Rock climbing is a sport that has been around for centuries, but in recent years has seen a surge in popularity. People of all ages and abilities can enjoy rock climbing, but for some, the traditional sport can be inaccessible.
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That’s where paraclimbing comes in.
Paraclimbing is a variation of rock climbing that is designed to be inclusive of climbers with disabilities.
In this blog post, we’ll explore what paraclimbing is, how it works, and how it compares to traditional rock climbing.
So, What is Paraclimbing?
Paraclimbing is sport climbing for those with disabilities. The first international Paraclimbing competition climbing event was organized in 2003 in France. Over the years, Paraclimbing has become more and more popular and the first World Championship was organized in 2011 in Arco by the International Federation of Sport Climbing.
There have also been great achievements in outdoor climbing, such as an 8b/+ first ascent by a leg amputee climber (Thomas Meier, Germany), or the “Old Man of Hoy” (137 m sea stack) being climbed trad climbing style by a visually impaired athlete (Jesse Dufton, Great Britain). These are only two examples of many.
What is a Paraclimber?
A Paraclimber is someone with a disability that participates in the sport of Paraclimbing. This could include physical disabilities (such as amputation or paralysis), visual impairments, hearing impairments, learning disabilities, and/or mental health issues.
The goal of Paraclimbing is to make the sport accessible to all types of athletes, regardless of their ability level.
What Does Paraclimbing mean?
Paraclimbing is a type of Sport Climbing specifically for athletes with disabilities. Athletes are placed into different classes based on their disability so that those with similar impairments can compete against each other.
The term “para” comes from the word “parallel” which means equal to, and in this case, equal to able-bodied athletes.
The History of Paraclimbing
Paraclimbing (also called “adaptive climbing”) is a sport that has been designed to be specifically for athletes who have physical disabilities, such as the loss of one or more limbs.
Paraclimbing, which is an internationally recognized sport, involves climbing walls in a set route. It is often used as a method of recovery and therapy for disabled athletes, in addition to its role as a competitive sport.
The first amputee rock climber, Jim Gorin, influenced the start of paraclimbing in the 1940’s. Despite having lost one leg to bone disease as a child, Gorin pursued rock climbing and was very successful. Eventually, Gorin became so good at rock climbing that he was elected chairman of the rock climbing section of the Southern California Sierra Club.
Many years later, paraclimbing regained public popularity because of Hugh Herr, another famous disabled athlete. Herr lost both legs to frostbite after being stranded on Mount Washington in New Hampshire with a group of friends.
In spite of losing both legs, Herr never stopped his love for climbing and even made his own prosthetics to continue doing what he loved. As disability advocacy groups have grown stronger over the years, paraclimbing has become a formally recognized sport with fixed rules and regulations.
The International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC), an IOC-recognized governing body, manages paraclimbing. Though it has not yet made its Paralympic debut, the sport may be considered for inclusion in future Paralympics Games, specifically for inclusion in the 2028 Los Angeles Paralympics.
The recent addition of sport climbing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics might mean that paraclimbing will soon be popular enough to join the Paralympic Games.
What are the Paraclimbing Competitive Categories?
In the world of competitive climbing, there are three primary formats: Lead, Speed, and Boulder. In recent years, Lead has been the most prominent format; however, there have not been any international Boulder or Speed competitions within the last few years.
This is where Paraclimbing activities differ slightly; In paraclimbing, they compete on top ropes (instead of lead), with both speed climbing and bouldering still being a part of the competition. They do follow the exact same rules as abled sport climbing competitions (just with a top rope instead of on lead).
How are Individuals Categorized in Paraclimbing Sport Climbing?
Paraclimbing athletes are categorized by their disability in order to create fair competition across the board. For example, blind climbers will not compete against those who use wheelchairs.
In competitions, ranking is based on the furthest reached height while climbing. So competitors try unknown routes until they fall. If rankings are tied, previous round results or time will be used to rank athletes.
Climbers with visual acuity have a sighted guide giving them instructions about holds and moves from the ground.
Leg amputee athletes may or may not elect to use a prosthetic, whereas arm amputees are not allowed the same choice and must compete without one. It’s worth noting that tape and other similar types of equipment are exceptions and are classified as adaptive equipment.
Here is a quick overview of the categories for individuals:
- B1/2/3 – Visual impairment in decreasing severity (visual field) with B1 referring to fully blind/light perception
- RP1/2/3 – Limited Range, power, and stability in decreasing the severity
- AU1/2 – Arm/Forearm amputee
- AL1/2 – Seating/Leg Amputee
Is Paraclimbing in the Olympics?
Although Paraclimbing has the status of an IPC (International Paralympic Committee) recognized sport with its own IFSC Paraclimbing World Championships (where up to 72 athletes from 20 different countries compete), it hasn’t been featured in the Paralympics yet despite the world cup being very popular amongst male and women events climbing.
Since it’s still a developing sport. Even for the able-bodied Olympics, sport climbing is still relatively new.
But with the growth in popularity of Paraclimbing, there is a chance that we will see it featured in the Paralympics one day. In fact, the IFSC (International Federation of Sport Climbing) has already featured an Olympic demonstration event in Tokyo 2020.
This could be a very important first step towards getting climbing included in the Paralympics.
How Does Paraclimbing Routesetting Work For Competition Climbing?
The degrees of difficulty for various disabilities, coupled with the style of the route (e.g., steepness, traversing, slopers) make for widely different experiences among athletes.
For instance, some qualification routes can start at 5c for those severely affected by their impairment while others in sports classes less affected may reach 8b in finals.
In IFSC competitions, there are two qualification routes and the best athletes will get into the final round.
Because the style of competition routes is often progressive (as opposed to commercial gym routes, which are more similar in difficulty from bottom to top), and because of this style the route, many athletes never get to the finishing hold, so they are unable to estimate the difficult. Because of this, rating routes can be difficult.
So if you ask “How hard do I have to climb to participate in international Paraclimbing competitions”, the answer is complex and begins with “It depends …”.
With that, I’m going to cover each climbing category and give some insight as to what route settings are thinking about when creating routes for every group of paraclimbers.
- AL1 (sitting in a wheelchair, no control over their lower body): Athletes campus (climbing with your feet) everything. Overhanging walls are preferred so that legs won’t scratch over the wall.
- AL2 athletes (those with leg amputations, limb deficiencies or discrepancies in leg length): They may choose to climb with or without a prosthetic. Routes should be designed in a way that makes no difference whether the athlete uses a prosthetic and if they are missing their left or right leg. Adding more footholds to enable different body positions can assist in this aspect greatly. Traverses and corners can pose difficulty for these athletes while overhanging walls are not much of an issue at all. In this sport class, difficulties range from 7a up to 8b.
- AU1 (upper arm amputee): One-armed climbers can use a campus style of movement. Big moves on big holds and traverses are not part of the want for this category, however, footholds shall be placed in a way to help athletes position their bodies symmetrically. For boulder class rating systems left/right does not exist as an obstacle difference. The range of difficulties is from 5c to 6b.
- AU2 (lower arm amputee): Athletes who have lost an arm can use a prosthetic to climb, however, the type of stump (length, diameter, pain resistance), decides how it can be used as a “hook”. The use of finger pockets and pinching is not possible with one arm so athletes must rely on precise footwork. Routesetters avoid left/right differences by adding more footholds. Difficulties typically range from 6b to 7b in this sport class.
- B1 (blind, no vision left, climbing blindfolded white competing): Athletes who are blind cannot see any of the holds and need to rely entirely on their sight guide, who will tell them which direction to go. Before blind athletes attempt a wall, they get (video) demonstrations of the route so that their sight guide can memorize it and then help train and visualize the moves with them. B1 athletes usually climb more static and slow; difficulties for this sport class range from 6a to 7a.
- B2, B3 (visually impaired, vision left): While B1 athletes require a sight guide to complete the route, B2 and B3 athletes have some vision remaining and can climb more efficiently. To ensure all athletes have the best experience, it is important that there is high color contrast between the wall/volumes and holds. The difficulties in this sport class range from 6b to 7b.
- RP1 (have major neurological or physiologic impairments which affects more or less the whole body): The limitations athletes in RP1 face can be very diverse, ranging from conditions such as coordination and flexibility all the way to strength. In order to best accommodate for these varying conditions, paraclimber route setters have to offer different options with more footholds. RP1 athletes also tend to use wheelchairs more frequently than athletes belonging to other categories. Furthermore, their climbing style is slow and static compared to others This sport class’ range of difficulty levels falls between 5c-6c on the spectrum.
- RP2 athletes(Have medium neurological or physiologic impairments): RP2 has fewer drawbacks, and/or the shortcomings don’t affect as many body parts. The difficulties in this class are between 6b and 7b.
- RP3 athletes (have only minor limitations): They can climb regular routes. The sport class difficulty rating for this ranges from 7a to 8b.
Routesetting should make the beginning of routes easy to avoid athletes falling (regardless of the individual category), and progress the difficulty towards the top so that there is a good separation among athletes.
If the walls are steep, two topropes are used. One from the top and a second one lower down which avoids falling to the ground or a large pendulum falls at the beginning of the route.
Can Paraclimbers Climb Outdoors?
Short Answer: Yes, absolutely!
Consider the following when you’re outdoor climbing in nature (this even applies for able-bodied people too): It is more difficult to figure out where hidden holds are located outdoors because every rock can be vastly different.
For example, rocks with fewer features (granite, basalt) might be harder for Paraclimbers than those that have many features (limestone, conglomerate). Also, keep in mind that the characteristics of rocks tend to vary depending on their location.
When it comes to sandstone, some have many features while others have almost blank walls with very clean structures. In other words, the more features there are, the more options you will have–which is better for Paraclimbing.
Let’s talk about safety.
Remember that rock climbing is an unpredictable sport – even a simple double-check can make all the difference. Do not assume that bolts will be within arms reach; in some cases, it might be better to avoid falls altogether.
Additionally, holds can break, and bolts may corrode or snap entirely, so always take caution when climbing (again, this goes for anyone who’s climbing, not just Paraclimbers). And finally, depending on the composition of the mountain/rock face, there could be large-scale rockfalls.
Always remember to wear a helmet and of course, bring your favorite partner along with you. Make sure the rope is tied with a knot in the end, so that you can be safe while summiting or ticking a route. Keep in mind that the most important thing is to come back healthy–the summit is optional!
Paraclimbers oftentimes have to put in some extra effort to get to their destination. Remember, not every rock is conveniently located right next to the parking lot. Sometimes you may need to traverse long distances over difficult terrain or even do some small climbing before finally reaching your goal.
If you have a physical disability, get advice from those who have already traveled to your destination regarding how long it will take you to complete an approach with crutches or a wheelchair.
Do not rely solely on the estimated time in the Guidebook – depending on your individual circumstances, it could easily be twice as long or more.
It’s important to always be aware of your surroundings and have a plan for how you’re going to get back home. If you’re somewhere that you know is going to be difficult to leave, make sure you conserve some resources so you don’t exhaust yourself entirely when you’re out on the rock
So if you considered all of these things and they apply to your situation, go ahead and enjoy yourself! That’s what climbing is really about in the end.