People with disabilities reach new heights at climbing wall
By Susan Kelley
Andrew Mutolo, 11, raised his left arm and grasped a handle that would enable him to do something he has rarely done before: ascend into the air with his own power.
Strapped into a padded seat and chest harness at the Lindseth Climbing Center, he yanked on the handle. With each pull, a network of ropes and pulleys drew him a few inches higher. He yanked again, until he was about 15 feet high.
“You’re going, man, you’re going!” says his mother, Jen Parr Mutolo, as Andrew rose in the air.
Andrew was one of 14 people who participated in a free adaptive climbing program Dec. 5 at the climbing center. Open to the public, the program accommodates people with physical and neurological disabilities, like paralysis, autism, limb differences and hearing and visual impairments.
Andrew, who has cerebral palsy, has challenges using his muscles, especially on his right side. He is nonverbal. But with a thumbs-up, he indicated he wanted to go higher.
Down below, Andrew’s father, Paul Mutolo ’94, saw an opportunity. He raced to put on his climbing shoes and clambered up the wall. Twenty feet in the air, he and Andrew high-fived.
“There aren’t any words I have to describe that,” Paul Mutolo says. “It’s connecting in a different way. It was one of those things all the experts tell you isn’t going to happen. We learned a long time ago to stop listening to too many of the experts.”
Josh Giblin, manager of the center, hopes to hold adaptive climbing sessions monthly, although the facility and equipment is available to all climbers at any time during open hours. “We’re always on the lookout for ways to make the wall a more inclusive and welcoming environment,” he says. “This program is all about meeting people where they are and working with what they’ve got.”
For people with disabilities, specialized equipment includes the “easy seat” that Andrew Mutolo used, which accommodates people who use wheelchairs and walkers, gloves that can assist climbers with a weak grip, a climbing shoe that fits a universal socket on a prosthetic limb, and other ropes and pulleys to add mechanical advantage to a standard roped climbing system.
Staff are also trained in techniques that don’t require equipment, such as climbing next to someone and helping them figure out where to place their hands or feet. “Sometimes just guiding somebody’s foot against the wall, to support where they want to stand, is enough for them to progress,” Giblin says.
Staff at the wall help all climbers move their bodies in ways they never have before, says staff member Emily Moss. With adaptive climbing, the tools are simply more varied. “Unless you’re climbing completely naked, you need some kind of adaptation – like shoes,” she says. “Climbing is adaptive for everyone.”
The program began in 2019, when Giblin wanted to expand the center’s offerings for people with disabilities. J.F. Thye ’98 was happy to help. As an undergrad, he had received accommodation to use the squash courts at Cornell, which, he said, “changed my life.” His gift enabled the center, which is part of Cornell Outdoor Education, to train 19 staff, buy specialized gear and fund a year of programming.
The center ran its first adaptive climbing sessions in February and March 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic. The programming was then suspended until the recent December 2021 session.
The events have drawn members of the public and their friends and families, as well as Cornell faculty, students and staff, from Candor, Corning, Groton, Ithaca, Newfield, Owego and Watkins Glen, New York.
Katy Ruda of Watkins Glen attended both sessions. She has a heart condition and is legally blind; she can see the holds near her hands but not at her feet. And her feet tend to turn outward, making it tough to maintain contact with the holds. As soon as she’d land on a foothold, her hand would slip, then her foot too, leaving her dangling from the rope and frustrated. “I’m trying,” she says. With staff giving her verbal cues to help her find holds, she climbed to the top of the wall.
Her mother, Nancy Ruda, said it was exciting to watch her daughter climb. “She’s in control and having to make decisions,” Nancy Ruda says. “It’s the independence and autonomy. We want that for her.”
The same is true for Andrew, Jen Parr Mutolo says. Every time he moves his body differently – like he does at the climbing wall – it translates into an expansion of his everyday activities. He’ll leave the comfort of his walker, for example, and take a few steps on his own.
“It fires off new neurons,” she says. “You can see him feeling ‘I’m strong.’”