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On The Rocks

Reprinted from SNS May 2018

Adaptive rock climbing offers a variety of obstacles for the mind and body

Whether you’re looking for a competitive challenge or just a unique hobby, adaptive rock climbing can take your workout routine up a few notches.  

While hanging off the sheer face of a cliff may not seem like the safest place for anyone, let alone someone without the use of his or her legs, the sport can be adapted to many levels of disability using various techniques and equipment. 

There also are many types of climbing, including bouldering, top roping, sport, competitive, traditional (trad) and even ice climbing. Both sport and trad climbing are forms of lead climbing, which means the first climber to go up is not protected by a rope from above him or her, as is the case with top roping. 

Many states now offer adaptive climbing programs, so it’s likely you can find one nearby to help you get started or improve your skills.

A Compelling Experience

One of those programs is offered by Paradox Sports, based in Eldorado Springs, Colo., and co-founded by professional climber Timmy O’Neill, the younger brother of adaptive climber Sean O’Neill.

Sean, a 52-year-old T12 paraplegic, was injured while jumping from an over-water bridge in Mississippi in 1991.

It was Timmy who convinced his older brother to start climbing, and in fall 2005, the pair summited El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park. That climb put Sean in elite company with Mark Wellman, who was the first paraplegic climber to summit the wall in 1989.

“I went to art school for college,” he says through email. “As an artist, it is good to find unique and compelling experiences. Rock climbing offers this. There is a lot of beauty to be part of. The more I did it, the more I noticed climbing can quiet me and bring me more fully into the present.”

Building on Wellman’s work, Sean created his own “tentacle system” with a block and tackle pulley that allows him to lead climb. 

“A pulley system runs from your waist anchor point and can be attached to a piece of gear, cam or nut perhaps, placed in or on the rock,” he says. “Incorporating a friction device allows pulling oneself up to the placement. Two or three of these can be leapfrogged up the rock face.”

He uses the tentacles in combination with a Wellman-style rope ascension technique, which involves a static, non-stretchable rope secured from above by other climbers. An ascender with a pullup bar slides up the rope, and it has a friction mechanism preventing movement down the rope. The climber lifts his or her body toward the raised ascender by doing a pullup, and a similar device at the climber’s waist captures the gain on the static line. 

Other essential equipment for O’Neill includes a helmet, knee and elbow pads, a padded harness and layered, loose clothing.

“Taking breaks is important,” he says. “A book can be useful. Reading about the area before leaving can fuel the imagination. Trying to stay polite and reasonable with your [climbing] partners is important. I try to remember that I am kind of an explorer in uncharted territory, and a little hardship can be expected. I do my best to appreciate the lichen or the birds flying below me.”

O’Neill says new climbers should seek expert supervision and instruction.

“Start with small obstacles and have people to spot you,” he says. “Just try to move around things more interactively in your chair. Try wheelchair hiking. That is another form of climbing, navigating rocky trails and inclines. Be aware of inherent dangers in these situations. Try balancing. Try reaching outward a little farther or upward another half-inch.”


For more information about adaptive climbing, visit For more adaptive rock climbing stories, visit


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