Climbing to New Heights

by Amy Saffell

Being a wheelchair user doesn’t typically mean feeling tall or towering over others. Far too often, those of us who navigate life on wheels don't get to try adventurous sports easily in our own city, either, however I recently had an experience that reverses both of those trends: climbing.

Nashville held its first adaptive climbing clinic at our local climbing gym, Climb Nashville, with the help of Catalyst Sports, the largest adaptive climbing program in the country. Catalyst is based in Atlanta and travels throughout the southeast to implement adaptive climbing programs in various cities. With the success of Catalyst’s efforts, other organizations in different areas are taking note, and adaptive climbing has spread across the country in recent years. The sport has become popular enough that this year marked the first USA Paraclimbing National Championships, with top competitors advancing to the World Cup.
Amy in the Wellman Chair
I had previously climbed once using a chair pulley system, known as the Wellman Chair, created by and named for Mark Wellman. Wellman was injured as a young adult climbing in the Sierra Nevadas and lost the use of his legs. He not only didn’t stop climbing, but he has since climbed some of the world’s toughest peaks and lit the 1996 Paralympic cauldron by climbing to its top. He has also become dedicated to helping other people with disabilities learn to climb. My first experience with the Wellman Chair was at a convention center with somewhat low ceiling. I knew that I didn’t get the full experience of what I could accomplish in climbing then, but it made me eager to try again.
The Nashville climbing clinic also had a Wellman Chair setup, but I first wanted the opportunity to climb the wall. Able-bodied climbers use their legs for balance and support, and I knew that it would be much harder to only use my arms, but I was up for the challenge. 

As I went up to the wall, the fabulous volunteers were incredibly encouraging, and I began to climb. It wasn’t long before I began to doubt my abilities. Pulling myself up was such a new experience! I didn’t feel like I was going to fall, and since I was facing right up to the wall, I didn’t have a fear of being up high at all, but I didn’t feel like I knew where to grab next. Since pulling up isn’t something that I do ever in my daily life, I began to doubt that I could make it very far. I was also a little worried about what my legs were doing since I couldn’t see them or have control of them. So, I stopped. The volunteers were completely supportive of what I wanted to do, so they suggested that I try the Wellman Chair, since I knew that I could do it, and then come back to the wall if I wanted to try again. I met some of my friends back at the Wellman Chair, and we all realized that we were having difficulties getting our bearings at such a new experience like climbing. We found common ground in our experiences and supported each other in doing what we could and simply enjoying the process.
Amy up in the Wellman Chair
In the Wellman Chair, I really excelled. Rather than skill or immense strength, now it was much more about endurance, which is definitely more in my wheelhouse. It was a great feeling getting to the top of the climbing gym, three stories high. I could see everything from up high, and I had gotten there on my own! What is wonderful about the Wellman Chair is that the pulley system reduces the pulling force, so people with disabilities that affect their muscle strength can still climb. The handles on the pulley system allow people to grab on in whatever way that they can. There are also cuffs that can be used for quadriplegics. One of my friends doesn’t have any grip in her hands, and she got to the top like a rockstar.

While we ate lunch, my friends and I talked about our experiences, and we could all feel our competitive juices flowing. We’d had great mornings, but none of us had gotten to the top of the climbing wall, and we were all eager for one more try. Even though I barely got a foot off of my chair the first time, I couldn’t help but think that I could do better after watching other chair users conquer the wall. I went back to the volunteer who had helped me during my first attempt, and she was thrilled that I came back. She had found another spot on the wall that she thought I would like better. There are numerous wall sections, and they’re all different with varying degrees of difficulty and different kinds of holds to grab. As she worked with other climbers, she had found this section, and she had also learned that for climbers who were chair users, having a volunteer climb alongside them to help support dead weight or to keep them steady really made a big difference. And did it ever! I got almost all the way up before I was ready to stop. The girl climbing alongside me was helping me just enough to make climbing possible, but not so much that it made it easy. She convinced me to keep going a few times when I thought I might stop, but after a while, my muscles were done! I had watched other climbers and saw that their legs looked fine and were in good positioning. When I mentioned the concern about my legs, another girl I knew who was volunteering said that she would watch my legs and let me know if they looked like they might be getting in an awkward position. That gave me the peace of mind to just focus on climbing, and I was really proud of how high on the wall I reached.

One of the great things about climbing is that people with and without disabilities can climb together in the same facility. That day at the clinic, I was just another climber like other experienced climbers who came to climb that day. On the wall, the equipment isn’t much different regardless of disability. The Wellman Chair can be installed next to a climbing wall, not set apart from other friends climbing. Nashville will soon have its own ongoing climbing program, and I will definitely be participating.

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Columnist Amy Saffell lives in Nashville, TN and works in the music industry. She enjoys spending time with friends, concerts, and volunteering for a local youth wheelchair sports and independence group.


  1. 'climbing new heights'.....true Amy, i appreciated ur work as a successful columnist....n, now i find u in a new diva look....gauging new heights....n, dis amazes me!!

    God bless....n, keep rolling like dis, i pray...


    Sarmi, spinal cord injured 4m Kolkata-India

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