Teen climber continues his sport despite cancer and loss of leg

By Siyan (Jen) Huang

Climbing is a sport that requires great courage and strength.

I met 17-year-old Ian Vallejo, an agile climber who had lost a leg to cancer, right after his second round of chemotherapy for yet another cancer. He was pale and sitting in a wheelchair. It was hard for me to picture him climbing indoor rock walls and outdoor mountainsides considering his physical condition.

But one week later, I saw him hiking with a pair of walking sticks and climbing up a cliff in Arkansas. All doubts disappeared.

“If I can stand, I can climb.” That is what Vallejo said when people question whether he can climb.

(Video by Siyan Huang/MEDILL)

Although he is only 17, Vallejo already has a long history of climbing. He started in third grade. Philip Winter – his uncle, a high school P.E. teacher, and a climber since his teens – was the first teacher to introduce Vallejo to the sport of climbing.

“Climbing is pretty much everything,” said Vallejo, “When I was really sick, it was my reason to get out of the house and to get active.”

In the summer of 2015, osteosarcoma, a malignant tumor on his left tibia, resulted in the amputation of his left leg.

“It was a very scary time,” said Elizabeth Vallejo, Ian’s mother. “But he has handled it like a champ. He really just viewed it as something that he just needs to get through, and he will, and just another challenge in life.”

But, at first, after the amputation, he just wanted to stay in bed. It was his mother who got him out of the bed, and convinced him to go back to the climbing gym.

“He was in quite a bit of pain. And he couldn’t move around. I think he was trying to figure out what life was going to look like,” said Elizabeth Vallejo. “And climbing has always been something he’d loved. It has been his passion, his thing to do.”

“My goal was to have no physical limitations after the amputation. So climbing was the best way to do that.” With that, Ian Vallejo went back onto the climbing wall.

“It was really good that I knew that I could do this and do this well even after losing my leg,” Vallejo recalled the first climbing after his amputation. Luckily, he not only got back to what he loves, but also found his own community – the Adaptive Climbing Group of Chicago.

The Adaptive Climbing Group is a community for people with disabilities to help them participate in the sport of climbing. It’s based in a climbing gym called the Brooklyn Boulders, 100 S. Morgan St. Adaptive climbers get together every Wednesday to work on their climbing skills and pursue their climbing dreams.

Vallejo believes that the community has given him plenty of power and helped him climb better.  “They’ve become my best friends. They’re always there for me when I need them,” he said.

In the meantime, he also tries to help other climbers in the community to get as much improvement as possible.

Nicole Sauder, an adaptive climber with a visual impairment and a special education high school teacher, met Vallejo in the Adaptive Climbing Group and became one of his best friends. “He is really good at motivating people,” she said. “He knows what people can do and pushes them just a little bit to the hardest thing that they can do, and tries to help them to get better.”

After the amputation and nine months of intense chemotherapy, there was no evidence of disease. Vallejo had conquered cancer. He started to focus on climbing competitively. He competed in national championships and was selected for the national team to compete in world championships because of his outstanding climbing ability.

However, just when he thought everything was going right, his doctors had bad news. About four months ago, they found another tumor developing on his sacrum. The tumor is pressing on his sciatic nerve, the nerve that runs from each side of the lower spine, which took away his ability to walk.

This new tumor required another round of chemotherapy and forced him out of competitions.

“I lost 30 pounds. A lot of it was muscle,” said Vallejo.

“When he received a lot of chemo, [his strength] washed away and he hasn’t been able to work out for months. It makes it really hard in order to keep climbing,” said Winter. “But he recovered so quickly.”

“I will climb till I can’t climb anymore,” Vallejo said with an unquestionably optimistic expression. In order to continue to climb, he has to keep exercising and build his strength back again. He said he wants to go to the Great Stone of Fourstones in North Yorkshire in England, Lion’s Head in South Africa and China for outdoor climbing in the future.

Besides climbing, Vallejo also has other plans for his future. He said he wants to study prosthetics and orthotics in college. “I feel I’ve been very fortunate with the care I’ve received from my prosthetist. And I want to be able to do that for other people.”

“As a climber, he’s confident, he’s capable, he’s intelligent and he thinks about what he is doing,” said Winter. “I have a lot of confidence in him as a young man.”

Photo at top: Ian Vallejo’s first outdoor climb in Arkansas since his second round of chemotherapy. (Siyan (Jen) Huang/MEDILL)