FALLING UPHILL: A DYSPRAXIC’S GUIDE TO CLIMBING AND MOUNTAINEERING
My name’s Poppy, I have dyspraxia and I love to climb.
I couldn’t put my finger on what it is that draws me in quite so much. Maybe it’s the sense of achievement that comes with finally sending a tough route. Maybe it’s because it takes me to some of the most beautiful places in the world, and surrounds me with the most amazing people. Maybe it’s just for the cool stories it gives me to tell. Whatever the reason, climbing brings me an unparalleled joy no matter what else is going on in my life, not just in spite of my dyspraxia but in some ways because of it. I’m here to outline some of the reasons climbing and mountaineering can be really beneficial for dyspraxic people, and how to overcome some of the extra challenges we face.
Pretty regularly, I’ll mention my climbing to somebody else with dyspraxia and they’ll scoff at the idea. “You’re brave”, “is that really safe for you though”, or even “you can’t be that dyspraxic” are all common responses. In spite of this, even just within the club I climb in I’ve met quite a few other adults with dyspraxia. Everybody is affected differently so all of us have found different limitations that neurotypical climbers either don’t face, or only face to a lesser extent, but there are also several reasons why climbing is an ideal sport for dyspraxics, so before you write it off, read on!
I’m going to start by outlining some of the reasons why climbing is a particularly good choice of sport for dyspraxic people. They’re not obvious at first but they are significant, and finding your sport can be great for your confidence. I’m also going to explain what some of the hidden challenges are, that you might not anticipate at first but may need to face once you give climbing a go. There are two reasons for this. Primarily, I want any dyspraxic adults getting into climbing to have a good idea of what to expect. That way you can be prepared, and the trickier bits won’t come as such a slap in the face! The other reason is that non-dyspraxic people could really do with properly understanding the issues we face. If you climb and you have a partner or instructor who you struggle to explain things to, you can show them some of this information and hey, maybe they’ll learn something.
First up: the benefits.
You’re only moving yourself in relation to a static environment.
Basically, this means you’re not focusing on other things moving around you, like balls or bats or other people. It can be very hard for us to process changes in the environment fast enough to respond to them in time, especially when neurotypicals are competing to do the same thing. Team sports have always been a nightmare for me at school because I just can’t possibly be aware of what my team mates or opposition are doing at the same time as trying to be aware of my own position in space. In climbing, there are tricky bits to do with spatial awareness, and your hands and feet might not always land quite where you expect them to, but nothing is moving but you. So it’s much easier to keep with what’s going on!
It’s a great way to form strong friendships if you’re a little bit shy or awkward!
You can work together with people performing at different levels
It would be a huge generalisation to suggest that everyone with dyspraxia starts off being crap at sports. For me though, it’s always been an issue, whatever I’ve tried, that it takes me much longer than my peers to progress, because of poor muscle tone, poor co-ordination and the simple fact that it takes me longer to learn a new task or sequence. I’m used to this as an adult but it continues to be demoralising; I’ll start off whatever I’m doing in a group of other beginners and within a couple of months I’ll be a mile behind! In running or swimming, for example, this sucks because it’s pretty hard to train together if everyone else can go faster or cover further distances. You find yourself stuck in the beginner group watching newcomers over take you, over and over. In climbing, this isn’t so much of a problem. That’s because the central aspect of working together is belaying, where one participant does the rope work to protect the climber’s safety. You take turns and neither person could participate without the other. Usually, both indoors and outdoors, climbing walls or crags (the outdoor equivalent) are set up so there are easy routes close by to hard routes. This means as soon as you’ve got basic rope-work down you can climb with an expert and you’ll both depend on each other and can encourage each other, and the difference in ability doesn’t make a huge amount of difference. (There’ll always be some assholes who only climb with people who climb as hard as them, but they’re few and far between and every sport has its assholes. I like to think there are fewer in climbing!)
Again, not all dyspraxic people are shy or socially awkward. But I know plenty of people who are, or at least have some anxiety around making friends or having to talk for long periods of time. When you’re climbing with someone, you don’t always need to fill the silence. This is because if you’re roped climbing with someone, most of the time one participant is climbing and another belaying. You’ve got the chance for a chat between climbs, but then there’s lots to say about how the climb went, so if you struggle with the small talk it’s no big issue. Despite this, a lot of friendships made climbing are close and longstanding ones. Why? Because there’s a huge amount of trust involved. When you belay someone they’ve put their life in your hands, and if they fall you’ve caught them (no pressure 😛 ). Also because sometimes regardless of how good the belaying is, climbing can be scary, and the feeling of achievement when you overcome the fears to succeed is fab. Going through all that with another person or people is pretty significant and the bonds that form as a result can be strong. This is especially true climbing outdoors or mountaineering, generally the more crazy shit you do with someone the stronger the friendship that comes out of it. (In a good way though…I think).
You can progress your muscle tone and co-ordination, but it’s much more functional than weights or push-ups
I, for one, have never done a pull up in my life and it’s not for want of trying. Lots of people with dyspraxia have poor muscle tone. I first noticed at the age of 8, when my 6 year old brother could carry heavier things than me, and it’s bothered me throughout life. While it does make climbing a bit more difficult at times, you can compensate to a certain degree by working harder on your technique, and although it doesn’t feel like a boring work out in the same way as arm day at the gym would, you’ll still notice some improvements in your strength. Co-ordination can improve over time as well, or at least coping strategies for poor co-ordination, and this is useful in day to day life as well as at the crag.
The Hidden Challenges
I’ve also decided to write about some of the hidden challenges that dyspraxia can present when you try climbing. They aren’t the same for everyone but it’d be great if people understood what we’re up against beyond “you’ve got shit balance”, so if you want more info about the problems we face AND the solutions we find, keep reading!
Poor co-ordination; my hands and feet don’t always go where I think they’re going to!
The problem: Exactly as the title suggests, it’s harder for us to get our hands and feet where we want them to go! Poor gross motor co-ordination is one of the biggest parts of dyspraxia for me, so this is one of my biggest issues when it comes to climbing.
The solution: Practice, practice and more practice!! Although we can’t fix the difficulties associated with dyspraxia, we can learn to compensate for them, and practising climbing does exactly this. The more you climb, the more you get used to compensating for hand-eye co-ordination problems, like learning to balance yourself such that staying on the wall doesn’t completely depend on whether or not your hand hits a specific hold, and learning to put more of your weight on the limbs that are solidly balanced and less on the ones you’re moving. These skills take a while to develop, but they’re useful in day to day life as well. The other part of the solution for this is that it doesn’t really matter! You might miss the hold you’re throwing for occasionally. Laugh about it. It’s okay to make a fool of yourself in climbing!
Poor muscle tone! POOR MUSCLE TONE!!!!
I’ve decided to put this one in caps because I WANT PEOPLE TO PAY ATTENTION TO IT! It’s one of the lesser recognised effects of dyspraxia, and somehow neurotypical people who don’t have or really know anything about dyspraxia like to write it off as an excuse (it’s not!) or assert that “being a clumsy person” can’t possibly affect your strength (it can! It does! Ohhh boy it does).
The problem: Having poor muscle tone is like having a floppy rubber band where everybody else has a tight one (oo-er). To stretch a loose rubber band, you have to first pull it into tension before you can stretch it at all. Most people have a rubber band that’s tense to start with and all they need to do it stretch it further, whereas ours aren’t at the same start point, so (to varying degrees), dyspraxic people tend to be working much harder to do effectively the same movement. This also makes stamina a bit of an issue. I know lots of dyspraxic adults who struggle to stand up for more than a few minutes at a time, and considering this it’s not surprising that you’ll find it hard to get more than a couple of climbs in a day outdoors. That’s actually okay, and something that I have mostly made peace with, but it can be demoralising. Because strength is something people work hard for, are proud of, and like to show off about, it is also something people are particularly inclined to tell you you’re making up. It’s because people feel as though you saying it would be harder for you to achieve the same thing is shitting on their achievement, whereas in fact it’s perfectly possible to be proud of your achievement while acknowledging the extra challenges other people face. Simple, right? Apparently not.
The solution: Good technique!! You can compensate well for limited strength with learning to position your body better or read the routes better or distribute your weight better. It’s an acknowledged fact that female climbers tend to have better technique because they’re forced to depend on it more than male counterparts who have generally more baseline strength. The same can be said for dyspraxic vs neurotypical climbers, and although it seems like a disadvantage at first, one can only get so far on strength alone, and it always gets to a point where those who had to get better technique in the first place are able to advance quicker than those who muscled up everything. HOWEVER, you should also acknowledge that it’s possible to build up strength even from a disadvantaged start point. Often, especially in uni clubs like the one I learnt to climb in, people will start off saying “oh you’re not very strong, that’s fine, I can train you”, but their progressions will start from long dead hangs, or chin-ups, none of which I could do. Look closer though, and there are more attainable ways to train your strength. For example, doing pull-up or chin-ups with one foot in a resistance band, or with one foot on a wall feature. (more to come on this in later articles…maybe…).
Being generally clumsy at and around crags
This one is more of an outdoor problem, although I do fall over on bouldering mats a lot, because it’s like walking on a lilo and I can NEVER keep my balance ><
The problem: For starters I like hiking and mountaineering anyway, but even if that wasn’t my thing lots of outdoor crags are only accessible by walking along sketchy paths, sometimes where the ground is wet and slippy, sometimes where the path is narrow and there’s a big drop, and sometimes where there’s crumbly ground under-foot that can fall away if you don’t watch your step! For someone who falls over a lot, you can see why it could be an issue. This shouldn’t put you off completely because there are more easily accessible crags, but on many trips with neurotypical friends who won’t pick crags based on easy access, this is a huuuuge problem for me.
The solution: First and most importantly, you can say no if you don’t feel comfortable or safe with something. Can and must, because nobody else understands what it’s like to be in your shoes (or muddy, worn out trainers) and only you can call it when the path looks too exposed or slippery or scary for you. That’s okay. If your friends don’t understand they can fuck off. Better you stay alive and piss off some douchebags than fall off a cliff trying to get to the climb they fancy. Part two, again, is practice, practice, practice, but that doesn’t mean challenge yourself to the most dangerous approach you can find. You can start off on crags that only involve solid ground, and practice by hiking or walking outside of climbing trips. It’s good for balance and cardio too! Also, if that’s not going to be your thing, you can carry on climbing without the sketchy approaches. You can stick to only crags within 5 minutes of a car park. You can stick to indoors. That’s fine too.
It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the landing!
A dramatic title, yes, but apt. The problem isn’t so much the fact that I’m more likely to fall, but that landing a fall in a safe way is more difficult with dyspraxia.
The problem: With my dyspraxia, as I fall I can’t always process what’s happening fast enough to correct it. Falls happen in a split second, and while most climbers seem to right themselves as they fall like a cat, I am far less graceful! When lead climbing I’ll sometimes fall from a height and land face-first against the wall, or accidentally twist round and bang my bum! Other people can keep facing forwards and stick their legs out a bit to bounce off the wall. When bouldering, I often land in the position I fell off, so on my bum on the mat, or with more weight on one foot than the other which hurts my ankles, or sometimes on my back. Other people can fall in a more controlled way, landing on their feet with weight equally spread and knees bent. When mountaineering, other people can stick an axe in the ice or snow to prevent falling a distance. I don’t always realise it’s happening fast enough to do this.
The solution: The reassuring thing to know for beginners is that top rope climbing is completely safe. Essentially, you shouldn’t fall any distance so these issues are eliminated, and apart from the occasional graze if you’re as clumsy as me, you should come away unscathed. You can climb on top-rope outside, both on ice and rock, so this doesn’t limit your potential to get outdoors on real rock! The risks shouldn’t put you off lead or bouldering entirely though. I honestly compensate for being bad at falls by not climbing things on lead or boulder that I’m likely to fall off! This means I don’t try to lead climb or boulder as hard as I potentially could, but that’s okay because I can still push my grade on top-rope, and as my confidence progresses with that, my ability on lead will naturally progress. Just a grade or two behind 😛 The other part of the solution is that you can actually practice falls in a safe environment, which I do. Indoors and with a partner you trust, you can practice taking falls from gradually increasing heights and develop techniques to land well that work for you. I’ve been to specialist classes in bouldering centres with Paraclimbing London, designed to reduce risk of injury from falls in people with various disabilities.
So considering all the above, and the obvious challenges… why bother? Why is it worth the effort??
WELL, I’m so glad you asked.
Climbing has taken me all over the continent, and when I’m a little less broke it’ll take me all over the world. It’s a gateway to enjoying the outdoors in general, to hiking and wild camping and microadventures and exploring the awesome world we live in. I’ve found myself reaching alpine summits, albeit smudged with blood, sweat and tears, but looking out on the best views I’ve ever seen, and surrounded by people I’ll remember for the rest of my life. It’s improved my confidence hugely, both socially and in my ability to learn and progress in all areas. It’s improved my fitness massively (it’s been four years and I still can’t do pull-ups, but there’s definitely a bit of bicep poking through!). I met my partner climbing (also dyspraxic). I have a great way to spend my free time, and most weekends find myself looking forward to the next adventure. It can be a challenge, yes, but only as much as I make it, and when I overcome those challenges? It’s the best damn feeling in the world.
Interested? There are lots of ways to get involved.
To find a club locally to you, have a look at the British Mountaineering Council’s website and get in touch with them: https://www.thebmc.co.uk/find-a-club
Indoor climbing is a great place to start, and there are walls all over the UK.
If you’re worried about how dyspraxia might affect your climbing, paraclimbing clubs also operate throughout the UK, so try getting in touch with your local wall and seeing what’s available in the area.
If you have any questions about dyspraxia and climbing, or would like to see information about a relevant topic in future articles, please feel free to get in touch with me.
Thanks for reading!