In general, rock climbing can be quite difficult especially for those just starting out. Take these factors then add an additional obstacle of blindness and that makes an entirely new level of difficulty. As a blind climber of almost a year I have found many challenges that my sighted counterparts do not face on a daily basis, so I have had to find various means to help me progress at the sport I love. Two of the most important tools in my belt are my mind and a full duplex radio system which I use with my partner on the ground. These are by no means the only tools that I rely upon while on the wall, but they form the foundation for my upward ascent.
Let’s begin by talking about my mind and the ways I rely on it throughout a climbing session. Since I lost my sight twelve years ago I have had to switch my way of learning to more of an auditory approach along with tactile methods to aid in visual learning. This new method of learning took me time to develop and I still find myself working on it every day, but through climbing it has forced me to find ways to further develop these skills. First, I start on the ground and walk through the problem of the route or boulder problem with my partner. This usually consists of types of holds, direction of ascent that I can expect, and where the most difficult part of the climb might occur. The next step is just to climb in order to explore the route for myself.
While on the climb for the first time I quickly begin building a mental map of the route along with the shape of the holds that I encounter along the way. I rarely ascend my project routes or problems on the first attempt which, for routes, is usually 5.10a to 5.10c, and for bouldering its v3. At this point in my climbing I am alright with not reaching the top on the first go because I am still in the newbie phase and working on better ways of climbing blind. The completion of my more difficult routes can often take several sessions to complete, but once I understand the route makeup then I can then work on climbing the route over and over to work on technique and reaching the top without falling at all. This is a similar process that I take when approaching boulder problems except I can memorize several problems in one session in which I can then work until completion over the next few sessions.
Beyond the above mentioned approach I use flat hand scanning to help me find the position of the next movement in the sequence of the problem. Flat hand scanning replaces my eyes, and allows me to see the terrain that is just above me which can give me clues as what to do with my body position in order to make the next move a success. I have talked with many other blind climbers and they also use flat hand scanning while climbing in order to help them find possible hand or foot holds. Flat hand scanning is a great approach, but in competition where it is a timed climb this can be a very ineffective approach to reach the top in the set time because flat hand scanning lends itself to patience.
Another means of aid while climbing is utilizing technology to overcome my lack of vision. The technology that I have begun using is a full duplex radio system with my climbing partner. Oftentimes as I climb higher the inability to hear my caller for the next move gets more difficult, especially when in most climbing gyms there is the added noise of music. The radio system allows for constant communication throughout the climb, and I can hear my partner as clear as if they were there climbing next to me on the wall. Those that do not know what full duplex means, it simply means that I have an open channel of communication without having to push a talk button because, let’s face it, while climbing there is not always a hand free to reach and press a button to talk. This system allows me to work routes in a gym where oftentimes there are many routes that overlap so I must negotiate holds that are not part of my current route, so this system comes in handy in order to make sure I stay on route. In competition there is only one route per rope so in this instance, the radios allow for quicker upward mobility since it is just direction of next hold that I get and I do not have to worry about grasping the wrong hold.
These are just a few of the techniques that I use while climbing in order to find success. Each session I work on these techniques in hopes to further refine them so that I can eventually tackle much more difficult routes and problems with much more ease. Every day I continually search for more techniques that I can manipulate to help me reach the top. I look forward to sharing my journey with everyone, and one day these techniques will truly aid me in reaching my many climbing goals.