Getting Back to Climbing
After getting out for several climbs around Boulder in June, I’m excited to head up to Rocky Mountain National Park for some alpine routes once summer reaches a little higher into the mountains. On a recent cross-training run, my friend Scott asked at what point I’d envisioned returning to rock climbing following my amputation. It reminded me that continuing with a sport like climbing isn’t necessarily a given for someone adjusting to a life with 50% fewer hands.
During my entrapment in Blue John, I had a few moments of optimism when I gave myself the luxury of imagining my hypothetical survival and even a one-armed life. I speculated I’d have to give up some pursuits: playing the piano, mountain biking, rock climbing. Another time, during a clichéd bout of deal-making with whichever deity might help me escape, I tossed these foregone activities into the negotiations, saying aloud, “I realize I’ll never climb again…just tell me what to do!”
Perhaps I struck a deal down in the canyon. If so, I’ve surely reneged on it. The turn-about came while I was still in St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction. There, during my recreational therapy sessions, the staff therapist — who happened to use a prosthetic on his right arm! — took my dad and me out on the hospital’s fifth-story roof where we could enjoy the air, the views, the colors of treetops against sandstone walls. We talked about baseball, the weather, the desert… and once, about my post recovery abilities: “Will I be able to drive my truck? It’s a stick-shift.” Absolutely. Sweet!
I didn’t expand my inquiry any further; driving was good enough — I wasn’t yet thinking about climbing.
I soon would. My dad read me cards, letters, and emails that arrived each day. Among them: mention of pianists who’d written a repertoire for left-hand alone, photos of prosthetic climbing arms and hooks, description of releasable handlebar mounts for mountain bikes. My recovery was soon to the point where I went home with my parents. After a difficult two-week period that included three surgeries, I could walk on my own. Slowly, still, but unaided.
My regained mobility brought with it an expanded horizon; I daydreamed of recreation. By the time I spoke at my old middle school, four weeks after my amputation, I was hopeful for my new prosthetics. When a sixth-grader asked me if I would climb again, I said, yes, “And I might even someday be a better climber than I ever was with two hands.”
Topping out on the Yellow Spur in Boulder’s Eldorado Canyon later that summer, Malcolm Daly belayed me up the slabby low-angled arête. Pumping our arms in the air, “We are Team Tri-pod!” (Mal uses a prosthetic leg, due to a climbing accident in Alaska.) By fall, I’d replaced my fiberglass myoelectric arm with a rubber-coated, body-powered ‘outdoors’ arm. I deployed an ice-axe-inspired mountaineering tool for climbing rocks as well, including lie-backing at ‘Powerline’, a climbing crag near Aspen.
Within five years of my amputation, I had climbed harder, longer, and higher routes than I’d ever done with two hands. (Remind me to tell you sometime about climbing the Diamond with Timmy in 2007. T.O.: “Shivering in the chilly, windy corner of the fifth belay, I realized, ‘I shouldn’t have linked those three pitches together.'”)