Bouldering in Joshua Tree

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

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. 


  1. dear Ronnie,

    I am glad I found your blog and report on Paris' paraclimbing Championship. I fully agree with your comments about problems with scoring and first route too easy. This should be improved in the future. I think climbing with or without prosthesis is a personal choice and should not be sanctioned by a different coefficient (In 32 years of climbing I even neve try to climb without because I feel it is part of my body !). I was also frustrated not going for the final route ! However it was nice to meet al of you with same problems to solv for climbing after years feeling alone ! I hope we will meet again for a next comp or somewhere for outdoor climbing (my prefered too).


  2. Yves,

    What is your email address? It would be great to stay in touch.

    Hope to see you again soon!

    Ronnie Dickson