In The Beginning

I started climbing about the middle of 2007. I was working in the interior of British Columbia for a brief stint, and started going to a local climbing gym. I then took a two-day ‘Introduction to Outdoor Climbing’ course in Penticton at the end of that summer. After that I moved to Calgary and started hanging around one of the several local climbing gyms there. Same sort of deal as learning any individual sport as an adult – It could as easily have been tennis or golf lessons.

During these beginning phases, I was cramming my walking foot (the plastic one) into a climbing shoe. I know now that a foot designed for climbing is a different thing than a foot designed for walking, but at the time it was the available option. I’d never met anyone without a leg who climbed – I hadn’t met that many climbers, even and I simply assumed I was one of very few… (we prostheletizers can do the ‘assumption thing’ as easily as anyone).

I spent about a year and a half thrashing away, not being able to do much with my leg foot apart from employing it as counter balance and taking small steps onto bookshelf-sized holds. After one particularly frustrating day, I came home and Googled ‘prosthetic climbing foot’, or something similar. One of the top hits I received was a link to a thing called The Eldorado Z-Axis Climbing Foot. Its description mentioned Malcolm Daly and Paradox Sports. I decided to drop Malcolm an enquiring email and his response was to invite me to Ouray, Colorado to go ice climbing. In six weeks. So much for calculated career planning.

Meeting up with the Paradox crew in Ouray in the spring of 2009 was one of those eye-opening encounters. I think one of the consequences of limb loss due to cancer is that you end up in the ‘cancer crowd’, as opposed to the trauma-leading-to-missing-body-parts-or-loss-of-function crowd. They’re really quite different scenes. The majority of childhood cancer survivors reach the other side with limbs intact, and once you’re over the chemotherapy, I think there’s a tendency to move away from the community, as part of your own recovery process. As a result, I knew very few children without limbs during my cancer treatment days, and none afterwards. I attended one Champs seminar (think weekend health retreat only replace the meditation sessions with artificial limb show and tell), but I think I was too young and wrapped up in the whole treatment process to keep up the connections. By 2009, I was feeling pretty alone with my whole one-legged process.

When I went to Ouray I was all of a sudden immersed in this community of people who climbed, skied, cycled, ice climbed, snow boarded, paddled… They were getting out there. And while some ‘normals’ were invited along for the ride, most Paradoxians were missing something, whether it was a limb, a few fingers, or use of part of their body. Together we climbed frozen waterfalls. We ate. We drank beer out of somebody’s leg. All the usual climbing trip shenanigans.

They’re an inspiring crew. If you ever have the opportunity to go to one of their events I would suggest jumping on it – You’re likely missing more than they are.

Guys And Dolls

A few months ago I was having a chat with Craig Demartino, one of my climbing friends at Paradox Sports. We were talking about the Mountain Games in Vail, Colorado that are held each June. The conversation went something like this:

Craig: It would be awesome if you could come to the Mountain Games this June.

Me: I would love to but sadly I’ve got prior work obligations.

Craig: Here’s the thing. We need more [disabled] women. Last weekend at the American Bouldering Series we had 6 competitors, 5 men and 1 woman. I don’t understand it. I meet lots of disabled women, just like I meet lots of disabled men. These women are really amazed by what we’re doing but, with few exceptions, yourself included, they’re not stoked to get out there.

Me: Craig, it’s your stubbly chin. But, let me get think about this for a minute because the language is really important… Umm… “To overcome is a more masculine approach while to endure is a more feminine approach.”

Craig: [Pause] You gotta put that on a t-shirt.

I have spent lots of time thinking about gender and disability. Craig’s observation is a common theme that runs through these thoughts. But I haven’t come up with much more in the way of explanation other than… men and women are expected to do disability differently.

There is a quote from a TED Talk by Brene Brown that nicely summarizes shame, social expectation, and gender: ‘For women, shame is “Do it all, do it perfectly, and never let them see you sweat…” Shame for women is this web of unattainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we’re supposed to be, and it’s a straight jacket. For men, shame is not a bunch of competing and conflicting expectations, shame is one [expectation]: “Do not be perceived as weak.”’

I think, for disabled men, climbing can be an avenue to overcome society’s tendency to view you as weak. For women it’s different.

To climb is to sweat, and – at least for me – it’s an outward, visible struggle. In yoga, my teacher Jeff likes to call it the elegant struggle. But I can assure you that while I’m climbing there’s very little elegance and an extra helping of struggle, counter to Brown’s ‘social expectation’.

The irony is that climbing is inherently disabling, never mind gender or physical ability. Climbers at any level know all too well that if you are ‘able’ to climb every route that you attempt, then, well, you’re missing the point of the whole activity. You would be doing yourself a disservice by not attempting routes you’re presently disabled to do.

Only by attempting and failing can gains in ability eventually be made.

And besides, that’s where the laughs are.

I’d Like To Thank The Academy

From time to time someone tells me I’m inspiring.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Being told I’m inspiring is really nice to hear, particularly in the context of my writing, where I feel like I lay everything out for all to see. Often, though, the compliment comes in the context of ‘you bike, ski, climb, practice yoga, surf, train hard… You don’t let it stop you!’ And yeah, it’s nice to hear in this context too. But always, in the back of my mind, I feel like a bit of a fraud.

The thing is – I’m not particularly good at anything athletic. I’m about as far from ‘a natural’ as you can get. It also never occurs to me that it, being my artificial leg, is something that should stop me. I engage in active pursuits because I want to, because they’re fun, and rewarding, and enriching, and challenging. Whenever I am trying something new, the thought that ‘this is something that I can’t do, or shouldn’t be doing, because of my artificial leg’ never really occurs to me. Looking back, I think the reason this doubt doesn’t interfere has little to do with me, and much more to do with a couple of key early influences, combined with good fortune later in life (such as my visit to Jeff and Harmony, described previously).

One of those influences was my mother. She is a fierce lady. The stories I remember her telling during my childhood were about her days at the University of Queens, where she graduated with an honors degree in mathematics. Her class included only the second, third, and fourth women to do so. I also remember her telling stories of the non-Caucasian men she dated in those days. Her mother encouraged neither the maths nor the men, any more than did the society of the day. Intentional or not, I think the message I took away, very much unconsciously, was ‘you don’t drink the Kool-aid just because it’s what you’re being offered’.

I’ve always been one to mull things over (a reasonably apt critical thinker? I don’t know). I suspect I started questioning some social norms unconsciously, and very early on. As time has passed this process has become more conscious.

So. After I learned to walk again, it seemed only logical that I would learn to bike and ski again. And, as part of my rehabilitation, I took up swimming, and it turned out I was all right at it. So why not become a lifeguard? What is it about climbing that makes it not possible with three limbs?… And so on. I never consciously went through this thought process, but I must have decided somewhere along the line.

I never got to pick my mom, or the country I was born in, or my diagnosis with childhood cancer. I happen to be a bit (well, maybe a lot) of an endorphin junkie, and I love being active. I’m stoked that people find me inspiring, because I love to be inspired in turn, and love that there are people out there doing things that I find inspiring, but I can’t deny that it all seems a bit… normal.

Short Note

For 15 years I almost never wore shorts. And I am selective about the circumstances under which I wear them. I always wear pants to work, where shorts are common attire. When out in the small town where I live, I typically wear pants. But, these days, when I climb, I almost always wear shorts. I do this because it’s too hot for pants most of the time, plus, it allows me to use the socket of my prosthetic to move up as I climb.  Also, I climb on a customized foot that is half the size of my right foot and I swap feet before climbing, which means that my leg is really no secret out at the crag.

However, it was not always this way. When I first started climbing about 5 years ago I climbed only in pants. I bought my first pair of shorts in a very long time about four years ago.

I chose pants as a teenage, as I was entering high school. It was a long time ago, but I think my decision had as much to do with my search for normalcy as it did with attempting to conceal my prosthetic. At that point in my life I’d spent over two years undergoing chemotherapy, surgery, and smiling bravely for concerned adults. I’d had enough of being gawked at. I was starting high school in a different city, which meant a whole new group of kids I’d never met. I think, like most adolescents, I just wanted to fade into the background.

Today, I continue to choose pants over shorts, mostly. I suppose this is because I want some control over my first impression on people. My gait is good enough that unless a person pays close attention, my artificial leg goes undetected. There are other things that I do. Without thinking. Almost.

When I sit with people on a couch, I will sit to their left so my ‘real leg’ is closest to them. And I will often walk just behind people if I’m concerned about appearing awkward, such as when walking on uneven or sloping ground. There are people I have known for years who don’t know about my leg, and in some instances they have found out only because I’ve told them.

We all do it: We form associations with the people that we know according to particular characteristics. These characteristics can be physical or associated with personality. We describe people to others according to these characteristics. And I suspect most of us have had the thought ‘I don’t want to be known as the [blank] girl.’

I am comfortable with my artificial leg, but I am uncomfortable with the idea of being described according to it. I’m happy to be ‘the tall girl’, or ‘the blue-eyed girl’. Just not ‘the-one legged girl’. And I’ll take pretty much anything over ‘the disabled girl’.

I listened recently to a podcast about an actress who manages this sleight of hand better than I. I’ve included a link to it here.