The trail up and out of the South Park area of the Ouray Ice Park is maybe a five-minute walk, if you have full use of all your limbs. It is not typically the site of anything amazing — just a way for ice climbers to get up and down from the rim of the gorge to a dozen or so WI2 and WI3 climbs.
Ibrahim stood on the trail in front of Ashley, suggesting different ideas to get her up the trail to an awaiting snowmobile for a ride back to the hotel and her wheelchair — maybe use the ice tool here, trekking pole there, switch hands and use the hand line for this section. She worked her way up the trail on her custom crampon knee pads, Ibrahim in front, me behind her, waiting, ready to help if needed. Halfway up the steep part, she said,
“I was watching a Discovery Channel show on climbing Everest the other night. Some guide was yelling at a climber, ‘Get up! You don’t climb a mountain on your knees!’ I wanted to say, ‘Let me show you how.'”
A half an hour later, we were at the final section of trail, the snowmobile waiting at the top about 30 feet away. Another group of climbers walked up behind us on the trail and waited. Normally, the right thing is to let a faster party pass you on the trail. But in this case, the right thing was for all of us to watch this lady finish her battle, the most important part of the day, walking through the snow on her knees.
This weekend was my first experience as a volunteer with Paradox Sports, a 5-year-old nonprofit dedicated to providing inspiration, opportunities and adaptive equipment to the disabled community, empowering their pursuit of a life of excellence through human-powered outdoor sports. I ignored a head cold and drove six hours from Denver to Ouray to help out with Paradox Ice, because I knew whatever happened, it was going to be a good thing. The town of Ouray embraced our group of 35, catering breakfast and, lunch and accommodating our dinner reservations. Guides from San Juan Mountain Guides set up topropes and rigged lines to lower some climbers into the Park. My job for the weekend was to help — belay, run ice tools to people when they needed them, and be a gofer.
I watched Mark solo up next to Austin, who was determined to climb an 80-foot pitch of ice even if it took him all day. His crampons slipped out often, sometimes both at the same time, and at times Mark would hammer Austin’s picks into the ice for him. The whole process took a couple of hours, and Austin never had less than 10 people cheering him on. The first person I belayed, Christa, had lost her right foot and climbed on a prosthesis with a crampon foot. She had also broken her left foot bouldering in the gym four weeks prior, and decided to wear a ski boot with a crampon on that foot to climb at Paradox Ice. You know, instead of not climbing. She was careful with the left foot at first, and then after a couple pitches, absolutely floated everything I saw her climb. Sean, paralyzed from the waist down, climbed with just his arms, with his own three-tool-and-jumar system. Tommy burned Pall Malls and flirted with the ladies in between removing his artificial knee, lacing his stump into a boot, and tenaciously tackling each route — and topping out. A “Bucket O’Feet” sat amongst backpacks, in case someone needed to switch out prostheses to climb.
Volunteers for the weekend outnumbered disabled participants two to one, which I think showed how much many of us want to be a part of something we think is inspiring. But I don’t know if any of the participants look at what they do as inspiring — it’s just what they do. Let’s climb some ice. The only thing any of these people need help with is getting in and out of the park. And a belay from someone.
We all came to Ouray because we all have some sort of “missing piece,” I think. Some of us just need to tighten the screws on a crampon prosthetic and tackle a few pitches of ice, and some of us just want to help people in whatever way we can.
Most of us inhabit a world where we’re too busy, too occupied with a lot of things to think about what our real dreams are, or find ourselves trying to “make time” to exercise, or climb, or run, or ride a bicycle. Some of those things become a task, instead of something we enjoy.
Chad Jukes, who developed an MRSA infection in his foot after having an IED blow up underneath his vehicle in Iraq in 2006, gave a slideshow Friday night to open the Paradox Ice weekend, and said when his doctor gave him the choice to amputate the foot that had troubled him for more than a year, he was “stoked.” He spent most of the weekend unable to sleep, waiting for the doctor’s office to open so he could tell the doctor to cut his foot off.
“I wanted to not hit the brakes,” he said. “I wanted to MOVE.” Two days after he got his first prosthetic foot, he went for a bike ride. At a stoplight, he rolled to a stop and instinctively tried to step down onto his right foot. He fell over and twisted his knee. He thought biking the five blocks back home might be a little difficult.
“But the climbing gym was only one block away,” he said. So he went there and climbed on his brand-new foot.