New Heights: Deaf Climbing and Mountaineering

The picture on the left depicts Heidi Zimmer, perhaps one of the most accomplished deaf mountaineers: she was the first deaf person to summit Mt Elbrus, the highest peak in Russia, and the first deaf woman to reach the peak of Kilimanjaro as well as Denali, the highest peak in North America.

As well as being deaf, she was diagnosed later in her life with Usher Syndrome, which lead to a progressive loss of her vision. And yet she has not let any of this come in her way on her journey to the top: she wants to be the first Deaf person to climb all the Seven Summits, the highest mountains of each of the seven traditional continents.

This illuminates just how incredible Heidi’s achievements have been. For anyone to climb seven of the highest peaks in the world is amazing (only 416 people have); to do it while deaf and partially sighted is phenomenal. This is not to demean the talent and skill of deaf climbers and mountaineers like Heidi, but instead to highlight some of the unique challenges which they face.

As an example, see Sonya Wilson, American deaf climbing legend and founder of the ASL Climbing Network, talking to Common Climber magazine about attempting to do the same challenge:

Miriam [Richards] and I were trying to join a climbing group to climb all seven of the highest world summits. We were told we had to hire the interpreters privately and they would charge us a lot more. Even when we said we were both experienced climbers and both teachers and we could show them how to work with us in a group, they still refused. Don’t charge us more just because we are deaf or don’t expect us to carry the entire cost of interpreters. This makes it next to impossible for us to afford the adventure.’

Sonya Wilson mirroring Heidi Zimmer’s pose after a successful summit (commonclimbing.com)

And these barriers are not limited to world class mountaineers like Wilson and Zimmer. Let us move away from the incomprehensible peaks of the Himalayas, and into a more relatable climbing gym, the kind which thousands of deaf climbers in the UK frequent, from social climbers to hobbyists to athletes in training.

Most people who want to try climbing for the first time would find a class at their nearest gym led by a qualified instructor. For deaf climbers, this is much harder as there is a dire shortage of instructors who are also interpreters. Rather than their local gym, they may have to travel long distances to find an accessible introductory class.

And it doesn’t stop at the beginner level. If anything, it only gets more difficult as a climber progresses, as Tonya Stremlau, a Deaf climber and professor, pointed out in an interview with climbing.com. She is forced to rely independent self-teaching via YouTube videos. ‘Especially for learning advanced skills,’ Stremlau signed, ‘I feel like my climbing has developed at a slower pace because the clinics for learning those different techniques have not been accessible.’

However, coaching aside, there are far more accessibility challenges to overcome. Even with bouldering, often seen as the most accessible form of climbing for beginners due to its lack of ropes and lower heights, communication is important to ensure safety in a busy gym and for climbers to be able to communicate with those on the ground for help.

Beyond bouldering, more gear presents more potential challenges, from helmets sometimes being incompatible with certain types of hearing aid, to the importance of proper communication between climber and their belaying partner.

It comes down to the same issues which India Morse raised about fitness: that there was more widespread deaf awareness, and more hearing people were able to communicate even at a basic level with deaf people, the world of sport would be a much more accessible place. In conversation with Climbing.com, Deaf climber and teacher Caitlin Mosholder encourages the hearing community to be open-minded. ‘Once the hearing community and Deaf community partner, it’s deeper than just climbing. It’s cultural awareness, language acquisition… understanding different communities.’

We can hope that this will improve in the future as organisations like UK Deaf Sport continue to make strides in making sport across the UK more accessible. They offer an Effective Communication Course for coaches of any sport including climbing, which aims to give hearing coaches the ability to ‘support any deaf participant that you encounter in, just as much as the next player’.

Sonya Wilson outlines the importance of this connection with a partner in her viral social media video on Deaf Communication Strategies. This also presents some excellent advice and strategies to overcome this, and while in ASL, there are captions and a transcript provided, and she advocates against a ‘one size fits all’ approach. ‘You do not have to follow the communication strategies that we use, what matters is that you find what works for YOU’

‘While “reading” your partner’s facial expressions, eye contact and body language is imperative, it is also helpful to have another communication system that you both know. There are many modes of communication – visually, hand signals, sign language, foot shakes, thigh slaps, rope tugs, vibrations or verbally. Whatever strategies you and your partner use to communicate always agree before climbing begins. Communication in the outdoors requires the ability to adapt, improvise and experiment with various methods to fit the situation. Whatever strategies or methods you use, make sure it is short, simple, to the point, clearly differentiated so there is less chance for error.’

Sonya Wilson in Joshua Tree in 2017 (gearjunkie.com)

The reason why we have to turn to an ASL user for this advice is because there is an unfortunate lack of BSL resources on the topic. There was an organisation called Deaf Climbing UK, but unfortunately this no longer appears to exist, and their website full of resources, is no longer active.

That is not to say that there is no help there, however. As the representative body for climbers, hill walkers and mountaineers in England and Wales, the BMC has an Equity Steering Group which works to remove any barriers to participation and is also implementing a Disability Action Plan. As part of this, they have a resource pack of advice entitled Hearing Impairments In Rock Climbing And Bouldering, and they also run an annual BMC Paraclimbing Series. This accessible competition consists of eight different categories of entrants, one of which is sensory impairment.

However, there are still issues with this, as Susanne Rees, co-founder of Deaf Climbing UK points out. While appreciative of the success of Paraclimbing, she says that it is not representative of deaf climbers as ‘Deaf climbers cannot be selected for the GB Paraclimbing team because there is no international category for deaf climbers’ and ‘there isn’t enough representation for deaf climbers on the Equity and Steering board of the BMC nor the IFSC Paraclimbing board.’

This lack of representation has led to deaf climbers taking it into their own hands and forming groups to support one another, from national groups to regional groups like the Milton Keynes Deaf Climbing club.

These groups provide their members an excellent way of socialising with other deaf people through a fun and healthy hobby. For some deaf climbers, their lack of hearing also provides advantages over their hearing competitors. In the words of Andre Hedger (not while dangling from a cave roof as pictured…)

‘Being profoundly deaf is definitely not an issue for climbing, in fact I think it’s a benefit. For example, when I am climbing there are some people shouting the sequences from the bottom of the crag which can be really distracting. This opportunity gets me into the rock, much more focused.’

Andre climbing a cave roof (epictv.com)

This quote is from a BSL Zone documentary which provides an excellent insight into deaf climbing. As well as an excellent source of inspiration for anyone considering giving climbing a go, it also provides a perfect sentiment on which to end this piece. Despite the challenges of poor accessibility, deaf athletes continue to embody the spirit of climbing: to break down barriers, find their own path, and go further and higher than ever before.


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