Kareemah Batts is the founder of Adaptive Climbing Group, the largest paraclimbing program in the US. In her guest blog, Kareemah shares how an experience rock climbing for the first time taught her that accessing the outdoors was both attainable and enjoyable and how it helped her build a program to make it easier for others to access their frontiers.
Accessibility means a lot of things to a lot of people. I have spent 8 years in the disability community and it is a constant conversation of contention, disdain, hope and sometimes fear.
I became a left leg amputee due to Synovial Sarcoma in 2009. It is a rare, aggressive cancer that only accounts for 1% of all malignant tumors ever found. I was immediately diagnosed stage 4. Every doctor told me the same thing about survival, “I don’t know”. The mass was about 4 centimeters by the time I had my 3rd opinion at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center only to find out that even with surgery and chemotherapy I still had just a 50-60% survival for, if I was lucky, 5 years and 40%-50% for 10 years. Because after 40 years of sitting on the National Institute of Health’s rare disease list no one knew where it came from or what treats it. It was daunting.
My journey over the next year was not easy emotionally or physically. I tried looking for survivor groups and found none. I just wanted to meet anyone one who made it to that magical 5th year to give me a sense of hope, that the fight was worth it.
While awaiting to start chemotherapy I started attending an amputee support group where I met a vibrant 50-something named John Vacca (or Johnny V. as he was called). He didn't have the woe is me attitude that surrounded me and it turned out that Johnny V. and I both had a pension for music, the dance floor, and the same rare cancer. His ability to keep active made us fast friends. He was always trying to convince the group to venture outdoors - going to see Jazz bands at Lincoln Center or hand cycling down the Hudson River path. He invited me to things that I didn't know I could do (skydiving was even on the list) and I now had something to fight for.
In 2010, when my doctor said the word remission, the very last thing on my mind was advocacy. I spent the first year being baptized into my new identity as no longer the chick from Flatbush, Brooklyn with a pension for social gatherings and the dance floor but the girl with one leg. I am aware I am more than that but societally, that is my identifier and it takes time to get used to.
In 2011 while visiting a fellow cancer patient who was going through her second fight, she told me about how she went white water rafting with a group of other young adult cancer survivors. She looked so much happier and more vibrant than my last visit even though she was going through treatment for the second time. I made the decision that I wanted what she was having. I asked my friend, “were there people like me there?” She gave me a smile and said, “there was this blind guy, and he was an amazing kayaker…”
I dedicated myself to finding out how to get involved and my first experience turned my life in a completely new direction. Here are five things I learned during my first rock climbing expedition that inspired me to continue finding frontiers in the great outdoors:
1. Information is Access
On my journey, I realized there are a few things that truly keep people with disabilities from venturing into the great outdoors, the main one being the knowledge that they can and the result will be adventurous and fun. I say this not within my advocated community but also with any minimally represented community in the outdoors. I was rejected from activities that friends were going on due to fear of the owners of the business in liability causalities and just simple lack of knowledge of adaption and disability needs.
Looking through the offerings of this organization, it turned out they had other outdoor experiences as well. Rock climbing caught my eye. I had never done it before and though I was tired of physical and emotional rejection, I thought if I expected to fail, then I won’t hurt myself anymore if I did. So I signed up. There are organizations and groups that make the outdoors accessible you just have to look for them.
- Use Search Engines. Having limited mobility, the internet was my friend. I spent my days watching videos of amputees doing amazing sports and found out there were organizations offering activities at low or no cost to get me out of the house and discovering what I am able to do.
- Ask Around. I told my psychiatrist about my goal of rock climbing, and he handed me a video that I hadn't seen before of some guy bouldering. I watched his movement, his approach to chosen crags and boulders to see what maneuvering through nature would be like. I found him on Facebook, and he offered me advice on types of gear and best practices for approaches.
2. Master The Do's and Don'ts of Travel
In May 2011, I was off to Estes Park, Colorado on my first rock climbing adventure. Since my disability I have not had much experience traveling so far alone. Nervousness on airport security and my luggage was on my mind. Of course, first hand experience is the best teacher, I learned a few important things on that flight:
- Never take your off prosthesis on a flight. In certain elevation your body swells, so if you take off your prosthesis during flight, you won't be able to get your leg back into it. I took my prosthesis off and it was the longest, most uncomfortable flight I had been on since becoming different-abled.
- Get the seat with some extra leg room. I also prefer to choose the window seat so you don't have to attempt to get up every time someone has to use the bathroom.
- Use luggage with wheels or a rucksack. They are the best for amputees as balance and weight management is important.
3. Speak Up When You Need Help
One of the toughest lessons I learned when becoming a person with a disability is not being shy about asking for assistance. And also about deserving accommodations or assistance due to disability. It wasn’t till I had my first fall in the middle of the night in Sloan Kettering Cancer Center 2 weeks after amputation that I relinquished. As I laid on the floor in the dark listening to the beeps of the machine and hearing the nurse's feet soft taps and squeaks to my aid. I realized life is different now.
My boyfriend didn’t listen to me when I said “I’ll figure it out”; He made sure my flight had a wheelchair waiting for me when the airplane landed. Years later, even though I have few instances of being able to walk out the gate of an airplane, I book a wheelchair assistance for all my flights. Life as a person with a disability is unpredictable. The acceptance of this unpredictability and thinking through all the facets of back up plans is essential to being able to live a full and adventurous life whether in a city or the great outdoors.
4. Get The Right Gear
Upon arrival, I was really nervous. I knew I was going to be the only amputee in Colorado Mountain School. The only plus size person, and the only person of ummm natural tan? As we drove up into the mountainous Estes Park, I already reserved myself to failure.
As we headed off to our first climb, we pulled the van over on the side of the road, and started in. This was the part I feared. Before the trip I purchased my first ruck sack (wrong size) and what I know now were backpacking boots. A bit overkill, but super stable for a new amputee. The approach was just minutes, but it felt much longer as it was the first time I was maneuvering on definitively uneven terrain. Looking at my feet and refusing assistance of the guides as I was determined to do it on my own.
I look back on the approach and know that hiking poles would have helped a lot. Now I don't go anywhere without them. Leki and Black Diamond are my favorite brand for their durability and versatility in controlling my descents on hikes and stability. Keep in mind that prosthesis have weight classes. Make sure you know yours so you know how much additional weight you can carry when hiking in.
5. Don't Let The First Ascent Scare You (Too Much)
On this trip we learned the basics of climbing. Tying in, climbing commands/terms, and how to descend. I was apprehensive the whole way, but tried my best to hide it. After my first reply was done, I was ready to tackle more and accomplished 3 more climbs that day. (Watch my video account).
Our graduation climb was in Eldorado Canyon - a multi-pitch route with some rock fall risk on the approach. By this time at Colorado Mountain School, I was confident in my traversing on trails and mastered the approach with little to no assistance. It was a little cold, and raining. The multi-pitch self repel was over a river with very green slipper rocks. That was the most difficult for me since I was fairly new to controlling, my prosthesis during repel. The green slippery rocks also gave way to a lipping confidence in my progress thus far. But I eventually touched ground on an old rock fall towards the river and scrambled up back towards the trail. My prosthesis was worse for wear as it is, I dabbed my route in deep scratches in my ascent. Upon my return home after much work by my prosthetist, the scratches never fully came out. Battle scars I saw them as; like my scars from cancer treatment of an experience that changed my life and my perspective of what I deemed possible.
This experience 6 years ago, allowed me to have a feeling of accomplishment unmatched in my journey through the disability community. I came home invigorated. I returned to that outdoor store where I bought my gear, and applied for a job (my first since becoming disabled and another frontier to conquer in my life).
It was while working there that I got the idea for NYC Adaptive Climbing - a group that would help others experience the power and inspiration I’d found through rock-climbing. This group eventually became Adaptive Climbing Group and today, we are the largest Paraclimbing program in the United States introducing and sponsoring rock climbing opportunities for people with disabilities in all facets: Rock, ice, indoor and competition.
If you’re interested in getting involved, or receiving training in programming, please reach out to us here.