Classy Cliff and Mt. Conness Climbing
After I received my first prosthetic arm, I took it rock climbing in Castlewood Canyon southeast of Denver and in Eldorado Canyon south of Boulder. It wasn’t pretty. Glaring shortcomings — not to mention fear, pain, and uncertainty — met me at every placement. Using a general-purpose device on rock was plainly a bad idea. My background as a mechanical engineer told me there had to be a better way.
Two Boulder-based friends, Malcolm Daly and Timmy O’Neill, volunteered to be my adaptive climbing mentors, and together with Hanger Prosthetics and TRS Prosthetics, they helped me design and prototype a climbing-specific arm. Its features included a heavy-duty strap system to help keep the prosthetic on my arm, a sticky-rubber coating to prevent the prosthetic from skating across the rock, and a terminal device (the ‘hand’ portion) that was essentially an ice axe pick mounted on an aluminum shaft.
Since I’ve always seen rock climbing as a sub-skill that serves me to get to the top of peaks, my new special-purpose arm was foremost a mountaineering tool. Still, I enjoy a day at the crag with my friends too. Back in Aspen, my friend and roommate Brian Payne and I would go climbing at the various cliffs along Highway 82 on the way toward Independence Pass. Timmy came up one weekend and joined us at Classy Cliff. He belayed while Brian shot photos of me posing down mid-climb with my climbing tool outstretched, silhouetted against the sky.
The new equipment was a significant improvement over my initial hardware. However, for straight-up rock climbing, it wasn’t optimal. Timmy encouraged me to design another terminal device just for the crags. He and I picked up some aid-climbing components (a Pika hook and a Leeper cam) at good ol’ Neptune’s Mountaineering in Boulder. Bob Radocy at TRS then built for me what he called the “Hard Rock.” In 2007, I took it to Yosemite where Timmy and I climbed a slew of classics with Anna Pfaff. She and I free-soloed the West Ridge of Mt. Conness together one beautiful June day, where we reveled in the easy climbing, and again, I posed for some pictures mid-climb to show off my gear.
Timmy and I still climb around Boulder (mostly training laps on Cobb Rock to prepare for our alpine ambitions), and even though we constantly banter about a next-generation climbing tool, the Hard Rock is what I use to this day.