80 Feet Off the Ground And Only One Hand to Hold On With

A conversation with one of the top adaptive climbers in the world.

By Michael McCutcheon September 28, 2015

By day, Maureen Beck works in accounting, dealing with numbers and spreadsheets. On nights and weekends, she’s one of the top adaptive climbers in the world.

She’s an outsized figure in a small but growing community. In the last few years, paraclimbing, or sport climbing for those who are differently abled, has been rising internationally. More and more competitors from around the world are coming together to compete in world cup events every year, or the world championships, which are every two years, under the banner of the International Federation of Sport Climbing. Beck, who has been climbing for years, is one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors.

The first time Beck looked up at a rock and saw it as a challenge, she was a 12-year-old Girl Scout in Maine. Born without a left hand, she scrambled to the top faster than many of the other kids. Sixteen years and thousands of hours of practice later, she’s the Women’s 2014 Paraclimbing World Champion and is gearing up for a World Cup event in the UK in early October. We caught up with her at home in Colorado, where she now lives and practices, just before she left for the international circuit, to talk about being stubborn, so-called disabilities and what it feels like to be high up there on the wall.

Maureen Beck

Image credit: Maureen Beck. Preparing for a climb.

You work a day job and do all this in the off hours…How long have you been keeping that schedule for?

After last year’s nationals, which was last July, that’s when I was like, “Whoa. This competitive climbing for adaptive climbers is a real thing. I want to take it seriously.” So, it’s been about a year and a half now. I’m pretty much just living out of my car non-stop. It’s been awesome. I train during the week, then on the weekends I’ll head to the mountains and climb my real rocks.

What was your first memory of climbing?

I’ve always been a wood rat—tree climber. So, rock climbing came naturally to me. Then, I actually got a subscription to Outside Magazine when I was in grade school, and I was just like, “What are these people doing? Climbing on these rocks?” It blew my mind.

The first memory I have of actually climbing was at Girl Scout camp, I was 12 years old. Looking back, it was probably this pathetically small, little boulder. But, when you’re 12, it was this giant, towering rock. It had a single bolt on top that they ran a rope through. Everybody just took turns climbing on it. I thought, “This is just so cool.” I know it’s pretty cool, too, because I was born without my hands. None of my counselors or my campmates ever said, “Oh, you probably can’t rock climb.” Everybody was super into it. I was just as good as everybody else if not better already.

Where did you go to college?

I went to University of Vermont in Burlington, and I really, really dug Vermont. It’s such a cool scene. I love hippies. We were right close to the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains, which was awesome.

Maureen Beck

Maureen Beck goes vertical at Indian Creek, Utah.

You mentioned being a wood rat, as you call it, as a kid in Maine. Do you remember what attracted you to climbing things at an early age?

It was just what you did, you know. Small town, Maine, there’s not a lot to do except go outside and find different ways to hurt yourself and make your mom panic.

Then, when it came to climbing, by the time I was in middle school/grade school, I had this concept of what it was to have a disability. I never called it…I still don’t call it a disability, because I don’t think I’m disabled. But I really like doing things that people said, “Oh, you probably shouldn’t do that.” Or “You probably can’t do that.” I was kind of a stubborn punk and would be like, “Oh yeah? Watch me.” That’s really what got me into rock climbing.

When did you get into more competitive climbing?

I did a little bit of competitive climbing in college, but it was a little discouraging because it wasn’t adaptive. I would do competitions for the fun of it. I was always coming in last place. Well, I wasn’t always last. But for the most part, I was never climbing to win. It was just  “blah.”

I never gave it a second thought until…I want to say it was 2013, at the Vail Mountain Games, the first time they had paraclimbing as a category in their bouldering competition. I went to that, and I was like, “Wow. This could actually happen. There’s 30 other people here with disabilities. I can actually measure myself against them instead of this unrealistic measurement against people with two hands and two legs.” It was very cool.

It seems like there is a really strong community around paraclimbing. What is that community like? Is it close-knit? Or is it highly competitive internally?

It’s both. I think because it’s so new, you’re going to have people like me and a handful of others that are training as much as we can, working really hard, and are out to win it. Then you also have the people that are really just out for the experience. They don’t really caring how they place, they just want to become a better climber and meet more people that have similar interests.

I don’t feel like, “Oh, I can’t talk to her because we’re competing.” Everybody’s close and mills around and swaps data. It’s a little different that traditional comps, too, because the girl I compete against in nationals, she’s missing her right hand. I’m missing my left. So, swapping data can only get us so far.

Maureen Beck

Image credit: Maureen Beck. At home in the gym.

That makes your climbs, your routes, different?

We’re definitely very different. It’s kind of the nature of the beast with this kind of climbing. I could climb a 5.11 no problem or I could fall on a 5.7, if there are fewer holds that I can make just because of my hand.

I imagine that at moments that may be frustrating to be able to do a 5.11, but then to slip on a 5.7.

Oh, it’s totally frustrating. I’ll never be like, “Man, I wish I had two hands.” I’ll just have to walk away and be like, “Oh, well. Next climb.” Because I always think of it as no different than someone who’s 5ft trying to climb a route that was set by someone that was 6ft tall. There’s always something that we all can’t do. I think a lot of growing up is just accepting it, and moving on to the next one.

In terms of the progression of skill level, did you have a coach early on? How did you grow and learn?

I put a lot of miles in. When I started competing, I was definitely at the point where I had a lot to improve on just by climbing more. Between nationals and worlds last year, I think I added a full number grade. Then, a couple of months after that, I added another number grade, and that was just from climbing and maybe saying, “No, I don’t need that third marker and stuff like that.” Just little things.

Then, when I got back from worlds last year, back from Spain, I signed up to take a training class at a local gym. It was the perfect time, because I really was hitting a plateau from just climbing more. So, I started working with a coach then in a group setting.

When the class was over, I approached him and said, “Hey, how would you feel about putting together an adaptive climbing team because I’m competitive, and I like training. But it’s not that fun to do alone.” So, the gym and the head coach were super psyched on that.

This spring, we actually started the Denver adaptive climbing team. They pretty much donate their coach. We work with the coach once a week. It’s pretty wild, how fast it’s grown. I was the only person in my area to go to nationals last year. We sent six people this year.

It sounds like you were a catalyst in a lot of that. Do your friends look at that and think what you’re doing is pretty amazing?

I’m definitely a doer. We do adaptive climbing clinics a couple times a month in Denver, but there’s not really the next step. People will be like, “I love your clinics, but I want to climb more. What can I do?” I saw it as an opportunity to take the next step. We had talked about a team, but it never happened. Finally, when I started getting some of them competing, I was like, “You know what? I’ll just make the phone call. See what happens.” And it happened. That’s all it took. Like you said, the greater climbing community, not just the disabled one, is amazing. They’re so supportive of adaptive climbing. It’s actually been easier than one would think to get this thing going.

It’s often interesting to me, and I think this probably spans a lot of different kinds of things, but is that when people ask, “How do you do it?” The answer is “Well, I just made it happen.”

You just do it. You have to just make the phone call. You can talk about an idea for a while, but until you act on it, it’s never going to go anywhere. So, yeah. I took that action in the Spring.

There’s lots of adaptive sports out there, like basketball and tennis and skiing, but adaptive climbing is still so new that I think it didn’t register on the radar. So, I spend a lot of time recruiting other adaptive athletes into climbing, trying to keep them hooked which isn’t that hard. Once people start climbing, they love it. I get so distracted with making sure everybody has what they need. Then I’m like, “Oh, that’s right. I’m competing, too.”

You won the world championships last year, in 2014. Correct?

Yeah, so World championships was last year. It’s actually every two years. In between are World Cups, which are kind of like tennis grand slams. They’re big events, and winning one’s a big deal, but the equivalent of winning all of them is winning Worlds.

Maureen Beck

Image credit: Maureen Beck. Beck taking home the gold at the 2014 world championships.

So how did it work? Was there one route up the climbing wall that everyone competes on?

So, with Worlds, one day was qualifying. You got to see the route ahead of time. You could watch people climb it. You only got one chance to actually touch it and climb it. Based on how far you went on each of those, you got a score. Then they would take the top qualifiers into finals.

I went into finals in 1st place, but only by a couple of points. That’s almost worse than being in 3rd, I think. Because I’m like, “Shoot. Now I know I can beat them, but it’s mine to lose. It’s still close. I don’t have this in the bag.” It’s pretty stressful.

Then, finals is an on-site format where you get to look at the route for five minutes. Then they lock you in isolation for hours until it’s your turn to climb. Then, it’s one and done. Yeah.

So, you get five minutes to look at the wall, look at the route. What are you looking for? What’s your thought process like?

There’s all sorts of advice on how you should read it. My coach said, “You know what? Just look for the rests.” Because the routes in Europe, the world-level routes, are so tall. I have a hard time training for them because they’re a good 30-40 ft taller than anything at the craziest gym I’ve been to.

So, mostly focused on the rests. The climbs are kind of weird. At the bottom, they’re maybe 5.6 and are super easy because they want everybody to at least get off the ground. Then, by the top, I want to say it was an easy 5.12. It’s such a long route. I’m not skilled enough to sit there and read the whole route and memorize the moves. My coach just had me look for rests, try to identify a few cruxes, look at the big holes, and try to relax. There’s only so much you can do in five minutes.

So the rests are points where you can relax for a minute and stand up a little bit?

Yeah. Shake out, deep breaths, chalk up, think about your next moves.

So, how tall is that wall? Do you know, in general, in the international competition how tall that wall is?

I want to say it was 75 ft. It just seemed unnaturally tall. I walked in there the first day and I was just like, “Oh, shit. It’s too much.”

Maureen Beck

Image credit: Maureen Beck. A competitor takes a run at the 2014 world championships in sport climbing.

How do you feel when you’re up there on the wall alone?

I always compare it to skiing, where you’re just always on a great run, you’re cruising, you’re having a great time. You’re alone, but you’re also focused.

At Worlds, when people were cheering, all my teammates were screaming, I had no clue. I don’t remember hearing anything at all. I couldn’t tell you what song was playing. I couldn’t tell you anything.

Is there a time when you were really disappointed in the competition or climbing a route?

Yeah. I think anytime I don’t do as well as I wanted to. I was really bummed at Worlds. I won, which was awesome, but at the back of my head, I knew it wasn’t perfect. I just got the furthest, but I didn’t actually reach the top. And I’m just like, “Man, that’s a bummer.” So next year, I want to top at least one of the routes.

Then, at Bouldering Nationals this year, I was the only girl. A lot of times, there’s more guys than girls in our field. So I always, in my head, compete against the guys. I thought I had it in the bag this year. There’s this one guy I really wanted to beat. And I didn’t pull it off. I was so mad at myself. I was like, “Aww, man. I didn’t train hard enough, and I should’ve focused harder on training” and stuff. I’m pretty hard on myself in retrospect for sure.

What’s coming up? What’s the fall look like? What are you preparing for now?

In the first weekend in October, I’m doing my first World Cup in the UK, which is really exciting. This is the first year that the ISIC, which is the governing body of international climbing, has done paraclimbing cups. There are three stops, kind of like a mini-tour. Since they’re all in Europe, I only have the budget and vacation time to go to one. But it’s really nice because the able-bodied side, the bouldering, the league climbing, they have had world cup tours for years. This is the first year that the ISIC is like, “I think we have momentum and the enthusiasm to support a paraclimbing tour as well.”

On the mental side, is there anything in particular to prep for? Do you tend to get nervous in the weeks before?

I’m definitely nervous. There’s some new European climbers that are in my category. I’m excited the category is growing, but it’s also nerve-wracking, because I haven’t climbed against them before, so I don’t know what I’m in for.

I’m also excited to see everybody else because I’ve been training hard since Worlds, the last time I saw the international climbers, and so have they. The competitive paraclimbing community as a whole is just getting bigger and stronger, crazy strong. I’m definitely thinking about how strong they’re getting too. If I’m getting stronger, so are they.

How good do you think you can get?

I don’t know. I generally never think I’m at my best, because there’s always something I can do better. I won’t put a number on it, but I have a number in my head of the hardest outdoor league to this date. I think I’m in shape for it because of competitive climbing. That’s one of my Fall goals. I think moving from goal to goal is really what keeps you motivated.

Maureen Beck

Image credit: Maureen Beck. Beck (right) with a future climbing champ at the gym.

How important is goal-setting to your overall development?

It’s really important because I think it’s really easy to hit a plateau or just be like, “You know what? I’m sick of going to the gym tonight. I just want to stay home, drink a beer, and play with my dogs.” But I think having goals to move to, and reasonably close goals too are important. For me, to go from Worlds in 2014 to 2016, that’s just too far. It’s no fun. You can’t have a two year training plan. So, having things like Bouldering Nationals, and Paraclimbing Nationals, and outdoor goals stokes the fire.

You mentioned being hard on yourself in terms of your own assessment of your performance. Do you feel, at times, that that shuts you down? Or does that inspire you? Or both?

I think it motivates me. Not making the top in Spain… I’ll watch the YouTube video where I fell, and be like, “Aww, man. I should’ve just done this different.” So that was really motivating to me to be like, “Well, if I increase my core strength and my shoulder strength, and my grip strength, I can do it different.” So I usually come back from comps. I should rest. And I go to a comp and I think, “Okay. When I get home, I’m going to take 2-3 weeks off.” And I never do. I take 3 days off, and I’m just back at it because I’m still fired up with what I want to do better.

How many times will you view the video from a previous competition and dissect it?

Not a lot. I don’t like how I climbed at Spain when I look at it because I look tight and nervous. I watched it a couple of times, and at the same time, I’m like, “You idiot.”

One of the big things I worked on was that tunnel vision. Like, when you start to feel like you’re tightening up and crapping out, just take a breath, look around, look down, look up. I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve been training outside of getting stronger is the mental aspect.

Allowing yourself to step back, evaluate and re-attack.

Yeah. The philosophy I’m going for is if something feels too hard, it probably is and you’re probably doing it wrong.

If you look 5 years down the line, what you would like to achieve?

I’m absolutely defending my worlds title next year in Paris. That’s my concrete long-term goal. Worlds is every 2 years. I’m 28. I’m not sure how much longer I can do the whole “5 nights a week” between gym and clinics and outdoor. It’s a lot.

Longest term, I still want to keep growing the paraclimbing community. I want to get my team stronger. I want to get Team USA stronger. I think my long-term, I would love to be an adaptive climbing coach. When I’m off the competitive roster, I still want to be around. Right now, there’s a certification to be a coach, in general, for climbing, but there’s no adaptive climbing coaching. So I would really like to work with USA Climbing in developing that program and getting that going.

Honestly, if your success was sending any kind of message, is there a message you’d want it to send?

Yeah, I think it’s “Be stubborn”. I think that’s the take-away. “Do what people tell you can’t do. Or even what you think you can’t do. Just be stubborn.”

Is there anything else you want to mention before we go?

I would just like to throw out there that if anybody is an adaptive person, or a disabled person, and they have any questions about adaptive climbing, whether just for fun or if they’re interested in competing, I’d love to give you my professional climbing email to just toss out there. Because people who read this…it could be their first time ever hearing about adaptive climbing. I want to make sure it’s not their last.

Editor’s note: you can reach Maureen at [email protected].

Michael McCutcheonMichael McCutcheon is a freelance writer and former editor at Mic news. A Seattle native, he’s passionate about any sport that REI sells equipment for. You can find him at home in Brooklyn, NY or on the Twitter.

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