Climbing for All Sheffield

08 December, 2016
Clare Hands in July 2014 just after climbing for the first time without her ventilator attached.

“Just because you are a wheelchair user, just because you breathe with the help of a ventilator, wouldn’t you go climbing if you wanted too?”

These are the words of Clare’s mother, Jenny Hands, at the start of her blog. When Clare, a teenage stroke survivor, was offered to choose an ‘Elev8’ activity at school, she opted for climbing. More ’suitable’ choices were pointed out to her and so she joined the ‘making sock monkeys’ group; “sociably watching other people sewing”.

This didn’t deter Jenny who enlisted the help of Nick Whittaker - Head of a school for youngsters with severe and complex learning difficulties. Joined by his son Robin and a teacher at the school, Helen Blundell, the team ensured it was smiles all round after Clare’s first Foundry climbing wall session in February 2014.

Initially, having a limited range of movement Clare couldn’t interact with the wall but relied on a jumar and wrist loops to keep her upright. Another rope provided 2:1 pulley assistance while a climber alongside her gave support. By June after half-a-dozen sessions, Nick suggested she was ready to try using the resin handholds.

This was the start of what has become the Foundry based charity, Climbing for All Sheffield (CfAS), officially set-up this summer. It focuses on young people with disabilities and now has a regular group of eight climbers out of the 30 or 40 people that have come along to a session.

Rafi Solaiman in action at The Foundry, quipped: "I like to wear a helmet at the wall because my head is damaged enough already".

Ray Wood joined a CfAS training session to meet the team behind the initiative and find out more:

Sitting in the Foundry café, chatting with Nick, Robin and Helen about the CfAS project was a heartening antidote to the recent sense of a divided Britain and intolerance to difference.

Sheffield is one of the hubs for climbing in the UK, and to Nick, it didn’t make sense that to take youngsters with disabilities climbing you had to travel to a centre in the Lake District.

“A group based in Sheffield has a huge potential reach here on its doorstep, and the aim of the charity is to not only increase the availability of climbing but also be affordable,” says Nick. It’s recognised that families that have children with disabilities are more likely to struggle financially.

Concerned about making the project effective in the long-term, so it doesn’t depend on just a few volunteers, Nick recognises that it is important to bring together a group of young able people to help support those with disabilities and says:

“The key thing is building-up the resource here in Sheffield, so we have a team of helpers and instructors who are confident in communicating with people with disabilities and understand the rope systems we use.”

“It taps into the culture of the climbing community. Looking out for one another. We’ve had lots of positive encouragement from other climbers at the wall and offers of help through Facebook. I think climbing can sometimes be perceived as elitist but our experience has shown it to be the opposite.”

I joined CfAS at The Foundry on a training day for their instructors; an important aspect of building-up the resource to make CfAS sustainable. “It’s beyond the scope of the usual instructional qualifications and it might be good to have this as an additional module within the Climbing Wall Award.” says Foundry instructor, Mark Talver. A lot of the systems being used come from the Climbing For All: Disability Awareness in Rock Climbing booklet and were developed by Graham Hill at the Calvert Trust.

Max Burgar-Briggs who has right-side hemiplegia enjoying his seventh Foundry session.

Two of the CfAS climbers that had joined us were 10-year-old Max Burgar-Briggs and Rafi Solaiman, aged 16. Clare and Rafi had been in the same neuro-rehabilitation unit in Tadworth (southern England). A brain haemorrhage four years ago left Rafi in hospital for six months with his balance and coordination severely affected. Currently only able to walk a few steps he says, “I love climbing. Going beyond what I think I can do and physically pushing myself.” Pretty much like everyone else using the wall.

Max has right-side hemiplegia from a bleed on the brain when he was ten days old. This was only his seventh time climbing. On his first visit to The Foundry, he’d said he was only going to watch but got two or three holds up. Today he enthusiastically heads for the finishing holds and says, “I now use my hands a lot more and it forces me to use my bad arm. When I’m a bit older I might climb outside.”

Foundry manager, Gavin Harness, says “since this group has been using the Centre I’ve had a lot of phone calls from physios who are looking to use indoor climbing as a means of improving the strength and coordination of young patients, particularly those with lower limb injuries.”