OURAY – About 20 men and women with various disabilities ranging from missing limbs to partial paralysis to PTSD arrive in Ouray this weekend to take part in the annual Paradox Sports Ice Climbing Weekend, formerly known as Gimps on Ice. The event, now in its sixth year, challenges the common misperception that an amputee is handicapped or that a blind person must, by default, lead a second-rate life.
Instructors use an ingenious variety of adaptive techniques and equipment, many developed right in Ouray, to get participants up the ice. Tools range from adaptive custom-made crampons and ice axes that work with prosthetics, to ascenders and Yates chairs which give paraplegic climbers a mechanical advantage as they ascend vertical ice using only their upper-body strength while their lower extremities are protected in a seat-like splint.
One climber to watch for this year is Shawn O’Neill, the paraplegic brother of the famously funny Paradox co-founder Timmy O’Neill (a self-described “gimpanzee” whose only disability is talking too much). “Make sure to get pictures of Shawn’s butt,” O’Neill quipped, describing a sort of adaptive butt-crampon Shawn will be using to help him ascend the frozen waterfalls of the Ouray Ice Park. “He’s got the most dangerous ass known to mankind.”
Why try ice-climbing if you're missing an arm or a leg or your vision or the use of your lower body or whatever? Malcolm Daly, Paradox Sports cofounder and former Executive Director, who is an amputee himself, puts it succinctly in his now-familiar refrain: "Ice is the great equalizer. None of us can climb it without adaptive equipment. We just go one step further."
Chad Jukes, a 27-year-old army veteran and lifelong sport climber who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq and now lives in Ouray County, will be among the instructors this year. It was only after his foot was amputated following an encounter with an anti-tank mine while on patrol in northern Iraq that he discovered a love for ice climbing, largely thanks to Daly.
While struggling with the decision of whether to have his foot amputated or undergo years of painful and likely unsuccessful reconstructive surgery on his shattered heel bone, Daly planted the seed that changed Jukes’ life.
On an online forum for amputees that climb, Jukes described his situation and asked the wide world what he should do. Daly, who lost a leg after a climbing accident, wrote back within minutes: “You know, if you amputate, you will still be able to climb. Dealing with a prosthetic is a pain in the ass. But I’d rather be an amputee than a cripple.”
The advice hit home. The minute Jukes saw his doctor again, he said, “When can you chop this thing off? I want it off.” One day into wearing his first prosthetic, he went to a climbing gym. A year later, Jukes showed up in Ouray, at Daly’s invitation, for his first Gimps on Ice event. He was hooked from the first swing of the axe.
The sport of ice climbing has since given Jukes’ life new meaning. Now a familiar character around Ouray with his long sandy mane of hair, bushy beard and Indiana Jones-style hat, Jukes has become a sponsored climber who in September 2010 was part of a Soldiers to the Summit expedition led by Erik Weihenmayer of Golden, Colo., a blind mountaineer who summitted Mt. Everest, to climb the 20,192-ft. Lobuche East Peak in Nepal's Khumbu Valley in the Mt. Everest National Park.
“High Ground,” a film by Academy award-nominated producer Don Hahn (The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast) and award-winning director Michael Brown tells their story. The movie just won the Best Call to Action Film award at the Boulder International Film Festival where it premiered last weekend. It will also be shown at Mountainfilm in Telluride this spring.
Jukes has seen ice climbing change the lives of others in the disabled community too – particularly fellow veterans – at the weekend intensive in Ouray.
“At the beginning of the weekend they don’t want to talk about what happened,” he said. “After a couple of days, they’re letting it all hang out. It definitely helps with a sense of pride. It can be fun to be different. You know, I get to wear a peg leg.”
Wounded warriors aren’t the only ones that are transformed. Jukes recalls a hemispherically paralyzed participant from Telluride last year. A former rock climber, he became partially paralyzed after sustaining profound brain injuries when a rock fell on his head.
“It took him a couple hours to get up the Kids Wall (a beginning area at the Ouray Ice Park),” Jukes remembered. “Half way up he looked at Malcolm and started crying, because he never thought he’d do be able to do this again. People overcoming their own obstacles and battles in life – that’s what this is all about.”
And, Jukes points out, it’s just as much about changing the perception of those who inhabit the “able-bodied” world.
“That’s one of my big things,” he stressed. “People think they need to feel sorry for us, but it’s the body that was broken, not the mind.”
The schedule of events this weekend calls for a “Meet, Greet and Eat” and Chad Jukes slideshow at Ouray Brewery on Friday evening, March 2, followed by live music by Clarks Trio at the Ourayle House; breakfast at Mouse’s Chocolates on Saturday and Sunday, March 3 and 4, with two full days of climbing instruction at the Ouray Ice Park. Saturday night’s entertainment includes dinner at the Outlaw Restaurant, followed by more live music at Ourayle House with “Silverton Happening.” Things wrap up Sunday with dinner at O’Brien’s.
Ourayle House brewmeister James Paul Hutchison aka Hutch aka Mr. Grumpy-Pants has brewed up another famously un-PC IPA, which may be imbibed out of an old leg prosthetic donated by Jukes, if you ask nicely.
The public is welcome to come imbibe and enjoy the live music at the Ourayle House on Friday and Saturday nights.
Paradox Sports was created by an eclectic group of individuals with a common desire to integrate the physically disabled into the outdoor community. While the Ice Climbing Weekend in Ouray is its flagship event, the organization has branched out to provide adaptive training to the disabled community across the region with the goal of developing a community around outdoor recreation and giving disabled athletes a forum to share skills and ideas.