Chicago group makes climbing accessible

Clarinda Valentine
Clarinda Valentine ascends a 50-foot rope at Adaptive Climbing Group Chicago on Wednesday evenings (Melissa Hovanes/Medill)

By Melissa Hovanes
Medill Reports

At age 15, Clarinda Valentine’s life was forever altered. “A guy came in the YMCA shooting and I got the bullet in the back,” said Valentine. “That’s kind of been my life since then. I was a sophomore in high school at the time.”

Forty-nine years later, at age 64, Valentine spends her Wednesday evenings climbing a 50-foot rope at Brooklyn Boulders in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood. She’s been climbing for more than three years with Adaptive Climbing Group Chicago. “I see the benefit in my ability… I’m physically stronger, and more fit,” said Valentine. “It makes my life easier when transferring from the wheelchair.”

ACG Chicago began in May 2015 as an expansion of a national organization founded in New York City two years earlier. “We started here with a partnership with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago,” explained Al Schewe, lead volunteer with ACG Chicago. “We did a pilot program for veterans, and then in the fall of 2015 we expanded to the wider adaptive community.”

Schewe, a certified rock-climbing guide who has led beginner climbing groups for years, learned about the program from a friend who worked at RIC, now Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. “I showed up for the first climbing day, and I was hooked. I’ve been here ever since,” said Schewe. He now instructs adaptive climbing participants and volunteers each week.

Safety Check
ACG Chicago Lead Volunteer Al Schewe (center) helps another volunteer prepare participant Clarinda Valentine (left) for climbing (Melissa Hovanes/MEDILL)

Adaptive sports incorporate the necessary modifications to allow people with disabilities to participate. “All climbing is really adaptive,” said Schewe. “We all use some specialized gear – we’re using harnesses, we’re using special shoes, we’re using ropes – so we just kind of extend that.”

Schewe and other volunteers assess new participants to determine what modifications they need in order to climb. Some climbers, like Valentine, ascend a rope, rather than interact with the wall. Other participants climb the wall supported by a pulley system and a volunteer who climbs alongside them. Several others climb unassisted entirely, modifying the sport for their physical abilities, as any non-disabled climber would do.

Molly Ferris was born without any fingers on her right hand, but grew up playing sports on teams with her non-disabled peers.  She started climbing four years ago, and is now climbing competitively. Last September, Ferris competed in the 2018 Paraclimbing World Championships in Innsbruck, Austria. “We’re climbers here at heart,” said Ferris, speaking about the Chicago group. “I think most everyone who comes through ends up coming back again, again and again. It’s a really tight knit group. It’s just my favorite.”

The physical benefits and mental challenges of adaptive climbing are not the only reasons ACG participants and volunteers come back each week. They also enjoy being part of a supportive and welcoming community.

Clarinda Valentine ascends a 50-foot rope at Adaptive Climbing Group Chicago on Wednesday evenings (Melissa Hovanes/MEDILL)