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Adapt and Overcome

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Trevor Smith climbs higher than he ever dreamed, at Worlds in Austria. Photo: Syste Van Slooten

Standing on top of the Bastille in Eldorado Canyon, I could see for miles on end: golden open grasslands in one direction and the snowy Rocky Mountains disappearing into the other. In my mind I also saw images of the people who, gently or not, had discouraged me.

The comments hurt: “No one can climb with one arm,” they told me. “Don’t even bother.”

“Trevor, you need goals you can actually reach. Climbing isn’t for the disabled.”

At age 6 or 7, I would drive up through Boulder Canyon with my parents to go into the mountains, and we saw people climbing, an experience that fueled in me a desire to do the same thing.

“Mom! Dad! You see those people? I’m going to do that one day. I’m going to be on those walls!”

“Trevor, that’s very dangerous, and it’s not for kids like you. Why don’t you play soccer or basketball?”

I was born without a right arm below my elbow. Unlike many in my situation, I was fortunate enough not to have to deal with a traumatic life event, but that doesn’t mean it was easy to overcome self-doubt. Doubt is what prevented me from climbing for another seven years after first watching the climbers. How could a kid with one arm expect to climb the Flatirons or anything else?

Without Ben Walburn, none of it would have happened.

I met Ben at a friend’s house three years ago, in the winter of 2016, when my parents told him I wanted to climb.

He said, “Hey, Trevor, I heard you’re interested in climbing. Why don’t we go climb at the gym I go to? I think you’d be great at it!”

He took me to the gym and threw me on a toprope.

“Just focus on making it to the next hold, and have fun!” he said. On the wall, I knew instantly that I was in love, addicted to climbing from the very first day.

Ben and I began climbing twice a week (all volunteer on his part). He taught me how to move, with custom instructions such as how to pull in with my feet to counteract my body’s natural tendency to barndoor left, or use momentum to swing up to a far hold. Lots of these little bits of advice added up, and I figured out how to avoid getting shut down.

We soon realized that the intended way a route was set was rarely going to cut it for me. A right-hand move might be out of reach for my stump or, worse, be
to a pocket! Certain holds just don’t work for me, as I can’t get my stump in them.

Every once in awhile, I wondered if the route setters were thinking, Hmmm, how can we shut Trevor down? Let’s make it incredibly steep, have only right-hand moves, throw on a bunch of pockets and underclings, and call it a day!

Over time, as I checked out routes at the gym, I realized certain ones were better for me than others. I could look for those that would let me push myself and progress. After about six months, I was climbing 5.10+ and even started to move into the 5.11s.

Winter ended, and one spring day Ben said, “Weather looks good over the weekend. Want to go climbing outside?”

The first place he took me was Boulder Canyon, and I fell in love with the “real” climbing experience. By real I mean getting exhausted by hauling gear across rivers, up hills and along sketchy approaches. If you were going to climb outside, you had to work for it!

“Are we there yet?” I asked Ben, panting.

“Trevor, it’s been five minutes!” he said. “We’re not even halfway.”

“Are you freaking kidding me?”

The next time, in Eldo, was completely different from gym or even outdoor single-pitch climbing. I looked up to see a massive gray sandstone wall with green and yellow lichen growing all over it. Just thinking of climbing
it made me crap my pants. In that moment I doubted wanting to do this at all.

When Ben started up, I knew I was going to have to follow him. Thoughts rushed through my head. Am I going to be able to do this? What if the rope breaks and I fall? Will I be strong enough? What if they were right? What if I can’t?

The voice above yelled, “On belay!”

Now or never. Either I was going to climb this wall or turn away and go back to a society that didn’t believe in me. I found an edge for my left hand and grabbed. It felt cold and sharp, but let me raise my feet onto two little sandstone jibs. Off the ground, I forgot about everything else.

One hold at a time, I crept up the Bastille Crack. Looking up, I saw Ben. I looked down for the first time: I was at least 50 feet up, way above the trees. Gazing around, I could see the road weaving up Eldo Canyon with huge walls on either side—and remembered driving up the canyon with my parents years ago.

The last 10 feet to the belay station were filled with joy and excitement. I met Ben at the ledge and switched roles from climber to belayer. We still had two more pitches to go, and I had never been so psyched in my life.

I’ve been radically shaped by climbing. On the wall, I focus on the movement and reaching the top. The separation from the real world is a powerful tool for me to deal with stress in school or anywhere else in my world, and to improve my life.

It hasn’t been smooth. Struggling on certain climbs suited to right-hand movement was initially very frustrating. If I can’t even climb a 5.10, what’s the point of trying? It took me awhile to answer this question.

In time I was introduced to more people within the adaptive climbing community. Boulder and Denver have huge such communities. With organizations like Paradox Sports
in Boulder and Adaptive Adventures, I met and climbed with other people going through the same struggles. I also saw people like me accomplishing amazing things. They gave me the drive to climb as hard as I could.

Soon I had new friends to hang with and to help and teach me, though I found myself climbing with Ben less than I would have liked.

One day, one awful day in the fall of 2017, I heard some horrible news. Ben and I were walking down off the Wind Tower in Eldo after a good outing. Hugely stoked with how I’d climbed, I noticed that Ben was quiet. He seemed to be thinking about something.

Once we finished a 100-foot rappel, he told me he had a tumor growing in his pelvis.

Shaken to my core, I could only say, “Everything is going to work out.”

At first, there was a lot of hope. Ben was beloved. The whole community was supporting him. Surely he would get through this.

Climbing with the adaptive communities for two years, I was getting stronger and stronger, but kept hitting plateaus.

During that time, at age 17, even while I improved, I was often harsh on myself. Defeated by a route, I would be frustrated and blame it on my handicap. “God! If I only had two arms for that freaking move!”

One night when I’d flailed, my friend and competitor Maureen “Mo” Beck calmed me down.

“I’ve fallen off that same place,” she said. “Let’s figure it out together.”

Mo was missing her left hand instead of right. We talked over the beta, and both of us eventually broke the move.

I realized that everything I was dealing with, other climbers deal with, too. Certain movements might not work for someone who may be shorter than I am, and other people might be unable to use an undercling or a small hold because they are taller or bigger. I was just another part of the community who had to overcome my individual challenges.

Colorado paraclimb- ers at this year’s Nationals. Left to right: Sam White, Allison White (not related), Steve Hinson, Adam Starr, Jess Sporte, Emmett Cookson (coach), Noe Tolentino, Trevor Smith, Megan Mitchell. On floor: Bill Casson, Chelsea Cook, Esha Meta, Maureen Beck. Photo: Jonathan Vickers

After that, my climbing ability blossomed. I was able to look past my issues and focus on becoming the best climber I could be. Eventually, Mo convinced me to go to Adaptive Nationals, held in June of last year. I spent five months training for the event and placed fourth in my category—and while only the top three in each class qualified for Worlds, one person on the podium was a foreign national, so I was invited to World Championships in Austria in September. This was a life-changing event for me. Leaving Nationals, I was stunned. I’d had no expectations going in, and had the experience of a lifetime, meeting others in my community and finding I enjoyed the pressure of competing. The event proved to me I could put my mind to anything and achieve it. Now it was a matter of focusing for Worlds.

The author in action at the 2019 USA Climbing Adaptive National Championship, Vertical Adventures, Columbus, Ohio, in March. Photo: Jonathan Vickers

For the next two months, I put climbing before everything. When I finally reached Austria and entered qualifiers, I was nervous, yes, but I had been training for seven months and knew I was ready. Still, I couldn’t believe it when I placed second in qualifiers.

In the two days between qualifiers and finals, I was more focused and aware of my surroundings than I’ve ever been in my entire life. It was almost like I was able to see, hear and feel every single thing going on around me.

On September 14, I went into isolation feeling fairly calm. I climbed for about 30 minutes to warm up. I stretched and talked with our team coach, Emmett Cookson, while waiting to view the climb.

When the time came to look at the final route with the rest of my competitors, I analyzed every hold, shape and sequence. I felt like I had already climbed the route before getting on
it. At my turn, everything became quiet within my head. I started to climb and about a third of the way up, heard the crowd chanting. It gave me the energy to push on.

I pulled on a large yellow volume with my left hand, and heard the announcer say I had just launched into first place. Nearing the top, I misread the last move and fell, and there was still one climber to go. Still, it was the proudest moment of my life.

Last year the tumor metastasized to Ben’s liver. A surgery was called off, and everyone who knew him had a lot of thinking to do.

I knew Ben was struggling, but he stayed mentally strong. He somehow seemed at peace, at least around me, and to be really reflecting on his life as a whole. Physically, he was able to climb until the last few weeks, and climb hard, too. He traveled the world and climbed 5.11s and 12s as a Stage 4 cancer patient.

After seeing him in this last week as I write, I’ve thought a lot about how much I learned from him. He showed me how to climb; also how to be kind, motivate someone, and live a happy, fulfilled life. Ben passed away at the age of 46 on the 10th of May.

Since returning from Austria, where I took silver behind Matthew Phillips (UK), I’ve felt like a new person. I was treated differently at school, at the gym, and just in general, in the way people talked or even looked at me. I’m now working toward the next World Championships, on July 16-17 in Briançon, France. I’ve been training with other adaptive individuals along with the team at ABC Kids Climbing in Boulder. I hadn’t been in a team environment before, and it has been huge for me. Being around other motivated climbers and coaches forces you to train hard!

Climbing changed my life. I think everyone should have the same opportunity.

Feature Image by Syste Van Slooten

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