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Straight Up with a Twist

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My feet–one human, one prosthetic–wobbled on the foam-cushioned floor. I gazed downward, to the skin of my right leg and titanium of my left, then upward to the knot on the rope, then further up, settling on the dusty wall ahead. The belayer said, “Climb on!”

I curled my fingers into the pockets of two gray holds and hopped my right foot up to another one. My left leg lagged, metallic shin scraping the concrete. I hiked my hip, tightened my thigh, and yanked. The prosthetic toe grazed a rock and missed. I tried again. Missed. Again. Missed. On the fourth attempt, the toe caught. That was all it took: one placement of one prosthetic foot on one foothold. My first time on a rock wall, I glimpsed who I used to be.

One year earlier, I had never met an amputee. Each day I commuted by bicycle to the school where I taught. On weekends I racked up dozens of miles with friends in an inline skate club. Philadelphia is a walkable, bikeable and skateable city. I did all three.

 That lifestyle screeched to a halt on the morning of November 9, 2010, when I was hit by a garbage truck while riding my bike to work. The truck turned right, across a designated bike lane. I was in that bike lane. At age 41, on a sunny Tuesday, I transformed from a healthy, athletic woman to a critically injured trauma patient.         

My left leg was crushed and mangled. I suffered a fractured pelvis, broken ribs, internal injuries, and major blood loss. Fortunately, I was wearing a helmet. When I hit the cold blacktop, I was fully conscious, yet helpless, frightened and bleeding on the street.

An ambulance rushed me to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, the nearest Level I Trauma Center. For two days, surgeons tried valiantly to repair my left leg and other injuries. As a complication, fluid pooled in my abdomen, requiring more surgery. My entire body began to fail. At the end of the second day, surgeons amputated my left leg above the knee. It was the only way to save my life.

When I arrived at that rock gym nearly a year later, it was for a rock-climbing clinic for amputees. Although I was still learning to walk on a prosthetic leg, my prosthetist Tim Rayer encouraged me to be active again.  

“Rest is rust,” he always said.  

After seven hospitalizations, 14 surgeries, and nine months of physical therapy, I craved exercise and endorphins. More than anything, I craved being able-bodied again.

As I started up the wall, my left leg—which now wore a prosthetic socket, microprocessor knee, pylon ankle, carbon-fiber foot, and an assortment of metal bolts—felt heavy and cumbersome. The right leg, weak and out of shape, quaked. My arms were skinny and wrung out. I had no noticeable strength or talent for climbing, just a fierce determination to rise above what had happened to me. As I pulled myself up the wall, I was filled with exhilaration. 

I’m back, I thought. This is my ticket to leave my disability behind.

Meanwhile, outside the climbing gym, I tried to regain what I’d lost. Friends practiced sports with me, and I learned to bike, but my prosthesis would come loose from the motion of the pedals. When I was on skates, my left foot didn’t feel the ground, and I couldn’t use my prosthetic ankle to steer around potholes or navigate hills. Worst of all was the anxiety. I visualized crashes. Traffic noise sent me reeling into red alert. While I relearned some skills, I couldn’t keep pace with my friends or old life.

In my third year as an amputee, I traveled to Orlando, Florida, for the 2013 Amputee Coalition National Conference. Ronnie Dickson, World Champion Paraclimber, spoke about his own amputation at age 17, and how he discovered rock climbing. Afterward, I told him how much I had liked climbing the one time I’d tried it.  

“A group of us are going tonight,” he said. “You should come.”

That night it was Ronnie’s own climbing that mesmerized me. He traversed the wall, muscles extending and contracting in tandem, each move strong and calculated. His sound foot led, and his prosthetic foot followed, gracefully pausing on the tiniest chips. He used his prosthesis as if it were part of his body.

Could I learn to climb like Ronnie? What would it take?

In the process, would my leg become part of me again?

I began to sign up for amputee climbing clinics with the Orthotic and Prosthetic Activities Foundation (OPAF), Paradox Sports, Peak Potential, and Adaptive Climbing Group. I bought my first pair of climbing shoes and signed up for a belay class at the local rock gym. 

Climbing filled the space left empty by my disability. It gave me a new routine, a way to be active, and a place to go on weekends. There were no other amputees at the gym, so I found some able-bodied climbing partners. While they had all their limbs, they didn’t seem to mind that I was missing one. My skills weren’t as advanced as theirs, but rock gyms are designed for diversity. We chose our own routes. There was no pressure to keep pace with anyone. Those climbing partners became my friends, and Go Vertical became my new favorite hangout.

At first I ignored my prosthetic leg entirely. I hopped up the holds, making my right leg do the work of both. I reached as high as I could, using big power moves. Over time my arm muscles strengthened. I even developed a one-handed pull-up we called “the flying squirrel.”

After a while, though, my prosthesis began to weigh me down. It had a knee designed for walking, but the built-in resistance made the leg heavy and tough to bend on the wall. Also, it was getting scraped up! One day, I unscrewed it and attached a “swim leg” I wore to the beach and pool. With its simple free-swing knee, the swim leg was lighter and easier to maneuver as I climbed. My prosthesis still dangled most of the time, but I was more agile. Through trial and error, and pure persistence, I worked my way up the beginner routes in the gym.

Yet while my friends improved steadily, my own climbing stalled. In the spring of 2017, after years of trying to teach myself, I signed up for lessons with Michael Wyman, the head routesetter at Go Vertical. He admitted he didn’t know much about amputation or prosthetics, but he knew all about climbing.

His first suggestion was to lock my prosthetic knee so I could stand on it like a straight leg. It worked. I could place it on holds and depend on it. My climbing improved immediately.

We also worked on basic climbing techniques. Michael taught me to turn my hip into the wall to make myself taller. Since I am just under 5 feet tall, this was key. He taught me to shift weight onto my prosthetic side to reach handholds on the far left. While these moves may have come naturally to climbers with two legs, I had started climbing as an amputee, when nothing felt natural. With each new strategy, I grew curious about what my body could do. I started to value my prosthesis for its usefulness. That confidence extended outside the gym, too. At the supermarket, I figured out how to reach the highest shelves. At home I braved a stepladder to change a light bulb above the bathroom mirror. After seven years as a trauma patient, I began to identify as an athlete again.

“Climbing helped me find my ability again, and my able-bodied climbing partners were instrumental,” as well as the amputee community. Marian Bailey, right, is the author’s regular climbing partner at Go Vertical. Photo: Harrison Rhodes

I had been working with Michael a few months when Chris Prange-Morgan, a friend and climber I’d met through the amputee community, told me about an adaptive climbing competition. I had never considered competing, but thought it would be a good way to meet other climbers with disabilities. I still considered myself a beginner, so I emailed one of the organizers to find out the entry requirements. She responded immediately: “Anyone can enter.”

Well, I figured, I’m anyone!

In June 2017, I drove from Philadelphia to Boston for the USA Climbing Adaptive National Championships. The gym hummed, full of families, coaches and competitors scoping out the roped-off competition routes. As I wandered through the crowd, a woman rolled up in a wheelchair. 

“You’re an amputee,” she said matter-of-factly. She was, too. Bonnie Denis, an experienced climber, introduced me to climbers with leg and arm amputations, limb differences, visual impairments, spinal-cord injuries, and other neurological and orthopedic impairments. In an hour, we had gathered in a nearby restaurant eating Thai food like old friends.

The biggest reward came the next day, when I watched everyone climb. Some amputees wore prosthetics, and others climbed without them. Visually impaired climbers used “callers” on the ground to describe the locations of the holds: 

“Right arm, two o’clock, long.”  

Seated climbers, those with limited or no use of their legs, depended on their arms and cores to pull themselves up the wall.

No one seemed disabled. These athletes seemed more able than able-bodied climbers. They were super able.

It was a redpoint competition, with three hours to climb routes of varied difficulty and accumulate as many points as possible. With no strategy in mind, I chose routes that looked like fun, and spent as much time cheering for other athletes as climbing.

Halfway through the competition, Jess Sporte, a fellow amputee and new friend, looked at my scoresheet. A seasoned competitor, she’d been guiding me along. Her eyes widened, and she said, “I think you’re winning!”

My top three scores were the only ones that would count, she explained. 

 “Don’t climb anything lower than this one,” she said, pointing to the lowest of the three.  

I set off to work on a route I’d been avoiding. It was filled with volumes and unfamiliar holds, but a send would raise my score. For the next hour, I fought to pass a protruding hold shaped like a giant elephant leg. I hung from it, swung from it, wrapped my arms around it, and tried to catch it with my feet—all to no avail. When the competition ended, my forearms were black and blue, and my left leg, coated with sweat, was sliding out of my prosthesis.

But Jess had been right.

I placed second in the category of female lower-extremity amputees, surprising everyone—most of all myself. It was my first time on a podium, ever.

After the competition, I started to think adaptively, as amputees do. What can my body look like? What can it do? And how can I use these differences to my advantage?

Able-bodied athletes couldn’t change their body construction, but I could. Prosthetics present a unique opportunity for adaptive athletes. We’re built from interchangeable parts. We can be better. Stronger. Faster.

Friends at the gym suggested a more aggressive shoe for my prosthetic foot, so I tried La Sportiva’s Otaki. With its arched sole and downturned toe, it improved my grip on footholds. I continued to study other amputees and research other adaptations.

The following summer, I shared what I had learned with my prosthetist and his team. They offered to build me a prosthesis specifically for rock climbing and utilized Evolv’s Adaptive Foot and Eldo-Z shoe, attached to a simple pylon. At the gym, I tested knee angles until I settled on an approximate 15 degrees. The lightweight leg had a fixed knee joint and a short, rigid foot, which increased control and stability. I named my new climbing leg Roxie.

That June I placed third at the 2018 USA Climbing Adaptive National Championships, which came with a special honor: a place on Team USA at the Paraclimbing World Championships in Innsbruck.

The author on her first (ever) but not last podium. (Left to right) Rebecca Levenberg, Wiebke Deimling and Jess Sporte at the USA Climbing Adaptive National Championships in Boston in 2017. Photo: Scott Blackburn

That disability I was trying to leave behind? It was my ticket to Worlds!

On September 11, 2018, the competition opened at the Kletterzentrum Innsbruck, a climbing facility with outdoor walls so massive and overhung they look like tidal waves. Between those walls, the warm-up area bustled with the usual climbers and climbing gear, and was also filled with crutches, canes, wheelchairs, service dogs and prosthetic legs. Athletes were everywhere, huddling with teammates, pointing at the routes, and chatting in different languages.

Beyond the climbing walls, mountains rose into the Austrian sky. With qualifiers just minutes away, I should have been nervous. But I was simply in awe, struck by how far I had come.

When I heard my name called, I walked to the assigned routes and clipped into the double belay system. The first route was extremely difficult from the start, but on the second route, I took off. I pulled together all the skills I had learned, executed smoothly, and finished within four holds of the top. I was satisfied I had climbed my best on both routes. At the end of the night, I ranked eighth in my category.

Eighth in the world? I’ll take it!

Truly, I had already won. I had traveled to Austria. I had befriended climbers from around the world. I had surpassed any limitations, real or imagined, from that life-changing accident eight years ago. In the end, it wasn’t about competition or finding my place on the podium. It was about finding my place in life. It was about moving forward, beyond ability or disability. On the wall, I gained my footing in both worlds. 

Ticket to Worlds: the author all smiles in the warm-up area at the 2018 IFSC Paraclimbing World Championships, in Innsbruck. On her climbing prosthesis are Evolv’s Adaptive Foot and Eldo-Z shoe; her microprocessor knee (right) balances against the wall. Photo: Marla Ruff

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