Kareemah Batts climbing
(Photo: Kareemah Batts)
The Daily Rally

Kareemah Batts Wants Us to Get to the Top Together

During a climbing trip in Greece, the adaptive athlete saw the possibility for shared experiences that can truly change our way of thinking

Kareemah Batts climbing

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Kareemah Batts shared her story with producer Paddy O’Connell for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity. 

The three of us had our first real climbing day out there, which was a test for all of us physically.  We got to describe what that was like, and they said, “So what was the hardest part?” And we were like, “The approach.” That’s not what people normally say. It was like one long bouldering problem for us. Being the only three people with disability among a couple hundred people was something that really could change the way they do these rock trips in the future that they’ve been doing for 20 years.

I was given the nickname Hopness, by a group of my first para climbers. So everybody referred to me as Her Hopness, which is like an amputee version of her highness. It’s also my Instagram handle and my license plate. I grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York, and I currently live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York. I’m a professional seat filler. I figured that if God gave me such a big butt, I should probably use it. My business card would probably say, “Outdoor enthusiast and community builder.”

As founder of Adaptive Climbing Group, I sponsor athletes to compete nationally and internationally. Every year we pick up about an average of 20 athletes from across the United States to be able to break that equitable barrier to the sport of climbing.

As a Black woman who has Cherokee heritage, who is a woman of size, who is a person with a disability, I definitely like to foster leadership in people. My passion is actually being of service.

In January 2022, I received an email from some folks at Adidas and they said, “Hey, we’d like to invite you and your athletes to the Petzl RocTrip in Manikia, Greece. For people who don’t know the Petzl RocTrip, it’s kind of like the NBA All Stars. They invite literally the best climbers from around the world. They pick one place in the world that is not a developed climbing area, and they develop it and put up all new first ascents.

The first thing I asked them was, “What would you like me to do?” Because it can’t be climbing. No, that’s not what you want me to do there. Want me to take some pictures?

Even among para climbers, I am definitely not anywhere near even the people that I sponsor to compete. But I saw this also as a great opportunity to incorporate these athletes that I do love to get the opportunity because, not that there’s never been a para climber at a Petzl RocTrip, but there was no one who was officially invited.

The three of us who went were, Brian Zarzuela, who is a very strong one-armed Latino climber in his twenties from Queens. And Melissa Ruiz, who is from the Bronx and has cerebral palsy, so she has to use walking aids in order to climb. She doesn’t have control over her hips and leg function. And you have me, who’s a below-knee amputee with some other invisible comorbidities due to my stage four cancer survivorship.

I was paying attention to the ability portion because there are some challenges. The trips for para climbers are tailored. We try to find the most accessible routes that do not have very challenging approaches, so all the physical energy can be placed on the climbing. But here, even some of the routes have question marks next to what the ratings were. Like the approach is, five minutes, maybe? That approach might be five minutes for one person, and it could be endless for us. Are we scrambling? Is it steep? Does it have loose rock and rock fall?

Especially when you’re with a group of able-bodied people and you’re only people with disabilities, you constantly put yourself in a place of apologizing for not being able to move as fast or move like they do, or choosing a different path.

It was the most beautiful day, where the sun was shining but not so intense you wanted to run away. It was just the right amount of breeze. Considering it was May in Greece, it was kind of amazing. The rock there is limestone, but it’s new limestone, so it can be sharp, as well as chossy. And the approach was not easy. It was very steep, it was winding. There were tons of boulders, rock obstacles, and thorns. The thing about me and my colleague Melissa hiking on steep trails is because our impairment is of our legs, we do a lot of hand-feet movements. The same way that you would read a climbing route, we’re reading a hiking route.

There was this one specific moment where I got to a really hard part of this approach, and I had to stop. I wanted to take a break, take a breath. I’ve been on hikes before, and being that last person on the trail with everybody waiting for me, and the look on their faces when I finally catch up, I hate that feeling. Which is why I stopped doing it.

I said to Dickie, who is this wonderful French climber, “Hey, you guys can go ahead of us if you want. It’s going to take us a while to get through this section. If you want to go ahead and start climbing, we’ll meet you up there.” And they were like, “No, that’s okay. We’re not in a rush.”

That was the first time someone said that to me. It might have been the first time someone said that to me when I’ve been on a hike with able-bodied people. I felt like the most prolific part of it was actually just us all getting to the top together. That exchange of, “No, we don’t want to rush ahead. We’re just all hiking together.” I know it seems so simple. It sounds like it’s not really a big deal. But it’s massively huge.

I felt in that moment, Oh shoot, we really are climbing together. Because you can’t help but feel separate in a space where you approach life completely differently.

I don’t have to be or feel anything except for myself. There’s no expectations. I can just truly be in this country I’ve never been in before on these rocks I’ve never been on before, and have beautiful, wonderful conversations of love and learning.

Now, I could talk about the amazing climbing, the first one arm ascent of a couple of routes that happened, and the first fat girl ascents that I did. But I really think that was the least important part of it. We had an opportunity to change a lot of people’s minds and hearts. To expand their way of thinking.

What I learned during that week at the Petzl RocTrip is that the world is changing in a vastly better way. It can be hard for people to grasp that. But there are these little moments that make you think something is going to be better.

Kareemah Batts is a para climber, stage four cancer survivor, amputee, diversity equity advocate, and founder of Adaptive Climbing Group. She is currently up to something fabulous on a climbing route or in New York City. Maybe both. You can follow her adventures on Instagram @herhopness and online at kareemahbatts.com

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