Seeing the road less traveled

Published: Nov. 8, 2016

In the shadow of Bastille cliff, Esha Mehta is getting ready. She’s putting her legs through a harness. She’s tying a knot. She’s clipping into a rope. And she’s talking and listening, getting mentally prepared for a new climbing route.

“I am so excited,” Mehta says. “I know it’s going to be challenging.”

This is Mehta’s first time climbing Eldorado Canyon State Park’s Bastille Crack, one of Colorado’s most popular and classic climbs. The route is rated 5.7, a technical crack climb with good hand holds, yet requires ropes and vertical climbing to ascend safely.

What’s unusual about the climb is that Mehta, a psychology major and senior at CU Boulder, won’t be able to see the route. She’s blind. 

If you go

What: Diversity & Inclusion Summit, Inclusive Recreation Program session.

Who: Students, staff and faculty.

When: Wednesday, Nov. 9 from 2 to 2:50 p.m.

Where: UMC-247

The session will focus on current and future Inclusive Recreation Program events and how student groups can become involved.

She’s climbing with guides from Paradox Sports, a local adaptive sports organization. The climb is part of the university’s Inclusive Recreation Program, recently developed by Recreation Services in cooperation with the Disability Services Office. Funding for this climb was provided by Disability Services and the Chancellor’s Accessibility Committee.

“Many students come to CU Boulder in part to participate in outdoor activities, and students with disabilities should have the same opportunities as other students,” says Mike McNeil, a disability access coordinator with Disability Services, who is also at the climb.

On this warm November day, Adam Fisher is Mehta’s eyes, describing to her what she can expect along the route. When she ascends, Fisher, the sports program director for Paradox,  will be hanging on a nearby rope, ready to coach and answer questions.

But at this moment they are at the bottom of the 350-foot cliff.

“What’s your favorite part about this rock?” Mehta asks.

“It’s very aesthetic,” Fisher says. “It looks really cool. The bottom 20 feet or so look super blocky. On top of that ledge, there’s this monstrous flake that’s really big, like bigger than you, that’s kind of thin and sharp, but a really good hold.

“Like a big flake. You will know it when you get there. Kind of sharp, Fisher reiterates.

“Like a sideways cornflake?” Mehta asks.

“Yeah. That’s exactly what it is. Like a sideways cornflake,” Fisher says. “So you can kind of walk your hands and then at that point you shift left, and that’s where the crack starts.”

Fifty feet above, Ryan Pederson, a sports guide with Paradox, is poised with a rope which Mehta is tied into. He’ll be there for her if she slips, and also to belay her back down when she’s ready to descend.

Fisher explains the basics of crack climbing. He shows Mehta how to feel inside a crack and to rotate her feet so they’re vertical and lock securely in the crack. Soon she’ll transition from one crack to another using hand and foot jams to ascend.

Before she starts her ascent, she puts Dragon, her guide dog, into a sit, and he licks her face enthusiastically.

“He’s always worried about me when I climb,” she says.

She calls up, ”Hey Ryan.”

“Climb on!” Pederson yells down.

“Sweet,” she replies.

A shift in focus

Disability Services previously focused on a medical model, approving accommodations based on a student’s medical documentation. For instance, those with learning disabilities might be allowed more time to complete a test or might be assigned a scribe to take class notes.

Those types of accommodations still happen, McNeil says, however, Disability Services is now taking “a more holistic approach” to help students with disabilities become more involved with campus and Boulder life. The shift has allowed students with disabilities to participate in activities previously outside the scope of Disability Services.

But the rock climbing is just the beginning of what the university can do, he said.

“Whether it’s going rock climbing or bringing wheelchair basketball to the recreation center, we’re open, but we want it to be driven by students,” he says. He hopes those interested will attend the Inclusive Recreation Program session of the Diversity & Inclusion Summit on Wednesday, Nov. 9, from 2 to 2:50 p.m., located in room 247 of the UMC.

McNeil expects the Inclusive Recreation Program to evolve and grow, depending on interest among the CU Boulder community. Seeing Mehta rock climb helped Disability Services start to define what is possible, he says.

“We learned that doing outdoor trips is a possibility and that opens up many opportunities of other recreation opportunities in the immediate Boulder area,” he says. “We learned what resources it can take to provide equal access for some intensive outdoor activities. This will allow us to plan events that will include more students in the future.”

For Mehta it was especially significant to climb with the university’s support.

“I love being at CU,” she says. “I love educating people about adaptive sports and what it’s like to be a blind person participating. It’s put two of my worlds together.”

The first time

As a child, Mehta climbed the shelves in her parent’s home, where occasionally bookshelves would come crashing down.

Her first time climbing outdoors happened in 2009 during an independence training for the  Colorado Center for the Blind. Mehta, who can only see light and bright colors, was blindfolded during the rock climbing part of the training. After that, she became hooked.

“For me, it’s awesome to use my hands to see what’s around me,” says Mehta, who feels indoor competition climbing is much more restrictive on routes and holds. “One of the reasons I absolutely love outdoor climbing is anything I touch with my hands or my feet I can climb. There’s a lot of freedom in it.”

As she reaches the top of the 75-foot pitch, she raises her fist in celebration and bumps fists  with her two climbing guides. Then, she pauses for a selfie on top of her mountain.

“She crushed this,” Fisher says. “She was faster than your average climber. A lot of people, you give them instruction on this and they are like, ‘I can’t do this.’ Or ‘Uh huh. Uh huh. Uh huh.’ And then they don’t do any of the things you just talked about. And Esha was like, ‘That’s how you hand jam? OK, I’ll do that. That’s how you foot jam? Alright sure.’ ”

Mehta says it was her first time crack climbing and using hand and foot jams.

“That was amazing,” she says. “It was hard at the beginning, but I think I got the hang of it. It was awesome. I am ready now for round two.

“It’s a metaphor for life. You approach a challenge, you struggle. You might fall, get bruised and banged up. But eventually you’ll get to the top.”

And then she climbs again, this time with Fisher staying on the ground. As she grips the rock, she knows exactly where she's going.