“Ice is the great equalizer, because even ‘normals’ need adaptive equipment to climb it."
Watching the way Christa Brelsford flows up the frozen waterfalls of the Ouray Ice Park, the box canyon that cuts through the Colorado town of the same name, you wouldn’t guess that three years ago, her climbing career almost ended for good.
On Jan 12, 2010, Brelsford was volunteering at the Cabois Literacy School in Darbonne, Haiti when the massive magnitude seven earthquake hit, collapsing a house on top of her. Brelsford spent 45 minutes face down and buried in rubble before her brother and friends could dig her out. After a 30-plus-hour trip with no painkillers, Brelsford landed at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. She would end up losing her right leg below the knee.
“It was a crazy time, but I came so close to dying that in the early days, I just told myself, “Fuck it, you’re alive! Don’t you realize what a gift that is?” says Brelsford, 28. “Why are you worried about your leg when you could have been dead?”
Still, Brelsford did wonder what life would be like in her new body. The Alaska native had fallen in love with climbing at age 12, and the most important thing for her was figuring out how to get back to the sport.
Brelsford’s answer came when the phone next to her hospital bed rang. It was Malcolm Daly, the co-founder of Paradox Sports, a non-profit dedicated to getting people with disabilities outside. Daly invited Brelsford to “Gimps On Ice,” an event that brings together an assortment of ‘gimps’ and ‘normals’ to learn ice-climbing skills and build community in Ouray, Colorado.
Daly understands better than most what it’s like to come back to climbing after a body-shattering accident. In May 1999, while attempting a new route on Alaska's Thunder Mountain with famed alpinist Jim Donini, Daly plunged 200 feet, shattering his legs and feet and knocking himself unconscious for a brief period. After lowering Daly 180 feet, carving out a tiny ledge on which he could rest, and getting him as warm as possible, Donini left to get help. For the next 48 hours, Daly endured sub-zero temperatures, avalanches, and heavy bleeding, before a helicopter plucked him from the side of the peak.
Daly spent the better part of the next two years in and out of hospitals, dealing with frostbite as well as a shattered right ankle and a broken left leg that weren’t healing correctly. In July 2001, he chose to have his right foot amputated seven inches below the knee; doctors used part of that bone to heal his left leg.
As Daly slowly made his way back into climbing over the next year, he took comfort in the stories of Hugh Herr and Mike Crenshaw, fellow climbers who had returned to the sport after amputations. In 2007, Daly founded Paradox with army Captain DJ Skelton and climber Timmy O'Neill to provide a measure of that reassurance to others.
“Ice is the great equalizer, because even ‘normals’ need adaptive equipment to climb it,” he says.
When Daly called Brelsford, she was still on crutches and hadn't yet learned how to walk with her brand-new prosthetic. Still, Daly urged her to go climbing with them. “Come and we’ll figure out what you can do,” he told her. That weekend, only 61 days after the earthquake that took her leg, Brelsford climbed ice for the first time.
"That was one of the most important experiences I’ve ever had,” Brelsford says. “It seemed so normal to be out with people who had the same injuries as me. It showed me that it wasn’t going to have to be a defining part of my life if I didn’t want it to be.”
Today, Brelsford is pursuing her PhD in natural resource economics, and is back to sending 5.11 with no problem. But even though she’s healed and doesn’t need help with the mechanics anymore, she keeps coming back to climb with Paradox. Consider it her way of repaying the favor Malcolm Daly did her with one simple phone call in 2010.
A PETITE YET WELL-MUSCLED CLIMBER donning a bright blue jacket and a lime green pack clips herself onto a rope and, slowly, inches her way backwards toward the edge of the 90-foot frozen cliff behind her. Rather than walk to the bottom, Wendy Ong has decided to rappel into Ouray’s canyon.
An accomplished rock climber who once scaled routes on El Cap, Ong has rappelled a thousand times, but this morning she hesitates. She runs through the checklist one more time: harness doubled-back? Carabiner locked? Rope threaded properly through her rappel device?
“Even though I knew I was perfectly safe, there was that moment today when I second-guessed it all,” Ong says later. “Going over the edge for the first time was intense.”
Ong hasn’t rappelled since October 16, 2010. That day, believing she was on belay from below, the Harvard pre-med student backed off the top of a sport climb in California’s Owens River Gorge, and suddenly found herself plummeting toward the ground.
Miraculously, Ong survived her 140-foot fall without a head injury, but her skeleton took the brunt of the impact. It acted like “the hood of a car, crumpling and absorbing” the force. She partially severed her spinal cord, severely damaged all her lumbar and sacral vertebrae, broke her pelvis, and shattered her sacrum into pebbles.
After four months in the hospital and in rehab, Ong began walking with a brace. Despite her doctors’ low expectations, she continued to improve. Today, she limps slightly on steep terrain, but you wouldn’t know from watching her walk that she is a spinal cord injury survivor with a partially paralyzed left leg.
Post-accident, Ong put climbing out of her mind so she could focus on healing. “Right when I was feeling ready emotionally and physically to make a foray back into climbing, someone told me to find Malcolm Daly and Paradox,” she says. In February, she joined Paradox at an ice-climbing event at Cathedral Ledge in New Hampshire. It was her first time climbing ice; without expectations, she thought, she wouldn’t be disappointed by not being able to do the things she used to.
Returning to the vertical world again felt like finding the missing piece to a puzzle. “It felt so good to just be out there again,” Ong says. “Being outdoors brings a peace and serenity that I really missed.”
For climbers like Ong, who are tentatively making their way back into the sport, the helpful atmosphere Daly and company offer is a boon. “Paradox has given me a supportive environment in which to find out what I can and can’t do. Being able to talk so openly about my disabilities to people who understand is really liberating,” says Ong. “But, the biggest thing is the camaraderie and the support. After my accident, I missed being on the rock, but mostly I missed that community of climbers.”
By bringing together elite and amateur climbers, both disabled and not, Daly says Paradox hopes to inspire and empower individuals by giving them the tools to play to their strengths and define life on their own terms.“We’re not trying to turn people into climbers. We’re trying to guide them onto a path that leads to what we call a ‘life of excellence', Daly says. "A well-rounded physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual framework within which to live.”