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Beck wraps the end of her left arm in tape to protect it from getting scratched on rocks.

Cedar Wright

STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: PS2.B

CCSS: Speaking and Listening: 1, Writing: 2

TEKS: Science: 3.2, 3.6C, 4.2, 4.6D, 5.2, 5.6D, 6.2, 6.8B; ELA: 3.12D, 4.12D, 5.12D, 6.11D

Rock Star

How a one-handed climber scales the world’s most challenging rock walls

Maureen Beck clings to a rock face hundreds of meters above the ground. She reaches for a tiny ledge while pressing on the rock with her toes. Beck grips the ledge with her fingertips and lifts herself up. She’s at the top of the cliff!  

This is an average day at work for Beck. She’s a professional rock climber, an athlete who scales rock walls. But there’s something that makes Beck different from most climbers. She was born without much of her left arm. 

That hasn’t stopped Beck from rising to the top of her sport. She’s won eight adaptive climbing championships, races for climbers with disabilities. She also helps train adaptive climbers and works to make gyms accessible to them.

Learning how to scale rock walls with only one hand wasn’t always easy. “It was a lot of trial and error,” says Beck.

Maureen Beck clings to a rock face. She’s hundreds of meters above the ground. Beck reaches for a tiny ledge. She presses on the rock with her toes. Beck grips the ledge with her fingertips. She lifts herself up. She’s at the top of the cliff! 

This is an average day at work for Beck. She’s a professional rock climber. She’s an athlete who scales rock walls. But something makes Beck different from most climbers. She was born without much of her left arm. 

That hasn’t stopped Beck from rising to the top of her sport. She’s won eight adaptive climbing championships. These are races for climbers with disabilities. Beck also helps train adaptive climbers. And she works to make gyms easier for them to use. 

Learning to scale rock walls with only one hand wasn’t easy. “It was a lot of trial and error,” says Beck. 

Page 15: Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post via Getty Images

Climber Maureen Beck practices for competitions in indoor gyms.

Up the Cliff

As climbers move up a cliff, they’re constantly struggling against the pull of Earth’s gravity toward the ground. To stay on the rock, they rely on friction, a rubbing force that resists motion. Friction with the rock keeps a climber’s fingers and shoes from sliding off.

Climbers use various techniques for increasing friction. They wear special shoes with soft rubber soles that grip the rock. Climbers also coat their hands in chalk to dry out any sweat. That makes their hands less slippery. 

Beck has come up with her own strategies to climb safely. Because her left arm is short, her reach isn’t as long as most climbers’. So Beck has learned to rely on smaller but closer ledges to make her way to larger ones. Since she can’t use her stump to grip the rock, she often wedges it into cracks to push herself upward.

When Beck climbs, she wears a safety rope tied to a harness around her waist. The rope loops through a clip that Beck attaches to bolts screwed into the rock. A person on the ground holds one end of the rope and keeps it stretched tight. If Beck slips, the rope stops her fall.

Falling may sound scary, but it’s key, Beck says. “It’s the only way you can learn in climbing.”

As climbers move up a cliff, they’re struggling against Earth’s gravity. That’s a force that pulls things toward the ground. Climbers rely on friction to cling to the rock. This force happens when objects rub together. Friction keeps a climber’s fingers and shoes from sliding.

Climbers have many ways to increase friction. They wear special shoes. The shoes have soft rubber soles that grip the rock. Climbers also coat their hands in chalk. It dries out any sweat. That makes their hands less slippery. 

Beck has come up with her own ways to climb safely. Her left arm is short. So its reach isn’t as long as most climbers’. Beck relies on smaller but closer ledges. She uses them to make her way to larger ledges. She also can’t use her stump to grip the rock. So she often wedges it into cracks. Then she pushes herself upward.  

Beck wears a safety rope as she climbs. It’s tied to a harness around her waist. The rope loops through a clip. Beck attaches it to bolts screwed into the rock. A person on the ground holds one end of the rope. He or she keeps the rope stretched tight. The rope stops Beck from falling to the ground if she slips. Falling may sound scary. But it’s key. “It’s the only way you can learn in climbing,” Beck says.

Claudia Lopez

Beck uses a prosthetic arm equipped with an ax to climb an ice wall in Ouray, Colorado.

Ice Climbing

Beck does most of her climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park, near her home in Denver, Colorado. She’s now training to scale an ice-covered cliff in Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. Ice climbers jam axes into the ice to pull themselves up. Beck plans to use a prosthesis equipped with an ax on her left arm. She will attempt the icy feat next spring. 

Beck says that as soon as she’s done with a climb, she looks for the next challenge. “I’m already thinking about the next thing to do,” she says. “I checked a box. Now what’s next?”

Beck does most of her climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park near Denver, Colorado. That’s where Beck lives. She’s now training to scale an ice-covered cliff. It’s in Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve. Ice climbers jam axes into the ice. They use the axes to pull themselves up. Beck plans to use a prosthesis on her left arm. It will have an ax attached to it. She’ll try the icy feat next spring. 

When Beck finishes a climb, she looks for the next challenge. “I’m already thinking about the next thing to do,” she says. “I checked a box. Now what’s next?”

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