How one-handed rock climber Maureen Beck became a four-time national champion in her sport
There was just one part of the climb that Maureen Beck couldn't seem to get through. It was a crucial part, the section that contained the "crux" -- the most difficult portion of a rock climb. The one that had caused Beck, 31, to fall dozens of times in the 20 or so days she had spent trying to complete Days of Future Passed, a technical sport climb with a grade of 5.12a, in Boulder Canyon, Colorado.
In climbing's grading scale, a 5.12 (which is then further rated from 5.12a to 5.12d with "a" as the easiest) is considered very difficult. It's the grade that climbers say separates the weekend warriors from the true aficionados because of the training and dedication required. There's even a book about how to conquer 5.12s.
"But grades don't really matter because I only have one hand. Everything is going to be different, everything is going to be harder," said Beck, who was born without most of her left forearm. Other climbers' betas, or routes, are generally useless to her (and vice versa), since she's almost always forging her own.
To complete the most challenging section of Days of Future Passed, she would have to jam the portion of her left arm right below her elbow -- what she calls her "stump" -- into a crack about 2 to 3 inches wide and release her right hand. At that point, she would be completely hanging off of her stump, before swinging her entire body over the rock to catch the next hold.
On some days, she made no progress. And the paraclimbing world champion was getting tired -- of hiking the approach to the climb, of scrambling through loose boulders to get there, of trying it over and over again, sometimes eight times in one day.
"It's frustrating to see somebody go up the same thing over and over again and just constantly fall in the same area," said James Scheri, her belayer -- the person on the ground who anchors a climber -- who is also an adaptive climber.
Beck had spent both her husband's birthday and their wedding anniversary climbing. And then there was the film crew that had been following her for months, ever since she started attempting it in June. No pressure if you don't complete it, they told her; they already had their ending.
But on Oct. 7, Beck decided to try one last time, film crew in tow. After falling her first two attempts, she got through the crux on her third, her left leg shaking uncontrollably after she clipped her chains at that juncture.
"It was like Elvis leg. It's a really common thing in climbing, but you are like, 'Stop it, stop it.' That shake made me realize how tired I was," she said.
Beck managed to push through the fatigue -- and also completed that most difficult section for the first time, successfully completing Days of Future Passed, her first 5.12. Her journey -- now with a different ending -- is the subject of the documentary "Stumped."
Just don't call her inspirational.
"It's a little uncomfortable. I feel -- 'objectified' is too strong of a word -- but I think the bigger issue with being inspirational is it's kind of passive," said Beck. "It's like, 'OK, cool you're inspired, now what?' I'd rather someone see me and be like, 'Cool, I'm psyched to go climb on my own now.'"
Growing up on the coast of Maine, Beck said she didn't hear the word "disabled" in her family's vocabulary. She didn't attend special camps or programs and embraced not having a left hand rather than lamenting it.
"When I was a little kid in school, I'd be like, 'Yeah, I have one hand, and this is my robot hand, and it's cool,'" she said. She played goalie for her soccer team and played the violin.
She discovered climbing at Girl Scout camp at age 12, learning on outdoor walls. By college, she was skipping class to go climbing.
"I never really overcame anything other than this rational thought that you need two hands to climb," said Beck, who lives in the Colorado Front Range and works a day job selling rock climbing equipment.
Beck has won four national titles, and she claimed the IFSC Paraclimbing World Championship title in 2016. She won her first IFSC Paraclimbing World Cup title in September while on a rare break from her 5.12 climbing project.
She said she loves competitions and interacting with other adaptive climbers because she gets to share her betas. Beck also works with USA Paraclimbing and nonprofit Paradox Sports to spread awareness of adaptive climbing.
"Where I am OK with being inspirational is for other disabled people who maybe wrote off climbing or dismissed it as something too hard or inaccessible for them to be like, 'Oh, it is possible to do this with one leg or one arm,'" she said. "What's less cool is flailing on some 5-easy [grade], and someone's like, 'Oh, that's so inspiring.' No, it's not."
To prepare for Days of Future Passed, Beck ramped up her cardio, joining a local Orangetheory Fitness studio to trim weight. A typical workout included 2½ hours of climbing and one hour of weights and running, three times a week.
Beck said completing her first 5.12 has made her realize her love of outdoor climbing, and she is looking forward to her next challenge, whether that's a different climb of the same grade, or something else, like an alpine climbing expedition.
And despite her dominance in the sport, she likes to emphasize the ordinariness of adaptive climbers. Climbers who like to bring a 12-pack of beer to their projects and joke around. "We're not just these inspirational unicorns," she said. "We make stump jokes."