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What Is Adaptive Rock Climbing?

Updated: Apr 14, 2023


What is Adaptive Rock Climbing


Adaptive climbing is rock climbing aimed at making climbing accessible to folks of all abilities. Depending on each individual's ability level, various rope systems, specialty harnesses, ascenders, and even prosthetics designed for climbing are utilized by folks with ranging physical, mental, and developmental disabilities to send indoor, outdoor, and alpine climbs. Adaptive climbing aims to focus away from an individual's disability and instead work with existing skills and evolving climbing technology to get folks on the wall!


The goals surrounding adaptive climbing are not just to make climbing more accessible but to provide this accessibility in safe and supportive environments that work to foster community in climbing. The world of adaptive climbing focuses heavily on growing and caring for the community by making these methods of climbing accessible through programming and training opportunities in and out of gyms across the country and around the world. As groundbreaking adaptive climber Mark Wellman has discussed, no climber is restricted by their desire or ability to climb, only by a lack of adaptive climbing tools and resources.


History of Adaptive Climbing

As with most histories, adaptive climbing climbing climbing stretches back much further than we think. Though most examples of adaptive climbing only began appearing in the mid-1800s, adaptive climbers have likely been on the scene as long as climbing has been around. Some of the first adaptive climbers we have a history of were our early mountaineers in the mid-1800s who continued climbing after sustaining injuries during climbing, war, or other accidents. As there was not yet any equipment widely produced for adaptive climbers, these individuals carved out their systems and techniques.


Sir Francis Joseph Campbell was the first blind climber to summit Mt. Blanc in 1872. By remaining closer to the climber in front of him than was typical, Campbell followed the moves of his peers and ascended routes with ease. This is an excellent example of early adaptive climbing practices that have evolved into what adaptive climbing is today! Some climbers still utilize similar techniques of paired or guided climbing.


Geoffrey Winthrop Young climbed from 1897-1935. In August of 1917, Young's left leg was amputated during World War I after a bombing. Less than a month later, he sent letters to fellow climbers stating his intent to climb with a prosthetic. He went on to summit multiple mountains in the Alps and became one of the community's earliest well-known adaptive climbers.


More than a century later, engineer and climber Hugh Herr was making his climbing prosthetics for all sorts of rock and ice climbing terrains. Herr's achievements in the world of prosthetics were revolutionary, not just for climbers but for prosthetic technology worldwide!


In 1989, Mark Wellman became the first adaptive climber to ascend El Cap. With this achievement, Wellman helped push stories of adaptive climbing into the mainstream media and gained attention for the sport both in and out of the climbing world. This attention only increased throughout the 90s, finally hitting the ears of USA climbing in 2008 as they began to discuss what adaptive climbing might look like in official competition spaces. In 2012 adaptive climbing categories were officially added to the World Climbing Championships. As of the 2019 Championships, the International Federation of Sport Climbing announced its goal of entering adaptive climbing into the Paralympic Games.


Adaptive Climbing Resources

If you want to know more about adaptive climbing organizations, programming, and even training opportunities, check out these resources to read about adaptive climbing, gear, and how to get involved!


The Adaptive Climbing Group (ACG) is a nonprofit providing inclusive climbing experiences to folks with disabilities. With locations in New York, Massachusetts, and Chicago areas, they work with indoor and outdoor climbing and ice climbing. This organization provides recreational and competition spaces for climbers of all ages and clinics, volunteer, and training opportunities for folks looking to get involved with adaptive climbing initiatives.


Adaptive Adventures is an organization dedicated not only to providing outdoor adventure to folks regardless of disability or income but to educating the outdoor community as a whole to institute long-lasting accessibility for all. With a wide range of activities and communities served, Adaptive Adventures brings programming to you. They offer adaptive climbing clubs, trips, training, and even portable wall services to ensure anyone interested in the sport has the opportunity to get ready!


Paradox Sports offers a unique approach to getting folks climbing while engaging facilities interested in hosting adaptive climbing events and training. Through their North Face-sponsored Adaptive Climbing Initiative Course, Paradox brings together athletes, gyms, and anyone interested in engaging with adaptive climbing through comprehensive programming to make all climbing spaces more accessible to people with disabilities. Paradox has a unique stock of adaptive information on its website, including lists of equipment used in adaptive climbing and where it can be found.


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