at the top of the cliff

The weather was beautiful and it was prime fall season in New York with the fall leaves change in full swing. Our clinic saw a really lively group of 14 that came out to enjoy the day. The 60 foot cliffs at Peter's Kill Park provided the perfect venue to host our clinic. The sun was shining for most of the day, and a cool breeze kept the leaves coming down off of the trees. I could not have asked for a better guiding service, Mountain Skills, and group of volunteers for the day. Our participants were able to enjoy over ten different climbs, as we switched locations to a different spot of the crag in the afternoon after the Evolv and Sanuk sponsored raffle.

We had a great group and I am really looking forward to next year's event.

I have been climbing for six years now and had one of the most memorable experiences of my climbing career the day after the clinic.

My friend, Jerod Minnich, is a double below the knee amputee who has been a local climber to the area for years. Jerod and I met at the Extremity Games but it had been years since we had seen each other. He reached out to me to come volunteer at the clinic, and wanted to get together the day after to do some multi-pitch climbing at another area called The Trapps. One of our participants from the clinic, Tommy, a below the knee amputee from Philadelphia, decided to hang with us for an extra day as well.

Jerod racking up
Finishing the first pitch

The route we decided to tackle on Sunday morning was High Exposure, probably the most classic 5.6 at the Gunks. I primarily stick to bouldering, and have never climbed anything of this height. We got an early start and made our way to the climb with our party of 6, excited about the 250 foot adventure that lay ahead of us.

Three guys, two legs

 Jerod led the way and we all cruised up to the open air moves and the stunning scenery that awaited at the top. The experience of being up high with nothing but air under your feel was astonishing. The only thing that made the experience better was getting to have it with such a great group of people.

View from the top of the cliff

It never ceases to amaze me how diverse of an experience climbing has to offer, and how people of such different backgrounds from all over the country can converge to have such a powerful experience. I love being a part of the community and can't wait until the next big adventure rolls around.

Group Panoramic at the top
Thanks to Athletes w/ Disabilities Network, Evolv, Sanuk, Sterling Rope, Mountain Skills, and Black Diamond for making this all happen.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

IFSC Paraclimbing Championships 2012 - Paris, FR

Climbing has been a sport that has exploded in popularity as of late among the global community. The past ten to twenty years have also seen huge strides in sports in the adaptive community, with improved technology and attitudes redefining what challenges are possible to overcome. Naturally other sports such as track and field, skiing, and more recently triathlon and snowboarding, among other activities have been the first to garner a large following of adaptive athletes because of their mainstream popularity. The Paralympics and now even the Olympics, with Oscar Pistorius' groundbreaking inclusion on the South African team, have become the pinnacle of sport for an athletic community that has thrived as of late with increased access to opportunities, training, and technology. 

London 2012 Paralympics
Climbing, while not as mainstream, has followed a similar trend. This year was the second hosting of the World Paraclimbing Championships. The main categories represented are Blind, Arm Amputee, Leg Amputee, and Physical and Neurological impairment with 62 athletes representing over 20 different countries. I myself was one of the two first competitors to represent the USA at this competition, competing in the leg amputee category. 

One of the blind competitors from Italy, with his guide.
To spare the whole story, I started climbing six years ago after I chose to have my leg amputated above the knee after dealing with a worsening congenital disorder since the age of 5. One of the things that was so liberating about climbing was that everybody has to learn how to climb in their own way, and I think the freedom behind this is the reason why the sport has become so popular in the adaptive community. 

I normally don't focus on the competition aspect of climbing, choosing to focus more on my outdoor climbing (I pull enough plastic in Florida as it is!). This opportunity came up and I immediately contacted my friend Craig Demartino, a below the knee amputee from Colorado to get him on board as well. We were both psyched to be involved, and by default were able to get selected to the team through USA Climbing.
Climbing Green Wall Essential in Bishop, CA

 In the past there used to be an event called the Extremity Games, essentially an X-Games for those living with limb loss or limb difference. From 2007-2009 we had three great years of "national championships" hosted once at Aiguille Rock Climbing Center and the other two at Planet Rock. Currently there is no national championship or avenue for adaptive athletes to compete in climbing here in the United States, although there are opportunities to learn how to climb or experience climbing through Athletes w/ Disabilities Network, Paradox Sports, and the Orthotic and Prosthetic Activities Fund
McKayla, Craig and I at the Extremity Games.

My coach had always told me to be ready for anything while heading to a competition, and he was not kidding. Craig and I both climb with our prosthetic legs all the time. We did not expect this to be a big issue going into world championships. We were wrong. 

Upon arrival it was great to meet all of the other athletes from the other teams. Spain, Japan, France and Italy probably had the biggest representatives of athletes. We proceeded to the medical checkout to have them place us in our respective category, this process mainly being used to quantify degree of physical disability and level of blindness for the other competitors (B1 category - totally blind and then further on into partial, but still very severe degrees of blindness B2 and B3). The first year of the competition saw all competitors climbing without a prosthesis in the leg amputee division, and this year the main issue was that 6 out of the 11 competitors were climbing with prosthetic legs. The Italian judge immediately decided to impose penalties of 20% on all competitors wearing a prosthesis. A number that was pulled out of thin air and completely unfounded. 

This was just the start of a long battle (which I will spare each nitty gritty detail), that eventually by day two of the competition, ended with co-efficients that were more or less fair. The decision was made that an above the knee amputee climbing with no prosthesis should be given a 3% advantage over one climbing with, and that an above the knee amputee would have a 3% advantage over a below the knee amputee climbing with a prosthesis. These numbers were more in line with what I believe to be correct. 

For the record I will state that while the prosthesis does make the climbing different, I do not believe that it provides an advantage. The competitors that CHOOSE to climb without a leg have done so because they have found a prosthesis more cumbersome for their climbing and have adapted their style accordingly. This would be like asking the athletes in the 100 M sprint at the Paralympics to hop to make the playing field equal. It is absurd. The rest of the field should not have been penalized because of the choices of others. They spent so much time focusing on each individual disability that the other aspects of the competition that should have seen more emphasis (route setting) were neglected. 

Topping out qualifier number one. 

The first qualifier ended up being set way too easily, with only two of the 11 competitors failing to reach the top of the approximately mid 5.10 route. The second qualifier probably an entry level 5.12 on the gently overhanging 5 degree wall was set perfect. My american compadre craig just missed topping out the route, and I finished fourth out of the field (making a mistake in execution), with a generous lead over the 5th place competitor. 
Sabar from Indonesia climbing without a prosthesis on the first qualifier. 

Craig on his way to 1st on the second qualifier.

Top four were granted entry into the finals, and having topped the first route and gotten fourth on the second, I felt confident that I had done enough to put myself into the medal round. Just as everything else had been a mess leading up to this point, I should have known better, but decided to leave the stadium since the whole scenario seemed very cut and dry. 

Upon looking at the scores later that night, I was was completely dumbfounded to find that myself and the German competitor that had finished in front of me, Thomas Meier, had been pushed out of finals in 5th and 6th place. 

Essentially what had happened, is that even though everybody had topped out the first route, the way that positions were determined based on disability (even though we were all clearly able enough to crush that route without differentiation) had produced a seven way tie for third, and since the 1st and 2nd place competitors had gained such an advantage on the 1st climb, even though they performed below the rest of us on the second and harder route it did not matter. I did not have a fighting chance the second I got on the route. 

Talking through some of the details with an IFSC official

The crowd for finals.
If a scene could speak for itself the final results certainly did. The top finishers, above the knee amputees who climb without a leg from Spain and Japan, edged out my teammate Craig Demartino (a below the knee amputee who uses his leg), for the first and second place positions fair and square on the pumpy 5.12. The other competitor that by a fluke of scoring made it into finals fell five holds into the route. After days and days of arguing, none of it mattered in the end. The climbers that did not wear a prosthesis beat the equally capable climber that was wearing a prosthesis, vindicating what I had been saying all along. We all have had to learn how to adapt our climbing style, and climbing with a prosthesis makes it different, but not easier than other styles. 

The podium for the amputee leg division

I will say that it has been hard to wash out the bitter taste left in my mouth from the competition. I had high expectations, and was confident that even in a worst case scenario I would make podium. It would have been much easier to accept my own mistake on a route, and missing out on finals because of that, instead of being denied a deserved position because of scoring. 

Either way I am glad to have had the opportunity to get the chance to travel to Paris and meet so many amazing people. The adaptive climbing community is still small, and we are all at the forefront of the sport. There is a lot of work to be done, with this only being the second year of the competition, and I am confident that it will continue to grow and get better in the future. I can only hope that mistakes like these will be ironed out.
Myself with new found friends, athletes from Venezuela and Spain.

Checking out some of the sights. 
Climbing in Font the day after the competition

I have been fortunate to help host adaptive climbing clinics across the country, for the past four years, introducing over 500 people with disabilities to their first climbing experience. I think what we need most at this point is a national championship that helps set the stage for climbers across the country to aspire to. I hope to be able to work with USA climbing to bring an adaptive division to nationals. 

Our group at the inaugural adaptive climbing clinic in Joshua Tree that I run every year. 

Climbing brings out some of the best "try hard" moments that the human spirit has to offer. Over the past six years as a member of the adaptive climbing community I have never ceased to be amazed by some of the challenges that individuals are able to overcome to bring out the best in themselves. I have seen blind climbers lead onsight hard 5.10, I have seen paraplegic climbers campus up routes that others have trouble even doing with their feet, and just when I think I have seen it all somebody else comes along and completely smashes my conceptions of what is possible. 

Warren MacDonald getting it done! 

Myself outfitting adaptive equipment for a participant at one of my clinics, who is blind and missing both of her legs below the knee. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Training for 2012 World Paraclimbing Championships

For those unfamiliar with my story, I elected to have my left leg amputated above the knee seven years ago. I had Trevor’s disease, a congenital disorder with my growth plates that left me with a disfigured and short leg. I played varsity soccer in high school, and it got to the point where I would get home from practice and be in so much pain that I would not be able to walk until the next morning. That is when I knew I could have a better quality of life by amputating my leg.

I found climbing by chance in college, and have committed myself to it since I started six years ago. I was drawn to the community of individuals that always pushed each other to be their best, and the challenges posed by climbing and the means of overcoming them through strength and movement.  Everybody has to learn how their body moves in climbing, and it did not matter that I had one leg.

One of the things I love most about climbing is the diversity of the experience you can have. Since the start of my climbing six years ago, I have always excelled at and enjoyed the process of bouldering.

Climbing in Bishop, CA. Damon Corso Photography

Outdoor climbing has always been my favorite aspect of the sport, with indoor climbing only serving as a vessel to climb strong outside. Competition is side of the sport that I have tried in the past a few times, but that has never quite intrigued me as much until recently.

Next week my friend Craig Demartino, below the knee amputee and I, will be heading to Paris, France to compete in the World Paraclimbing Championships. This is the second year of the event and we will have the opportunity to compete against other adaptive climbers from Spain, Japan, Germany among other countries.

German climber from last years world championships

We will be the first two athletes to represent the United States in this competition. The only disciplines offered are lead and speed, so for the past four months I have been strictly climbing with the sole focus of converting myself from a boulderer into a sport climber.

The transition from bouldering to sport climbing has been a really interesting process. Where bouldering is a much shorter burst of power and energy, sport climbing requires a much more sustained and focused effort and technically challenges me more with my prosthesis. I did not expect the training to be easy by any means, but it has certainly been a challenge. I always assumed that seasoned sport climbers just did not get pumped while climbing, but while I know that endurance is not one of my strong suits, sport climbing is almost the acquired skill of learning how to effectively manage a climb when you are fatigued.

Photo courtesy of Aubrey Wingo

Being a climber in Florida, the biggest challenge is keeping things fresh and the routine constantly changing. I have been able to rotate between three different walls, one at work, the local climbing gym, and a home woody on my coach's porch. The training has been grueling at times, with the hundred degree temperatures making laps on my coaches horizontal roof an absolute sweat fest! 

Wall at my coaches porch

Sloper training

The awesome wall at work! 

Coming from a good strength background from my years of bouldering my coach, Eugene Hoberg, and I have been focusing on doing intense endurance work. The local climbing gym, Aiguille, is not very tall, clocking in at about 35 feet, so this has involved going up-down-up on routes and stringing together multiple climbs in a row with only five minutes rest in between burns to start training my forearms to climb while fatigued and to recover quickly. We have been also doing intervals on the systems wall on all tiny holds, to force recovery in not so ideal rest positions. The emphasis on tactics has been huge as well, that would almost be a whole post in itself.

Focused on pulling the last hard moves. Photo courtesy of Aubrey Wingo

I have to say that I am excited for this opportunity to represent our country that has given me so much to be thankful for. I have never had more fun with my climbing and I feel good about all the work that I have put in leading up to the competition. I am really excited to share experiences with all the climbers from other countries who have overcome obstacles to excel at the sport. 

Eugene and I after our last training session before worlds..

Thanks to Evolv, Sterling Rope, Prana, Black Diamond, and Sanuk for their continued support of my endeavors.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Spring Happenings pt. 2

This latest adventure started two weeks ago.

Two years ago I put together an adaptive climbing clinic at the Amputee Coalition Youth Camp. One of the campers at the time, Corey, a below the knee amputee, attended my clinic and got hooked on climbing. Fast forward two years and he is now in college north of Atlanta and climbing avidly. We reconnected and I flew up to the Southeast to take him on his first outdoor climbing trip.
Me, Corey, and Brandon

It has been really rewarding to see some of my efforts in the past bringing forth tomorrow's generation of adaptive climbers.

Corey had his eyes set on one of my past projects Fat Cat (V5), one of the pristine climbs that the Stone Fort has to offer.

He worked out all the moves in a strong effort, but was unable to link together for the send. I am sure he will be back soon to take the rig down.

Overall we had a blast and just climbed around on the endless amounts of classics the boulder field has to offer. We were able to connect on some of the challenges on climbing with one leg, and share our similar experiences. I have made many friends through climbing that I am proud to know, and I think it is a safe bet to say I made another friend for life on this trip as well.

On Mizzen Mast, a long never tried classic. 
Part two of the trip was the start of my California adventure. I flew into LA to meet up with my friend Andrew Chao, and Damon Corso, a professional photographer and videographer out of the area.

We drove to Bishop for a quick 3 day trip to experience the amazing climbing that the area has to offer.

The view of the Sierra's from our campground.
Bishop is distinct in the sense that it has 7-8 different areas of established climbing, all on varying kinds of rock and terrain. Our first day focused around the rock in the canyon of the volcanic tableland at the Happy Boulders.

The Happy Boulders provide a very gymnastic kind of climbing venue, and are an absolute blast to climb on. We toured through all of the classics V0-V4 even finding some gems off the beaten path.

One of my favorite climbs of the day was the towering I am Leaving for Constantinople, Tonight (V0) on the rim of the canyon. One of the most enjoyable moves I have ever done leads to a committing top out 30 ft above the pads.

The Happy Boulders
Scoping out Leaving for Constantinople Tonight.

On day two after getting shut down on the committing top out of Strength in Numbers (V5) at the Sad Boulders, we decided to go have an adventure. The guidebook touted Church of Lost and Found (V1) at the Sherwin Plateau to be world class. We made the hike from Bishop, and drove 7.2 miles on dirt trails (almost destroying the rental car in the process :-) until we were completely alone in the high wilderness. A short hike by foot led to the rim of the Owen's river gorge canyon and the best rock climb I think I have ever done.

Church of Lost and Found
The photos do none of this justice.

The scenery was second to none and we left with one of my most memorable climbing experiences. We finished day two with an awesome evening session at the Happy Boulders, ticking off two projects from the day before, Solarium (V4) and Cue Ball (V4).

Scenery at the Sherwin Plateau.
Down climb on Solarium (V4)

Day Three we were refreshed from a mellow day two and made our way to the field that Bishop is famous for, the Buttermilks. We toured tons of classics and tried not to get blown away by the 40+ mile an hour wind. In the ever unpredictable weather it went from Sunny and nice, to hurricane force winds, to snowing by the end of the day. The outdoors is a powerful thing.

Damo on Saigon (V6)


Lastly we headed back to LA to get ready for our 2nd annual adaptive climbing clinic in Joshua Tree which I have described in a separate post.

We spent our last day of climbing on easter sunday at Joshua Tree, mostly having a mellow day (by comparison). Our agenda revolved around three boulder problems The Chube (V2), Slashface (V3), and Satellite Left (V3). All of these climbs were in different areas and in total we hiked about 6-8 miles in the SoCal desert.

Slashface (V3 R)
Topping out the Chube (V2)

I managed to take down one nemesis from last year, The Chube (V2). Finally managing to press out the crux top out. Unfortunately I was not strong enough (and did not have enough skin left!) to take down Slashface for the second year in a row. I also got shut down by the terrifying last move of Satellite left, and after a couple of nasty falls decided that I was emotionally drained from everything and threw in the towel. Damon's girlfriend, Crystalyn and his sister Larissa hid some easter eggs for us and we relaxed and hiked out in the sunset to mark the end of this awesome trip.

Group shot on the Illicit Sweetie Boulder
Hiking to Slashface


I was really lucky to be able to even climb this trip.....I had torn a pulley in my right middle finger about five weeks prior. Thankfully I was able to rehab it and it was on the mend for this trip. It was a blessing in disguise because rather than focusing on difficulty I was truly able to enjoy the climbing and re focus on the journey this time around.

I had been passing by "easy" climbs at Stone fort for years now, after doing them wondering after the fact why I had never climbed it years ago. The journey is what truly makes climbing special, the people you meet, how you get there, and all the memories in between. I still have my sights set on big goals ahead, but need to remember to take a step back and soak it all in every once in a while.