Kati Pugh, 19, hooks a toe into a brightly-colored foothold. She shifts her weight and steps upward. From here, she hesitates a bit, moving her left hand to a large orange knob above her, then to a smaller yellow one next to it, then back to the orange. Undecided, she leans back and sighs.
Elaine Adams, clinging to the same wall alongside her, slides closer. “I never said this was going to be easy,” she laughs, and Kati laughs with her. Kati reaches into her chalk bag and settles on the yellow hold. She continues upward.
Amid the bustle of a busy climbing gym, this scene isn’t out of place; on any given weeknight, in gyms around the country, girls the same age as Kati are slipping on climbing harnesses for the first time and picking their way up walls like this one. Here, however, there is a notable exception: Kati is visually-impaired. With Elaine’s guidance, she’s conquering this vertical wall, and she’s relying on handholds she can barely see.
I’m here at the Urban Rocks Gym in Chattanooga to observe the Adaptive Climbing Program, which Rock/Creek helps fund with proceeds from the Rock/Creek Trail Series, and similar stories are unfolding all around me. Kelly Winters, after completing her climb, pumps a fist in the air, clutching the top of the wall with her other hand, while the group below claps and cheers. Bradley Braswell poses for a photo with the volunteer who helped guide him up his route, both of them dangling 20 feet in the air and grinning ear-to-ear.
This is the third year for the Adaptive Climbing Program, hosted by Urban Rocks and organized by Chattanooga Parks & Recreation’s Department of Therapeutic Recreation. Aiming to provide people with cognitive or physical disabilities an opportunity to challenge themselves in a new way, the program runs each Thursday for a month. Along with Elaine, the Therapeutic Recreation Coordinator, and Urban Rocks Gym co-owners Chris Gibson and Rebecca Robran, local climbers volunteer to work with program participants. Those with physical disabilities are able to use specialized equipment where necessary, while those with cognitive disabilities receive one-on-one instruction and encouragement from the volunteers.
Toward the center of the gym, a specialized harness dangles from a fixed anchor high above. Designed specifically to allow those with physical disabilities to participate in challenge-course activities, this ARC (Adaptive Ropes Course) harness allows users to climb to the top of the space by operating an ascender with their arms. At a dizzying height atop this rope, it was still easy to see the smiles of each participant from the floor below, and those smiles spread contagiously throughout the room.
“We absolutely would not be able to do this without the support of our sponsors, including Rock/Creek,” says Lizzy Cheek, a recreational therapist who works with the Adaptive Climbing Program. Lizzy traveled to and fro among the group, chatting with each of the program’s attendees, beaming with pride alongside the parents as the younger participants scrambled up and down the various routes.
I had the chance to talk at some length with a wonderful young woman named Anjuli Hurt. Anjuli, 30, has returned to the Adaptive Climbing Program for a second year after trying it for the first time in 2010. Vivacious and intelligent, a degenerative neuromuscular condition limits her ability to use both legs, and she wears braces for assistance. Last year she focused on ascending the fixed line in the ARC harness; for 2011, her goal is to make it to the top of the climbing wall, without the use of specialized climbing equipment. On her first try, she was turned back a few feet from the top by a move that requires a rather high step, but her optimism never wavered. We chatted about the other activities she loves – wheelchair basketball and hand-powered bicycling among them – while others took their turns on the wall.
Anjuli will be back next week, and she’s determined to finish the route she started this session. I have no doubt she’ll do it. And then she’ll move down the wall to her left, to a harder route, or to one of the higher walls, because there’s always another challenge around the corner and she can’t wait to seek it out.
To view Rock/Creek’s photos from the first session of the 2011 Adaptive Climbing Program at Urban Rocks Gym, go here. To learn more about Urban Rocks, visit www.urbanrocksgym.com, or stop by in person and check it out!