My Adventures in Wall Climbing by Empish Thomas, Center for the Visually Impaired in Atlanta

Empish Thomas climbing a rock wall

Guest blogger Empish J. Thomas is the public educator for the Center for the Visually Impaired (CVI) in Atlanta, Georgia, where she organizes tours, exhibits, presentations and speaking engagements. She also posts on CVI’s SightSeeing Blog and the CVI community bulletin board. In addition, she talks with potential clients, medical professionals, social service representatives, family members and others about the services that CVI can offer. In her spare time, Empish is a career columnist for Dialogue Magazine and career mentor for CareerConnect® at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB).

A New Challenge Awaits: Wall Climbing

A few weeks ago, I made the decision to take on a new challenge in my life. I was invited to go wall climbing by Catalyst Sports, an Atlanta-based non-profit organization dedicated to providing adaptive sports to the disabled community. Catalyst had contacted my employer and wanted to encourage people with visual impairments to join them for a free wall climbing clinic at Stone Summit Climbing and Fitness Gym.

At first I was just going to post the announcement on InfoLink, our agency’s community bulletin board, and move on to other things. But after much thought, I decided to take on the challenge too. I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to stretch myself and do something that I have never done in my life. I mean I have climbed stairs, ladders, and maybe a small hill or two – but climb a 25-foot wall? Now that was something new!

So Many Questions!

The first thing I did was go to the Catalyst Sports website to read up on the clinic and complete my registration. After that, I got a call from a Catalyst representative who confirmed my registration and answered my questions: How should I dress? How does this wall climbing thing really work? How will I hear instructions once I get up the wall? How will I get down once I am at the top?

She very patiently answered these questions (and more!) and later sent out an email blast with a general Q&A for all the climbers. I also told her I would need transportation to Stone Summit and her parents graciously offered to come and get me.

Climbing Day Arrives

The day of the climb it was pouring rain and very cold, but I was not discouraged. I was determined that I would climb the wall, regardless of the weather. Besides, the climbing would take place inside, so there were no excuses!

When I arrived, the place was jumping with high energy and everyone was talking and laughing. The music was thumping and the air conditioner was cranking. Everyone was having a good time. The 82 staff members and volunteers from Catalyst Sports all chipped in to help out. The clinic was not just for people with vision loss; potential climbers with mobility impairments were there, too.

About 70 of us with a variety of disabilities were gearing up to climb the wall: a young girl with a prosthetic leg; a young man who could not use his legs and pulled himself up with a harness and pulley; and two participants from CVI’s youth programs, BEGIN and STARS. I ran into the coach and a member of our local goalball team. People were everywhere, literally climbing the wall!

Suiting Up for the Climb

After completing my liability form, I got suited up. I had to wear special shoes for climbing that would give me the traction I needed. I also had to put on a harness that the assistant could use to pull me up and down. I used a chalk bag to keep my hands dry so that I could grab the levers on the wall.

Stone Summit has climbing walls with different levels of intensity, from beginner to advanced. The climbing levers are color-coded for people who can see, with each color representing a different climbing intensity or difficulty level. Of course, since this was my first time, I was escorted to the beginner’s level.

My climbing assistant described the wall to me and then positioned my hands and feet so that I could feel the levers. She also encouraged me to touch and feel the wall so I could understand its texture. She explained how she would assist me by pulling the ropes and harness up or down to give me the needed slack to move freely.

Starting the Climb

After that, the climbing began; or rather an attempt to climb began! LOL! I felt around for the levers for my feet and hands and then tried to pull myself up. But it was a no go! I tried again and was not able to get my right leg up to the next lever. Even with all my walking on my treadmill and riding my exercise bike weekly, I was not as physically fit as I had thought.

Maybe I should have done more yoga or stretch exercises to loosen up my joints and muscles.

Maybe I am getting too old for this; after all, I am not in my twenties anymore.

“No, don’t listen to that,” my mind said.

I was not deterred and tried again. This time, my hands were in place but one of my legs was not, and it dangled from the wall. My assistant kept giving me verbal encouragement and even had another assistant come over to help out. But, sad to say, at the end of the day, the first level was all I got to climb.

Once I got back down, my hands, arms, and legs gave a huge sigh of relief. Even though I did not get to the top, I was proud of myself for taking on a new challenge in my life. I chalked this experience up to giving myself an “A” for effort and left the clinic pleased that I tried a new skill and had a new adventure!

Additional Information

You can follow more of Empish’s adventures at My Journey Back to Braille and Why I Don’t Use the iPhone on the VisionAware blog.

Learn more about sports and exercise – including adaptations for walking, hiking, running, bowling, skiing, boating, tandem bicycling, and swimming – on the website.

Photo of Empish Thomas provided by United States Association for Blind Athletes