Hannah Zook spent the second weekend of July scaling walls in Switzerland. An international competitor in top rope climbing and a Virginia native, Zook regularly trains in local DMV gyms. When she’s practicing, however, it’s not always among other adaptive climbers.
But once a month, the 17-year-old goes out to Sportrock Climbing Centers’ gym in Alexandria to attend a climbing practice for people with physical disabilities. She enjoys the community — and likes to give back by volunteering as well.
“There’s not a lot of adaptive volunteers,” Zook says. “So, I’m hoping my experiences as an adaptive climber can help other adaptive climbers do well.”
At Sportrock, two programs regularly offer free adaptive climbing sessions to people in the DMV: Catalyst Sports and Up ENDing Parkinson’s. Jeff Shor, Sportrock’s director of marketing, says climbing helps athletes overcome fear and push past insecurities. Especially given how individualized climbing is, Shor argues the sport can and should be accessible for all.
“Climbing is like a kind of a kinetic puzzle you solve with your body,” Shor says. “Your task as a climber is to find the most efficient way for you to get up the wall. And the way everybody does that is different.”
Catalyst Sports runs adaptive sports programs nationwide. Its local chapter, managed by Greater D.C. Chapter coordinator Andrew Hogan, hosts free climbing sessions for people with disabilities on the last Sunday of each month at Sportrock Alexandria.
“I’ve always been surprised how accessible rock climbing can be as long as you have the right equipment and people to [climb with],” Hogan says.
With two silver medals in national competitions, Zook is one of Catalyst Sports’ most competitive climbers. She competes in women’s RP1 top rope climbing, where the goal is to get as far up a wall as possible within 6 minutes. RP1 is a category for those with a disability that significantly affects their muscles, or range of power.
For Zook, working with other adaptive climbers — both as an athlete and sometimes a volunteer — is Catalyst’s draw.
“I do get support from all the volunteers who are with Catalyst,” Zook says. “[They] tell me any pointers they might have while I’m climbing, and any training tips. It’s definitely nice to climb with people who support [those] with disabilities that climb.”
At 17, Zook falls squarely in the middle of the age range of Catalyst climbers: Some are 4 or 5 years old, others are in their 60s. Hogan says people use Catalyst for a variety of reasons, from training for competition to training muscles they don’t always use.
Not all Catalyst climbers use adaptive gear, but Sportrock offers equipment like a Wellman chair for climbers who use it. Volunteers are available to brace participants or give directions as they climb.
“Rock climbing routes are designed for able-bodied persons,” Hogan says. “But fortunately, like any type of engineering feat, there’s a lot of skilled guides and equipment you can use to help make the climbing accessible.”
Up ENDing Parkinson’s
When Vivek Puri found out he had Parkinson’s disease, he tried a therapy protocol focused on making large movements. It wasn’t right for him, he says.
Instead, Puri began rock climbing with Molly Donelan, director of Sportrock Alexandria. Donelan was in the process of starting a group for climbers with Parkinson’s after she’d seen the sport help mitigate the effects of the disease with one climber.
Puri joined and was hooked.
“It’s a community, so it’s really familiar faces and you feel at ease,” Puri says. “These other people also know what it’s like. You’re not self-conscious.”
Now, Up ENDing Parkinson’s offers free climb sessions at Sportrock Alexandria twice a week. It’s one of the only groups in the nation to specifically support people with Parkinson’s disease in climbing.
Exercise helps those with Parkinson’s maintain their physical health and cognition. Climbing seems particularly effective, according to Donelan, because of how many skills it engages — strength, flexibility, balance.
“This is a crazy sport because it involves every single muscle in your body,” Donelan says. “There’s nothing that’s not used, down to your little toe.”
Puri says he’s able to build strength and improve control through climbing, though having a degenerative disease means improvement is complicated: While he’s been tackling more challenging routes over the years, exercise doesn’t entirely halt the progression of the disease.
The benefits of climbing are clearest to him when he steps away from the sport.
“If I don’t climb for about one or two weeks — it used to be about two weeks, now it’s more like one — I see it,” he says. “I feel the difference in my mobility and my focus, and my ability to just exist in the world is diminished.”
Puri has also found community through the group.
When a member had surgery, others came to their house to play games. When Donelan got married, she says several members of the group came to her wedding. They challenge and care for one another.
“It’s familiar terrain,” Puri says. “It’s challenging, but in a way that’s not off-putting or scary. It’s just pushing each other to try harder, or giving tips or encouragement or even, the other day, literally a shoulder to cry on.”
Expanding adaptable climbing
Beyond Catalyst Sports and Up ENDing Parkinson’s, how accessible is climbing for adaptive athletes around D.C.?
“There’s a lot of climbing gyms in the area,” Zook says. “Plus, Catalyst events add to the accessibility because people who climb in Catalyst events can do it for free and with support from volunteers.”
But expanding adaptive climbing programs isn’t always simple. Shor says it can be hard to find facilities willing to offer space and time. Even when the facilities are available, that doesn’t mean they’ll be ideal for an adaptive program.
For instance, Hogan says Catalyst considered expanding its monthly program to another one of Sportrock’s three locations. But because the others were harder to travel to, Hogan says Catalyst decided against it.
“How good can an inclusive climbing program be if it’s not accessible by public transportation?” he asks.
Puri raises another infrastructural issue: Some gyms lack easy routes for beginners.
Recently, a climber with Parkinson’s and his coach came down from Ohio to tour Sportrock and speak with Up ENDing Parkinson’s. They’re starting a Cleveland chapter, but Puri says their gym has a limited number of easy routes.
Despite that, the Cleveland gym is actively working to support climbers with Parkinson’s disease. That’s a basic step more gyms should take, Donelan says.
When the first Up ENDing Parkinson’s climber reached out to Donelan, she’d been his second choice. He’d originally contacted a gym closer to where he lived, asking if they’d help him exercise to slow the progression of his disease. That gym turned him down.
“The biggest thing is just not saying no,” Donelan says. “It takes a little bit of an investment, but it’s a little for a lot back.”
Enjoy this piece? Consider becoming a member for access to our premium digital content. Support local journalism and start your membership today.