My friend Naomi climbs as hard as Chris Sharma. She just does it on easier routes.

I met Naomi three years ago or so when she began dating one of my my partners-in-crime from back in the college days-Ken. I never felt comfortable asking about her crutches because I didn’t really know what questions to ask or if it would seem rude. She didn’t seem too bothered by them–she never seemed conscious of them, so I figured maybe that it was some sort of delicate balance, a zen-like state of Nirvana that would dissipate into thin air if called into question. It seemed like a “Larry David” situation waiting to happen so I just dismissed it. Over the years, Ken and Naomi became closer with Stefanie and I–and I had this thought that I couldnt get out of my mind…

“We should take them climbing” I told Stef. “I bet she could totally do it too” We agreed on this and decided to mention it the next time we saw them. This was all before we even thought of the 365 Challenge or LivingVertical as a concept–but since they had been really supportive and helpful this past summer as we discussed our plans for this new adventure, so it was a logical next step. 

Of recently I have been thinking about the importance of attitude in dealing with chronic illnesses and disabilities (more on this to come in future posts). I really wanted to pick Ken and Naomi’s brains on the new direction we have been taking, emphasizing the importance of lifestyle and  habits versus the lazziez-faire approach. I really want to dissect that Gordian Knot in an upcoming post, so stay tuned…But Ken has been a source of good council and level headedness for as long as I have known him, and Naomi has the same qualities too. Beyond this, she has had to deal with incomplete paralysis  as a result of a 15 year-old injury, so I knew I would get some insightful perspectives and a lot of laughs.

I actually only found out the clinical diagnosis of Naomi’s condition this last week as we finalized plans to climb. I was blown away by the fact that there was no hesitancy to explain things very matter-of-factly. No excuses, no hesitance. Just simple acceptance and explanation. “I have no idea how this will work out in reality” I told her over the phone. “I only know that if you are comfortable with just dealing with each challenge as it comes and telling us what works for you, we can just problem-solve”

“Well, problem solving is how I live my life” She replied.

Being honest, there was a small part of me that was scared that I had invited two of my best friends out climbing without the ability to know if I was going to be setting them up for a failure. As a guide, I have seen this type of thing go incredibly poorly, when someone is unable to face their challenge and gets defeated.  I REALLY didnt want this to happen with Ken and Naomi.

Then again, I have plenty of worries about the 365 Challenge and we are still going ahead with that! My gut told me that Naomi had the right attitude and that it would be amazing even if I couldnt mentally script how our day would look..

GAME ON!

Saturday dawned bright and clear. Or so I’m guessing. I slept til 10:30 and got dressed 5 minutes before Ken and Naomi arrived. I know, I am a shameful person. As Ken could attest, I was the jerk that would jump in the shower 5 minutes before it was time to go out, when we were in college. But it’s my trademark. So cut me some slack!

We hit up Dunkin Donuts for some starter-fluid and got out to the cliffs at a little after noon. The sun was warm and the leaves were popping–as much as they are going to this season (which has been a bit drab). Our approach was a bit full-on–solid 3rd class scrambling. This was our first set of obstacles. I climbed up ahead just to wait and see if I needed to give them a hand.

As they tried a few approaches before settling on a series of moves to surmount the short climbs I lurched forward, babbling advice and suggestions that I realized were about as useful as the tits on a bull. I forced myself to choke down my words of advice and let them figure it out for themselves. It worked better than anything I could have done.

Imagine that. Inaction can be the most powerful action. I have long believed that challenge is a part of life and we should learn to relish it, not resent it. It is hard letting someone else struggle though–but when I did, I gave them the room to figure it out and fully experience the situation for themselves! And they did brilliantly–and they used completely different methods than those I would have suggested but it totally worked!

(There might be a lesson in here somewhere, but I’m not sure what it is…)

The approach was the crux of the day for me. Once we got through that I saw the pieces clicking together. We set up “basecamp” at the bottom of the cliff. Stefanie, Ken and Naomi got harnessed up while I ran up the gully to set up the anchors. I have set up this climb about 500 times before and yet I was fumbling with the cams and cordelettes in my excitement to see what would come next and get to the climbing! Once I got that dialed, I came back down, checked my blood sugar and had a Clif Builders Bar and finished my coffee.

The climbing itself was a blast. We didnt know how well Naomi’s limited mobility would affect her ability to benefit from wearing actual climbing shoes, so we started them off on climbs that could be done in street shoes.  We had to experiment with athletic tape and ace bandages to allow her to take off the ankle braces she wears for ankle stability–while it definitely was not the most elegant solution, the tape made it possible for Naomi to wear Stef’s approach shoes and the sticky rubber made a huge difference.

I had a sneaking feeling that both Ken and Naomi would pick up the knots they needed to learn in a hurry–and I was right. It didnt take long for them to get tied in and ready to climb. Ken climbed first and made short work of the first climb. The plan was that he would go first so that he could be the test pilot and reveal the difficult spots. That plan didnt really work because he just climbed right up without any pausing or hesitation. 

Naomi tied in next and I was scrambling around like a madman trying to get camera angles sorted out–I gave her a few pointers before she left the ground and offered to help if she felt like she needed it. I promised not to intervene unless she asked. That was a hard promise for me to keep but I think I scored over 80% on that one…

I sat behind the camera and watched Naomi problem solve.  I couldn’t have predicted any of her moves, so the little that I could offer was an infrequent bit of encouragement. “Kick ass!” I mumbled as she climbed past me.  Her foot slid out from under her a couple of times. I bit my tongue as I started to tell her how to recover–but she had her own methods. Turns out, Naomi is pretty strong and is able to  pull down hard.  See, Naomi decided that she just wanted to be normal, not be a victim. She wanted to overcome, not to have an excuse to languish. So over the last 15 years she has kept her head in the game by working out, doing push ups, pull ups and core workouts to stay hard.

This has enabled her to own her condition, not be disabled by it. Personal responsibility, hard work and a great attitude. yielding an incredible experience. I had felt as if my “discovery” of this same approach to deal with my type1 diabetes was a fluke, like it might not work for other people. Watching the teamwork between Ken and Naomi as she came back down from the climb, lowered off onto her waiting crutches,  I felt confirmation of the concepts that have so changed my life and that we are sharing through LivingVertical.

  1. Attitude is what separates the winners from “also rans”
  2. There is no substitute for hard work
  3. It is your responsibility to own your disability and not let it own YOU
  4. Challenges in our life should be relished, not resented.
  5. The people around us are of vital importance
So yeah, no one was “cured” this weekend. But for a few hours, Naomi didn’t need crutches. And I wasn’t a “diabetic”.  We were a group of climbers–laughing, enjoying the leaves, the weather, some good snacks and just being normal people. Cures are the stuff of complexity and science–we are not waiting for a cure “someday”. We are living our own cure right now. Why wait?