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No Barriers Podcast Episode 155: What is an Adaptive Athlete?

about the episode

Some might imagine our guest today as the superhero on the cover a graphic novel. The headline would read… mild mannered kindergarten teacher by day and single handed slayer of ice creatures by night (or weekends more accurately). Kimber Cross was born with one hand. The nutshell version of her journey to where she finds herself today started with pushing her parents outside of their comfort zones, navigating her passions with insecurities, and flipping adversity into ultimately transformative moments in her life. Prior to climbing Everest or kayaking through the Grand Canyon, blind of course, our host, Erik Weihenmayer, was a middle school teacher for many years. He and Kimber compare classroom challenges to mountaineering challenges (subjective vs. objective hazards), they get into the latest in hand prosthetics, the realities of adaptive devices like Erik’s brain port that projects images onto his tongue and the process of figuring out how to connect Kimber’s ice tool to an arm with no hand… Also the relationship between sponsors and their athletes, and ideas around the meaning and role of adaptive athletes in todays world and beyond.

Episode Transcript

Kimber Cross:

My big thing was like, I want to be able to lead on ice. I want to be able to be that equal partner and not always on top rope or following. I want to be the rope gun sometimes. Then, I realized like, "Oh, my gosh, putting this on, I do look different." It's this neon sign. Usually, it's like, "Oh, my gosh, this is amazing." But it's like, "Man, I stick out."

Erik Weihenmayer:

It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Eric Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barriers life to, define it, to push the parameters of what it means. Part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. That unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in in the summit exists a map, that map, that way forward is what we call no barriers.

Diedrich Jong:

Some might imagine our guest today as the superhero on the cover of a graphic novel, the headline would read, mild mannered kindergarten teacher by day and single-handed slayer of ice creatures by night, or weekends more accurately. Kimber Cross was born with one hand. The nutshell version of her journey to where she finds herself today started with pushing her parents outside of their comfort zones, navigating her passions within insecurities, and flipping adversity into ultimately transformative moments in her life. Now, prior to climbing Everest or kayaking through the Grand Canyon blind, of course, our host Eric Weihenmayer was a middle school teacher for many years.

Diedrich Jong:

He and Kimber compared classroom challenges to mountaineering challenges. They get into the latest in hand prosthetics, the realities of adaptive devices like Eric's brainport that projects images onto his tongue, and the process of figuring out how to connect Kimber's ice tool to an arm with no hand. Also, the relationship between sponsors and their athletes, and ideas around the meaning and role of adaptive athletes in today's world and beyond. Let's do this. I'm producer Diedrich Jong, and this is the No Barriers podcast.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Hey, everyone, this is Eric Weihenmayer. Welcome to the No Barriers podcast. We've been on vacation a little bit. I was on the east coast. I was at an MIT event with one of the co-founders of No Barriers, Hugh Herr, who's a double leg amputee and scientist. MIT is opening up a new bionic center, so Hugh invited me out to be on a panel and that was really exciting. Now, I'm back though, and so excited to be speaking to Kimber. In all our outdoor pursuits, we haven't actually run into each other, huh, Kimber?

Kimber Cross:

No, not yet.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Not yet. Soon though, I bet.

Kimber Cross:

I hope.

Erik Weihenmayer:

You're a kindergarten teacher and an ice climber and a rock climber. That's really an amazing combination. I'm thinking of like, what was it with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kindergarten Cop? He was also like a spy or something.

Kimber Cross:

Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:

I can't remember. Yeah, you're reminding me of Kindergarten Cop.

Kimber Cross:

There we go. [inaudible 00:03:37] and climber.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah. What do your kids think about you in kindergarten? Are they sophisticated enough to get what you're doing on your weekends?

Kimber Cross:

It's a slow build in. I think first day, school's about to start in a couple weeks, so I'm already thinking about my new group. But you go through this process the first day, first week, the elephant in the room is, "Oh, my gosh, my teacher does not have a hand." They're learning how to process that. For some of them it's their very first time seeing in person someone with a limb difference, someone missing something or just not looking exactly like them. It really throws them for a loop, just where they are in their development. Once we build that relationship with, it's a hand and just the fingers didn't grow, there's a nice little scientific presentation I give in the first couple minutes to ease their minds. A school bus did not run over it. That's an assumption I get yearly.

Erik Weihenmayer:

You don't make stuff up for them?

Kimber Cross:

Being five, they're so-

Erik Weihenmayer:

Alligators or something like that?

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. I let them come up with the ideas, but I think if I just went off, "Oh, man, shark accident." There are stories that could be told at home and you just don't know what kind of email you'll get the next day. You just let them use their imagination, but then I just go straight with the like, "Hey, some people are born this way and the shape of it looks like almost like a cat space, with the ears. When I can relate it to something cute and cuddly, those that are a little less inclined to get stoked right away, they just go, "Oh, yeah, I love cats." Then, it's fine.

Erik Weihenmayer:

I was a teacher for six years. I taught middle school English and math. A little bit similar where the kids would be looking at to see who their homeroom teacher was and they'd be like, "Yeah, I got the blind guy." They'd come in all excited. Then, the blind guy would give them homework and they'd be like, "Oh, okay. Yeah, it's pretty much just the same as these other jackass."

Kimber Cross:

Pretty soon. Yeah. They were like, "Oh, you're just the same. There's nothing special about you."

Erik Weihenmayer:

But do they come in with their eyes bugging out of their head, like looking at your hand? Have you ever gotten any weirdness from parents or has it all been totally positive, your teaching experience?

Kimber Cross:

For the most part positive, some kids can be a little standoffish, but really for the most part, kids are just like all about exploration and new things. They're just curious. Sometimes at the expense of their parents' embarrassment. Adults honestly are still learning, "How do I have my kid interact around someone with a disability?"

Erik Weihenmayer:

I was just wondering if they'd be like, "Hey, don't ask that question." You know what I mean?

Kimber Cross:

Yeah, they whisper-

Erik Weihenmayer:

The parents might be more standoffish than the kids.

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. They are. The kid will go right up to me and just grab it, and you see the parents get flushed and red and they're like, "Ooh, sorry." But I think like, what a good opportunity for me having thick skin, teaching for 15 years, you hear it all. Just to welcome that curiosity and really show the parents like, "Hey, yeah, this is how a kid can interact with me. This is how I respond." Then, you just get a giggle when you see them profusely apologize. It's like, "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry." They're grabbing onto you and you're like, "Oh, it's okay. It's okay." Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:

I thought being blind in a weird way was, in certain ways, obviously, it was a pain in the butt in some ways, but I also thought in certain ways it was an advantage. You know what I mean? Like you're saying, the kids go, "Oh, okay. I should be comfortable in my skin as well." Do you ever see cool examples of that where kids, you can tell because of your influence that they're like, "Hey, I got something different and I want to reveal it." Or, "I feel more comfortable in this body because of you."

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. For sure. We even had the school year goes by, kids move, I get kids, I lose kids, just through life. I remember January came, we got a new student and of course they're all like, "Tell him about your hand." We're having this community circle and just introducing myself again and getting ready to introduce him to all the kids and vice versa. I give the whole little, "Yeah, born with one hand. It didn't finish growing in my mommy's tummy, but I can still move it and I feel things." This little boy just shot his hand up in the air. He had been born with a partial index finger, and the reaction, number one, the confidence for him in a room full of kids he's never met to just throw up his limb difference, throw up his hand to be like, "Whoa, me too."

Kimber Cross:

They all looked at him and it was like a cry of celebration. They were so stoked that they had a kid that had something similar to their teacher. He felt like this just special, like a special new friend they had that was just like them, but just even more like their teacher. I still remember that to this day, it was almost like healing for my heart. When I thought back as myself as a kid, like, wow, to have someone who identifies with you and then to have a classroom that doesn't really identify with you, but accepts you fully and is so enthralled day one. Isn't scared day one that you're different. I thought that was a pretty cool moment.

Erik Weihenmayer:

But for all the kids that, for the one kid who expresses that thought, there's probably a hundred kids who are thinking it, you know what I mean? Like, wow, okay. I'm overweight or I got short legs or I got whatever, some physical attribute that I should be more comfortable about. I think that's terrific. Now, I usually warm up with some softball questions, but I'm really interested because I think climbing and life should be connected. They shouldn't be separate. You're a kindergarten teacher and an ice climber and a mountaineer. Have you learned anything in the classroom that you bring to the mountains or vice versa? Bring something from the mountains to your classroom? Are they connected in certain ways?

Kimber Cross:

Yeah, for sure. I think there's that element of patience. I learned, obviously, a lot of patience being a kindergarten teacher, someone who has to multitask and make on the spot decisions. Is this lesson going to bomb? Is it bombing right now? What are the subjective/objective hazards going on in my classroom?

Erik Weihenmayer:

They could be as scary as ice climbing.

Kimber Cross:

Oh, yeah. I dodged plenty of marker, whiteboard, as kids express their feelings outwardly.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Do you ever have schoolmares, where you wake up at night and you're unprepared or like-

Kimber Cross:

Yes. Oh, yeah, [inaudible 00:10:57].

Erik Weihenmayer:

... in front of the classroom. Yeah, exactly. It's anxiety producing.

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. I slept in late or I missed school or I lost a student at a field trip, anything. Yeah, so I think in the climbing world, it's a lot of patience, you're multitasking at times, you're making critical thinking skills that like, "Okay, based on what we're seeing or how the climb is going, we have to bail, or we have to change routes or mitigate something." It's that constant thought process and in the classroom that happens too. There's been times I've had to bail on a lesson, for sure.

Erik Weihenmayer:

It sounds like you grew up doing a lot of sports. You were really athletic. I see this word adaptability or adaptive athlete. I'm really interested in your perspective, one, so you were born without a hand. Do you really think of it, like when you were growing up as being adaptive or was it just like, "This is the way it is. It may be adaptive for the rest of the world, but for me, this is just normal life. I'm comfortable with it." Or, do you find that growing up you were having to be very adaptable?

Kimber Cross:

I think when it only is my own personal experience that I focus on. It's like, there is no other way. I didn't have to change the way I was tying my shoes after learning. No, I just learned the way that I could tie my shoes with my left hand fingers and my stump on my right. When I compare it to a kid with two hands tying their shoes, yeah, mine is a different way, a modified way. I think more than adapt, there's nothing I really had to adapt. I just had to modify how it normally is done or usually is done. As a kid, I remember second grade, I finally learned how to tie my shoes myself, and just running up to my teacher and be like, "I did it." Because it's like, the way everyone else was learning wasn't going to work for me necessarily.

Erik Weihenmayer:

How do you figure that out though? Is there some kind of mentor or were your parents doing research on how to tie your shoes, or was there a teacher that just was really innovative and could think in your shoes, or do you just have to figure it out?

Kimber Cross:

Looking back, I'm like, "Really? I just had to figure it out." I was a really determined and independent kid. My parents tell me that all the time. They're like, "The second you were able to move away from us and do it yourself, you did, from everything." They're like, "We really didn't have to push you out of your zone of comfort. You pushed us out of our zone of comfort." Because they didn't know how to support a child with a limb difference. There was no one that they knew around them. There's no one in the entertainment world. Knowing that they could really like, "Oh, a representation, or this is how it's done." I remember there's a California Angels pitcher in the '90.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Oh, right. Yeah. He was famous.

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. They were like, "Boom, here you go. Here's the person you can look up to, this tall white guy. He has one hand and he's doing great."

Erik Weihenmayer:

Did you pitch?

Kimber Cross:

Well, I did for nine years. I was a fast pitch pitcher. I had a coach that come from Texas every two weeks and yeah, for nine years that was my life. I played the basketball, volleyball, baseball, but then yeah, once junior high, high school, you dial in on the one sport that you really love or you're really succeeding at. Instead of the Jim Abbott, like switching gloves, he'd pitch and then put it back on his hand, I modified a mitt, the strap to just make it tight on my wrist. I would have to just catch with two hands, like you're trained to do, but I would just pitch and it would stay on my stump.

Erik Weihenmayer:

You'd pitch with your hand?

Kimber Cross:

Left, yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah, and then your other, your residual limb or your stump, you'd put a mitt on?

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Jim Abbott would actually throw the ball.

Kimber Cross:

He'd throw the ball.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Then, whip a mitt on, that hand. That must have been precarious.

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. It's really fascinating to look back now and watch that and see that. That was his method, what worked best for him and why he never wanted a mitt on his other hand, I really don't know. But that was I think the first glimpse where I was like, "Okay, I'm different. I operate differently in this sport. I really have to modify and adapt." But everything else just seemed unconscious. This was a very, very conscious, like, "I'm changing the way I'm doing this so I can participate."

Erik Weihenmayer:

You didn't use a prosthetic though when you were growing up, right? Hand prosthetics, are they just not that effective? I saw this MIT event that I just went to, one of the moderators was a triple amputee. He had this super high tech hand that could squeeze and hold things and shake and do all kinds of amazing stuff. But I've heard that hand prosthetics just aren't ... they're not all they're cut out to be sometimes.

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. Back in the '90s, I'm 35, and so you go back to the '90s and I remember my parents taking me to this doctor's office. There were a range of ages of kids that had limb differences and mostly upper limb differences. It was this thing where parents could bring their kids and these doctors were going to talk about the technology they had and does your child just want a prosthetic that's cosmetic, so when they're walking with their hands at their sides from a distance, it looks like they have two hands? For me, back then, I mostly was like, I cared about what I looked like. I thought I looked like a monster.

Kimber Cross:

I didn't like how I looked. As I got older, junior high, high school, you start thinking about being attracted to boys and all these things were suddenly, it became like, "Oh, my gosh, I don't want one hand because that's not beautiful. That's weird, so I need to hide it. I want a prosthetic to hide it." But a prosthetic that actually was useful, back then I just-

Erik Weihenmayer:

So, you had a cosmetic hand?

Kimber Cross:

I had the option to get one, and I just never went through with that. I was like, it's either that or nothing. They tried to put on different plastic tools and I could play piano without it better. It just seemed to hinder, where I was like, "Oh, if I get a prosthetic limb that's useful, I have to learn how to do everything all over again." I didn't want to do that. I don't want to relearn how to tie my shoe with this thing. I don't want to learn how to hold something. I'll just go without it. I'll just suffer through my insecurities. Nowadays, I've seen the technology they have. I have friends or I have people I follow on social media that have full robotic arms. It's pretty amazing what the last 30 years has been like for amputees or people born that way, that want prosthetics. It's pretty amazing.

Erik Weihenmayer:

When you first started ice climbing, and I want to find out how you got into ice climbing, but also then that was like the first time you used a prosthetic, I understand.

Kimber Cross:

Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:

I know I'm jumping ahead, but just planting a seed, like I read that you felt uncomfortable. I've been a guinea pig for this device called the brainport. It's a device where I wear a camera on my head and it projects a video image through a little computer onto my tongue. Basically, my tongue is feeling the outline of what the camera is seeing. I can look up and I can see that hold on the rock ... Especially in the rock gym, I can look up and see the hold on my tongue and I can match it up with my hand and go, "Okay, if it's on my tongue here, then it must be on the wall there." Your brain pretty quickly figures it out. But it's a ton of work because even though now I'm seeing with this device, this technology, I'm not used to it.

Erik Weihenmayer:

It's way harder than just climbing blind. I imagine there's a comparison there with the way you started ice climbing. You're like, this prosthetic at first makes it harder before you get used to something new.

Kimber Cross:

Right. There's a duality in this. I have a friend that, Maureen Beck, she's a rock climber.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Oh, I know her. Yeah.

Kimber Cross:

North East, yeah. She mentioned it before, she's like, "Everyone has to adapt to climb ice. Everyone needs a special tool to climb. You can't without it." She's like, "Really, we all are experiencing having to adapt to be successful at this sport." But then my level of adaption, I remember when you put it on your pack, it's heavier than a normal tool. You put it on your arm, it's obviously heavier on your arm than a normal tool. I had to learn how to put my jacket on, how to swing it around, knowing I can't-

Erik Weihenmayer:

Explain it, so everyone knows. I'm imagining something that connects to your wrist and then has a tool connected to it, right?

Kimber Cross:

Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Somehow it must attach to your body so that it doesn't just pull right off.

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. Much like someone that has a leg amputee or prosthetic for their limb difference on their leg, it's this silicone liner that rolls onto my arm and that material really grips your skin. On the very end of it, there's a screw and the carbon fiber prosthetic that's been casted and shaped to fit over my arm slides on. That screw on the liner goes into this locking mechanism on the prosthetic. Then, right where the titanium bolted connection is, an ice tool comes out from that. Ice tool, to the carbon fiber-

Erik Weihenmayer:

How does it not just pull right off your body though? That seems to me the clutch.

Kimber Cross:

I know.

Erik Weihenmayer:

How do you connect it so that it feels secure and you're not teeter-tottering on this thing that is getting loose all the time.

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. Well, the way the liner was especially made for my specific wrist, it's a pretty tight fit. My wrist is thinner than where the bones are coming out on my stump, and so he cut this hole-

Erik Weihenmayer:

Is this a doctor or prosthetist?

Kimber Cross:

Yeah, a prosthetic doctor. He cut a hole in the carbon fiber piece, and that is like a window or a door that opens and closes, so I could actually fit my knobs on my stump through, and then there's this thick industrial Velcro strap that closes that door of the carbon fiber. Even if I didn't have my liner, it'd be really hard to pull out just because of the size of my wrist and the beginning of my palm. His goal was, I want you to be able to hang on this safely and not fall out of it, not slide out of it, and it's amazing.

Erik Weihenmayer:

You have hung on it a lot.

Kimber Cross:

Yeah, yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Does it work or do you feel frustrated sometimes or do you think it's like ... Are you amazed?

Kimber Cross:

I'm pretty amazed at how I can hang on it, place a screw, my feet are solid, I always make sure my feet are solid. A technique ice climbers will do, they swing a tool and sometimes they use the back end of their other tool to hammer it in once or twice, like tap it in just a little harder. I'll do that once in a while. That was a good stick, but I know I'm going to be placing a screw or I'm going to be making a more difficult move and I'll just tap it with the other tool. It's super bummer.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Amazing, and not getting too technical, but you're hanging on that prosthetic arm to place a screw. That arm has to be really strong.

Kimber Cross:

It's different because I hang on my joint. It's not so much, we talk about pumping out or you can even get what's called the screaming barfies when you're ice climbing, where the blood rushes back to your fist because you grip so tightly that it makes you want to scream or barf, just that intense pain of the blood rushing. I don't feel that on my right side. It's just more I'm hanging on the joint. I feel like I can hang and I have ice climbing partners that are like, "What? You can just hang on it and take your time placing the screw? That's not fair." You laugh and you're like, "Well, you do have two hands."

Kimber Cross:

Fairness is relative in this situation, but yeah, it's pretty nice that I can just be able to use a joint. It's not this thing where it's like, "Wow, this arm has to be really, really, really strong or I am damaging long term, I'm damaging my arm using this." It just really worked out, the mechanics of it and the execution.

Erik Weihenmayer:

The prosthetic, you said in one of your articles, made you feel disabled at first. Break that down for me, because that's really interesting. We were just talking about that. Was it a big adjustment?

Kimber Cross:

I think because I have to stop-

Erik Weihenmayer:

If you want to blend in, I guess, you were saying, same with me in high school. You just want to be like everyone else.

Kimber Cross:

Oh, yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah. There's the psychological aspect of looking different, but I imagine you were also referring to the idea that physically it was a hard adjustment.

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. A hard adjustment to be that person at the ice crag or the partner that just has this big prosthetic on their arm. The years have passed and I've been able to just learn how to put it on faster, take it off faster, swing leads. But my big thing was like, I want to be able to lead on ice. I want to be able to be that equal partner and not always on top rope or following. I want to be the rope gun sometimes. Then, I realize like, "Oh, my gosh, putting this on, I do look different." It's this neon sign pointing to it. I'll walk on some approaches and I've had people stare, if it's on me or on my pack. Usually, it's like, "Oh, my gosh, this is amazing." But it's like, "Man, I stick out."

Kimber Cross:

I can be wearing mitts and walking and it's on the back of my pack and people will want to have a conversation about it. Not that I'm against having a conversation, but it's just always this like, "Yeah, I'm different than all these climbers and it's always there." It always is something that's being seen or talked about or people want to hear the whole story or touch it.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah, you're an ambassador.

Kimber Cross:

I can't hide this.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Did you want to hide it at first? At first, it sounds like you did, right?

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. Junior high, high school, I walked around with my hand in my pockets or behind a binder hiding it, which was just so ironic, playing basketball and fast pitch and volleyball. It wasn't a secret. Everyone knew and it was just that internal, like I'm different. Society at that time wasn't championing differences like that in the way that I see it now, decades later. With ice climbing, I didn't want to be seen as disabled on ice or I didn't want people to make that first assumption like, "Oh, she probably can't lead ice or she's probably new at climbing." Just all those assumptions that would mostly be negative thinking that I can't do it all because I have this tool that looks so different with me.

Erik Weihenmayer:

How do you struggle through that process of feeling different and maybe a little uncomfortable? You know what I mean? Because I think a lot of our listeners probably struggle with some of that as well. How have you wrestled through that? Because you seem really composed and articulate and authentic, and so maybe you weren't always like that or did you ever have a chip on your shoulder?

Kimber Cross:

There was a lot of wishing it would grow, wishing I didn't have to be this way. Pray the disability away. I feel like that was the part of me that I look back and I'm like, "Oh, man, all those years lost just hating that aspect of me and thinking it was the worst thing ever and feeling shut down." But having a great support system, great friends where it was so internalized. I think experiencing that for so many years, and I remember in college I was like, "I just want to walk across the campus with both my hands at my sides and not care what people are thinking." As you get older, you learn, number one, people don't think about you as much as you think they do.

Kimber Cross:

We all have that self-centered insecurity. That, with age and time and experience, has slowly lifted off of me and then being a teacher, where there's kids that don't have a filter, you learn to laugh at yourself. You learn to just accept it. You watch how fast they go from fear to acceptance. You're like, okay, well, maybe that's what like adults are doing just internally and not telling me. Like, "I was scared of you and now I love you." Because we have a filter as we age. I really think it was over time, every single person on this earth, you could have a conversation with them. They could list what makes them insecure. What do they think is wrong with them? It's just almost part of the human experience.

Kimber Cross:

I think if you can be really introspective and understand the greater picture, like, "Wow, being my true self when I would just let my hands hang by my side, nothing happened. I wasn't pointed at and laughed at. People didn't run away from me." It was just this, like, I had to face the fear. I had to accept who I was. The more time I spent accepting who I was, I realized, "Oh, I'm the only one right now that [inaudible 00:31:27] issue with this."

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah. People reflect you like a mirror, if you're comfortable and confident in yourself, everyone else is too. If you're shifty and uncomfortable with yourself, people are shifty and uncomfortable.

Kimber Cross:

Yeah, yeah, for sure. I feel like that's growing. There's now this, the past couple of years, I've seen so many more adaptive focus clinics for the outdoors or even limb differences and modeling and acting. Society were able to accept it. But then, equally as a society, we're learning like, "Oh, my gosh, this has offended people. I don't want to offend people." I've actually been climbing with people and it's almost like they're walking on eggshells or they're trying not to say things. It's taking them longer to talk with me. I'm like, "Man, you're so caught up now in the wanting to be seen as not offensive. You've lost your ability to talk with me like a normal person. It's now highlighted even more.

Erik Weihenmayer:

You'd rather them just be curious and open, right?

Kimber Cross:

Yeah, yeah, or I'm saying something that is maybe not super kosher, whatever the term is and I could easily correct, like, "Actually, I don't call it this. I call it that." I was like, wow, as a kid I never felt people not knowing how to talk to me, but now I feel like people don't really know how to talk to me because they-

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah. I used to use the word stumps and Hugh Herr told me they're called residual lens, Eric. I'm like, "Sorry. How are your stumps?" I just kept calling them stumps.

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. I called a stump and be fine, but honestly, I don't mind, but I know there are some people with limb differences that do mind.

Erik Weihenmayer:

That would be offensive.

Kimber Cross:

We are caught in this, do we be the most respectful knowing as a human, we just aren't perfect. We'll never perfectly address each other, and so there has to be a lot of grace.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah, and if there's a little barrier and inhibition in the way people communicate, then you're not going to get anywhere fast.

Kimber Cross:

Right. Right. Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah. You got comfortable with the word adaptive athlete or adaptive ice climber, because I see it on your bio. It's one of the first things there. How did the script flip, how did it change for you?

Kimber Cross:

I think it changed when I joined The Mountaineers, and so my journey into the outdoors with rock climbing, glacier, travel, ice climbing out in Washington. We have an organization called The Mountaineers.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah, they're famous.

Kimber Cross:

Yeah, they have-

Erik Weihenmayer:

Did you just stroll in one day and be like, "Hey, I want to learn to climb."

Kimber Cross:

It was with one of my close friends. She and I both had boyfriends on the same day say, "Hey, we're struggling with these things in life and we're not being good boyfriends. We have to break up." We were just like, "Ugh." In our heartache and our sadness for these guys and their journeys, she was like, "You know what? Let's go climb mountains." They both had rock climbed with the guys and she was like, "Why not us? Let's just go do this." I was like, "Okay, that seems like a good thing to go put my like heartache into." Years, years later, we both are teaching and instructing and leading clients.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Was she able bodied, your friend?

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. Yup. Able bodied.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah. Yeah. All right.

Kimber Cross:

It was that invitation to step into something that in hindsight I'm like, it was transformative as a person with a limb difference. As a woman, the confidence and the acceptance in the outdoor world, it was a process. Because I remember a leader on the committee, when we all signed up, on my application I didn't write I have a limb difference. I wasn't really thinking about it, but he was like, "Hey, I want to talk with you. The committee, we want you here, but we also have valid concerns about you belaying, repelling, this is a two-handed sport."

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah.

Kimber Cross:

Generally.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah, and he doesn't know, so yeah. Or, she doesn't know. Right. Did you have to prove yourself or figure it out together?

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. He was a veteran that did have some, if I can describe it correctly, I think shrapnel in his calf leg. He knew what adaptive moving looked like, and he was like, "Hey, these are the concerns, but you have no excuse. You're going to do everything and you're going to do it great." He's like, "I'm here for you." He advocated when I realized like, "Oh, my gosh, I may not be able to do this. Shoot." He was like, "No, you will be able to, and you'll be able to show people that you do it safely." To have someone that advocated for you when other people were unsure and when you were unsure, I think was huge in keeping me in the club, in the realm of believing I could do it.

Kimber Cross:

Because I was like, "Oh, shoot, yeah, I will have to prove to people that I can belay them safely." I may have to prove that to every single new climbing partner I have, that I can belay them safely, that I can repel safely. I just modify a little bit of what I do, but it's always safe. That was a big step in the like, "Oh, okay. My disability really needs to be taken into consideration here. I have to make sure what I'm doing is safe for me and others."

Erik Weihenmayer:

But now, so you just walked in, right? You joined The Mountaineers. It wasn't an adaptive program or anything, but nowadays you have all these wonderful organizations where you can learn to climb with a disability or with any kind of adaptation. Compare that. Is that progress or in a way I just wonder like, could it backfire where now you have these organizations and people almost might find like, "Oh, if you want to climb, then you have to climb with this adaptive group." But you didn't do that. You know what I mean? You just walked into The Mountaineers and figured it out. How do you compare and contrast?

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. Back then, it's like, I don't think there was anything adaptive that I could go to. I just didn't know. I didn't dabble in the outside world really. I loved fishing and I was a teacher, and I ran. I did a bunch of trail runs and marathons. Yeah, this was something that was like, "Well, I'm here and we're going to figure it out, and everyone's going to learn." But seeing nowadays, there's these clubs and clinics and organizations and nonprofits. It's amazing because that opens the door farther than it was to me. I came in and he was like, "The committee isn't sure if you should be here." Not because they wanted to exclude me, but safety was their number one.

Kimber Cross:

They're like, "We don't [inaudible 00:39:16] hurt herself or someone else get hurt." I feel like being able to have adaptive clinics and organizations that are teaching, not only adaptive climbers, but teaching abled-body people like, "Hey, this is how you set up a harness for a person in a wheelchair." There's so many different modification and adaptive needs that there should be specific places you can go where in gyms have the equipment or organizations bring the equipment into gyms. Out in Washington we have outdoors for all. I've been at a climbing event with them and meeting a bunch of people with just different adaptive needs, and how they get up a wall is so much different than how I get up a wall.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Is it important to compare or not compare, but just like learn, you say Mo who's missing a hand, you got, is it Pete Davis, who's missing a hand? He's older now. You may not even know him, but he is a rad climber. Do you learn from these people? Would that have been a shortcut you think if you could have learned and had a mentor that was more similar to you? Would that have been-

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. Truly.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Would that have been incredibly helpful or would that have been stifling, or what?

Kimber Cross:

Yeah, I think it would've been helpful because I think about when I first got on the wall at The Mountaineers clubhouse out in Tacoma where I live. I didn't tape my stump up and I remember climbing, and I slipped and fell and just ripped up the side of my stump and just so bloody. I was like, "Oh, my gosh." I didn't know you really need to tape up your stump. For example, Mo tapes up her stump and you just don't have ... you're not using finger, calloused fingers. You're using softer skin. Different parts of it. It's like, "Oh, wow. I wish someone would've told me, 'Hey, tape up your stump before you go destroy it on a wall.'" Yeah, and just even different techniques. A couple weeks ago I was climbing in the Bugaboos up in Canada with Mo and another adaptive climber, Jim Ewing.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Oh, cool. Did you guys do Beckey-Chouinard?

Kimber Cross:

We did not. That's definitely [inaudible 00:41:45].

Erik Weihenmayer:

Oh, I want to go do that someday.

Kimber Cross:

Oh, yeah, it was amazing. We had her teams who had done it and it sounds really cool. But ice and glacier and lower grade rock is where my focus was. This was some elements of harder climbing and being able to ask her, she and Jim are a team above my partner and I, and like, "Hey, how did you put your stump into this hold?" Or, just even at camp talking with her about, what if I can't fit it in that crack? How do you move? It's on different sides, and so sometimes there's this one route that had really thin crack on the right side that she has a right hand, and so she was able to lead through that. I couldn't lead that part of the climb.

Kimber Cross:

My partner led it and I had to aid myself with some gear and just sling my stump in. You learn from other people, and I've definitely learned from her that I can push myself on these grades. The self-doubt decreases when you're on a journey, this climbing journey with people who have done it and gone before you. They really can remind you like, "Yeah, you can do it. Modify it like this. It's super practical."

Erik Weihenmayer:

It becomes a cool think tank or brainstorming session, where you're able to really feed off of each other and push each other beyond just being the only hand amputee out there.

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. Yeah, and I think that's huge. That's why I love seeing the adaptive clinic at the Bozeman Ice Fest, or this and that, because it is so important. Especially when people are first entering these sports or these places in the outdoor world that they have access and they have that representation to learn from. Then, as time progresses, my heart and desire is like, "I don't always go to the adaptive clinic. I want to go sign up for the mixed climbing with Conrad." I want to be able to not have to always accidentally self-segregating myself or have people assume like, "Oh, you're always going to be in the adaptive clinic. The adaptive clinic, that's the end goal for you." Like, "No, the end goal for me is like, we all are in the same climbing space as we progress."

Erik Weihenmayer:

There's been this proliferation, that's a big word, of adaptive athletes, of an explosion. I'm 53, so I'm getting up there, but when I started climbing there weren't that many disabled people out there doing it. But now, there's this explosion, like the door is opening up. You got people every ... Vasu, we were going to interview Vasu, do you know him? Is he a leg amputee mountaineer?

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. Yeah. I love Vasu, and he's such an amazing peer.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Is that what inclusivity means then? What you just spoke of, is that your definition of good inclusivity? Just the barrier to entry is lowered and you can progress through this sport with different body types.

Kimber Cross:

Yeah, for sure. Yeah. The duality of it is having open access. Whether it's a safe space or a space where you see everyone that looks like you and those are the people you're climbing with as you enter this. Because I still remember just the feelings of being so subconscious because I'm like, "I'm the only one like this group. What are people thinking? Am I accepted? What are the assumptions about me?" It is really important to be able to have clinics that are so specific to the need or the identity and then beyond that. I'm like, "I want there to be a beyond, where people without limb differences learn how to climb with me."

Erik Weihenmayer:

For sure.

Kimber Cross:

Because that's so important to break their old stereotypes or to grow their understanding to make them better climbers. It's like, "Okay, how do I climb with a person that has specific needs or how do I trust a person with a limb difference to belay me?" I remember my first time in a gym out in Colorado, I was climbing with someone and they were belaying me and they had a limb difference just like myself. I remember getting up and getting in this hard spot where I said, "Okay, watch me." Thinking like, "If I fall, will they catch me?" I got nervous. Then, I was like, "Wait a minute. They literally look like me. Is this what normal "bodied people" feel when I belay?"

Kimber Cross:

It was so eyeopening to actually not have the thoughts only of a disabled person, but have the thoughts, like, "Oh, maybe people feel that way." Sure enough, a couple more hours climbing with the person, I didn't have that thought at all. They were an amazing belayer.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Because you're disabled, it doesn't mean you're not immune to judgment.

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. Right. Then, I was-

Erik Weihenmayer:

Preconceived judgment.

Kimber Cross:

Right. Having that, I was like, okay, honestly, I think any one of us could become an adaptive climber. It's not just, we're all not just born this way. It's like, we lose them, our limbs, in accidents, disease, what have you. Really, it's like, it's so important for all of us to be able to see nothing has to stop you. You can always modify and adapt and should be included in every sport because tomorrow the greatest climber on earth could become an adaptive athlete.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Tommy Caldwell, yeah, cuts his fingers.

Kimber Cross:

Right. Exactly.

Erik Weihenmayer:

I kayak with this blind guy, a Navy guy, Lonnie Bedwell, he's blind. I thought, "Okay, this is really cool." I love kayaking with this guy, but then you realize, "Oh, shit, this guy kayaks better than me." Is there a little, any competition spurred on with these other arm amputee climbers, where you're just like, "Oh, shit, now I'm comparing myself and competing against these people in this community a little bit."

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. I feel like Mo, Maureen, she could probably answer this. She does the competition climbing. I remember her talking about, at the beginning it was pretty much her against her in these events and winning every year. She's such an amazing climber and super rad person. I love her personality. She's talked about over the last five years, the amount of adaptive climbers that have joined those para climbing events and have beat her or have made her need to work harder to regain the title. She's like, "I love it." She's like, "It's bittersweet. I have to work harder for the championship, but this is what I want to see. I want to see people like me that are bringing that heat and that competition."

Kimber Cross:

It's really cool. I'm not in that competitive world, but I see that and it provokes me then like, "Oh, my gosh. I just realize I am far more capable than what I even think I'm capable of." That's pretty cool.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Kimber, you're sponsored by some companies and so forth. That's really cool. Do you think that's progress? It seems like people with different physical disabilities are getting sponsorship, getting sponsored by big companies now, like Patagonia and North Face and stuff. But again, and I hope this doesn't come across in a negative way, but my brain always is weighing the advantages and the disadvantages. I go, definitely it's progress that people are getting sponsorships and able to make a life in the mountains with different disabilities and so forth, but I don't know. I feel like maybe the negative spin is like, companies now are like jumping on the bandwagon, like, "Okay, here's our poster child." You know what I mean?

Kimber Cross:

Right, right.

Erik Weihenmayer:

How do you feel about that? What's your thinking?

Kimber Cross:

It's a line that really each adaptive athlete, when they go through contracts with companies, they really have to feel that out and have that personal, like, "Do I feel really supported by this company or do I feel more tokenized?" It's a different experience with each company sometimes. Talking with Vasu about it a while back, and I was like, "Am I really deserving of it or is it because of how I look?" He's like, "Why not you? Why not you? You have to have this realization that you're just as deserving to have support, if it was you doing this sport with two hands." Yeah, I think companies are realizing it's marketable, but it's marketable because we're being more accepted.

Kimber Cross:

We have more inclusion. There are more people with these adaptive needs or whatever your identity is. Being open and proud and wanting that space in the outdoors or in whatever sport. Finding partnerships with companies where they truly support you, not just for the photo shoot, but years beyond. I work with a company like Peak Refuel, they make freeze-dried meals, and they're amazing. They are an example of what it looks like for a company to fully back you and support you. Not just because you're this unicorn adaptive climber, but you truly have this hard work ethic and you're doing amazing climbs. You're finding ways to turn that around and give back to your community or be someone that can give hope to kids or people that look like you.

Kimber Cross:

It really is that relationship you build with a company. When they're willing and they go forth in helping create a bond with you, a relationship with you and truly support you more than just, "Wear these clothes. We got pictures. Cool. Bye." I think that is where it makes a difference. A lot of my sponsors just so, so much support in and out of the mountains and that's what makes me more trusting of working with them long term.

Erik Weihenmayer:

I love that advice, because there might be people with a physical disability or any kind of challenge thinking about making a life in the mountains in some way. That's good advice that you have to feel them out and make sure it's not a shallow transaction, but it's a relationship where you're really watching each other's back. They're really supportive of you. That's beautiful.

Kimber Cross:

Absolutely.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Good advice for people. Where do people go, Kimber, to learn more about you and see ... I watched a video of you ice climbing. I couldn't see any of it, but I just heard you grunting.

Kimber Cross:

Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Where do people go to hopefully not just hear you grunting, but see you ice climbing?

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. Well, you can check out Kimberbelle.com, Kimber, and then Belle is my middle name, B-E-L-L-E. That has my whole history and all the visuals of the sports I do. I'm active on the Instagram at Kimber Belle. Yeah, those are the places where I'm sharing my journey. If you're lucky enough, during the school year, to see a kindergarten quote of the day on my stories, in my reels, that'll be there. Because that's a huge part of just enjoying and sharing the humor of what it is to be a kindergarten teacher and a climber.

Erik Weihenmayer:

What next badass ice climbing adventure or rock climbing adventure, where are you going? Where are you heading?

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. Well, this weekend taking up some new climbers up Tahoma, Mount Rainier in Washington.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Oh, cool.

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. That's coming. Then, setting my sights on this next winter, really wanting to do ice climbing in Canada.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Go up and do Polar Circus, Weeping Wall. Oh, my gosh.

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. All those places, I'm really excited to get some bigger routes. Yeah, stretch my skills and grow as a climber.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Awesome. Yeah. Hopefully it won't be 40 below zero in Canada.

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. I was in Bozeman back in February and it was negative 25.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Beautiful.

Kimber Cross:

The Canyon. Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:

I know friends that won't even go out ice climbing in those temps. They're just like, "Forget it. It's going to be brittle and miserable."

Kimber Cross:

Yeah. Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:

I'm going to get frost bite on my ears.

Kimber Cross:

Right? Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Well, really wonderful to get to know you. Thanks so much for being on the No Barriers podcast. For everyone else who's listening, check out our No Barriers Summit. It's coming up in August 25th, 26th, 27th, 28th, 28th will be our what's your Everest climb. We'll have several hundred people, many of whom with challenges, all climbing together, summiting together. We'll put you on a rope team where you can support somebody to reach the summit together. It's going to be an amazing event, so check it out, nobarriersusa.org. Kimber, maybe we can drag you into one of our cool events at some point soon.

Kimber Cross:

Sounds great.

Erik Weihenmayer:

All right. Thanks. Cool. No barriers to everyone.

Diedrich Jong:

The production team behind this podcast includes producer Diedrich Jong, that's me. Sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler Cotman. Marketing and graphic support from Stone Ward, and web support by Jan Lowe. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song Guidance. Thanks to all of you for listening. We know that you've got a lot of choices about how you can spend your time and we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com. That's nobarrierspodcast.com. There's also a link to shoot me an email with any suggestions for this show or any ideas you've got at all. Thanks so much and have a great day.

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