Into the Steep with Paraclimbing Elite
I find great inspiration in the mountains – they are my retreat, my health club, my school of higher education. On rare occasions the mountains gift me with a glimpse of the mysterious great beyond and a sweet sense of oneness with the Universe.
Likewise, the people I meet in the mountains are distinctive and inspiring. It takes a unique individual to venture into thin air, where risk and reward, adversity and achievement, life and death converge on a razor’s edge. Ordinary people don’t tread above the tree line and into the vertical extreme, and therefore the people I climb and socialize with are anything but ordinary.
The most amazing and extraordinary climbers I’ve come to know are paraclimbers. Despite a missing arm or leg, these remarkable individuals are resolved to recreate themselves in the mountains, savoring the risk and challenge, and pursuing those rare transcendent moments that are only found in the steep.
Let me tell you about two paraclimbers that I deeply respect and find great inspiration in knowing.
Jeff Batzer, my best friend since our high school days, is my original climber partner. Together, we climbed near the cutting edge as teenagers in the more serious pre-sport climbing days (early 1980’s). While we partnered on many great climbs, I was not with Jeff on the one climbing trip that ultimately defined his life.
What started as an ordinary 1000-foot ice climb up Odell’s Gulley on Mt. Washington turned into tragedy as Jeff and his partner, Hugh Herr, became disoriented in a whiteout near the summit of the mountain. Confronted with hurricane-force winds and sub-zero temperatures, the pair were blown down the mountain’s rear flank and stranded for four days. Miraculously, Jeff and Hugh were found – but an onion skin’s thickness from death – and extricated via a daring helicopter rescue.
Ultimately, Jeff lost one leg below the knee, half of his other foot, and all five fingers of his right hand. While this event redefined his life’s purpose, it did not stop his athletic pursuits. Jeff returned to Mt. Washington a few years later to compete in a bike race to the summit. Two decades after his tragic climb, Jeff and I returned to the White Mountains of New Hampshire to climb up Cathedral Ledge.
Far more amazing than Jeff’s return to the mountains, however, was his subsequent career as a pastoral counselor and his steadfast commitment to help others overcome adversity, find lasting peace, and turn tragedy into triumph.
I’ve come to know many paraclimbers – all impressive individuals – over the years, and most recently I’ve enjoyed a growing coaching relationship and friendship with Ronnie Dickson. It’s now been nine years since Ronnie elected to have his left leg amputated due to complications and pain from a congenital disorder called Trevor’s Disease. Not a climber before his amputation, Ronnie discovered the sport and immediately recognized the power and meaning it brought to his life.
In addition to being a world-class para-athlete, Ronnie works as a full-time prosthetist. With great passion and pride, he has helped countless amputees get back on their feet and, more importantly, believe that they can still recreate in the outdoors with a no-limits attitude.
On the rock, Ronnie became the first above-the-knee amputee to climb the extremely difficult grade of V10 with his recent ascent of Resident Evil in Joe’s Valley, UT. Ronnie is now the reigning paraclimbing National Champion and the 2015 World Championship silver medalist. Currently, I am guiding Ronnie’s training regimen in preparation for the paraclimbing National Championship in February and the 2016 World Championship in September. Follow Ronnie’s adventures.
Learn more about paraclimbing at Paradox Sports.
Eric J. Hörst is an internationally renowned author, researcher, climbing coach, and accomplished climber of more than 30 years. A self-professed “climber for life,” Eric remains active at the cliffs, traveling widely with his wife, Lisa, and sons, Cameron and Jonathan. Driven by his passion for adventure and challenge, he has established over 400 first ascents, primarily on his home cliffs in the Eastern United States. Still pushing his personal climbing limits at age 50, Eric’s focus is now on R & D of new training techniques, traveling and sharing his knowledge with new climbers, and coaching the next generation of elite climbers. The third edition of Eric’s best-selling book, Training For Climbing, will be released in July 2016