Being Deaf, Becoming a Climber
By Natasha Hirst // I was a fearless child, and my favourite word was adventure. Often to be found up a tree, racing through fields and staying out on my bike all day, I always had an affinity for the outdoors. Sometimes though, life has a way of knocking the spirit of adventure out of you. 2015 has been my year to turn that around and release the active, carefree side of me once more.
Deafness can be a very isolating condition and over time I found that my confidence and self-esteem took a real dive. I would routinely avoid social situations because it was just too hard to keep up and take part in conversations and activities. I spent much of my time feeling tired and frustrated. Gradually, I lost my sense of self belief and life lost its colour and excitement. This unfortunately left me wide open and I was drawn into a relationship that became extremely abusive. When things feel out of your control, it’s easy for other people to take control for you.
In the aftermath of that experience, I decided to look for ways to get my life back, and reconnecting with other people and with activities I love was my priority. It was a frightening thing to do, to be prepared to step outside my comfort zone.
However, I’ve found that when you are open to the possibilities that the world has to offer, you find new opportunities everywhere you turn. You just need to have the courage to say to yourself “this is for me, just go for it.”
One such opportunity was having a cochlear implant. My CI was activated in March 2014 and it has been a transformative experience for me in so many ways. My CI has done a lot to improve my confidence, simply by making communication much easier. Being able to engage and participate with friends, colleagues and increasingly, total strangers has made my life so much more fulfilling.
A few months ago, I was asked to document the production of a promotional film for a Women Climb weekend in North Wales. As the name suggests, it was a group of women, climbing together. They practise a form of climbing called trad (traditional) climbing. It was fantastic. Everybody had so much fun and the women came from a range of places and backgrounds. They were different ages, different shapes and different climbing abilities but each was equal and valued in the group. I loved the friendly, supportive environment that everybody created for each other. Each woman had the opportunity to thrive and to improve.
By the end of the weekend I promised myself that this year I will learn to climb. With great excitement, I joined up again with Emily Pitts, the incredible founder of Women Climb. With a couple of other climbers we went out to Hobson Moor Quarry to set me loose on the crag.
Familiar to any deaf or hard of hearing person is the challenge of receiving and retaining instructions whilst also trying to watch the demonstrations and lip read. As superb as my CI is, when the wind is blowing directly into the mic, listening to speech is no easy task. Emily gave clear and direct instructions, showing me how to tie in, how to belay safely and stop a fall. She was super vigilant to make sure I fully understood everything and that I could reliably repeat the knots, and carry out each task safely.
Women Climb aims to provide all women with an inclusive experience and the opportunity to climb, no matter what their barriers might be. Since each woman is treated as an individual, whatever their level of climbing, this creates an ethos that is encouraging and inclusive. The perfect environment for me to learn and gain confidence.
Once I’d learned the basics and understood the importance of ensuring my own safety and that of others around me, I started putting what I was learning into practice. I had a go at belaying, which is holding and releasing the rope from the bottom of the cliff whilst the climber climbed. The belayer is responsible for the safety of the climber in case they fall. After belaying a couple of times, it was then my turn to climb. It was more difficult than it looked! On the first climb, it took about ten minutes to even work out how to get myself up the first two metres of rock.
At certain points, I didn’t quite trust in my strength to lift myself up to the next handhold. On the second climb I became stuck halfway up, grasping at different bits of rock, expecting my feet to slip and to fail myself. I was thinking, “I can’t get past this, should I call it quits?” But there was no rush, I had plenty of encouragement and the rock was like a puzzle to solve. I realised then that I had to take a leap of faith in myself and just push past what I thought were my limits. I found myself moving up, I got through it. With elation, I reached the top. I really enjoyed the challenge, and it was so nice to receive so much support and encouragement. The climbers with me were just as pleased as I was in my achievement at reaching the top.
I wore my CI whilst climbing since it did help a bit with communicating some key things such as “ready to climb”, “I’m safe”, and “you are off belay”. It became apparent to all of us that having visual signs for some of these things would be helpful and even hearing climbers find that in windy weather they can’t hear either. Some use their own hand signals and systems such as tugging on the rope to get attention. I wore a headband to help keep the CI in place which also helped keep the wind noise down. Wearing the helmet over the CI is possible but does make my ear and implant site feel bruised after a while. These are small barriers though.
I’m now really excited to climb more, build my strength and tackle more challenging climbs. Emily did an amazing job teaching me the basics. Also thanks to Aleks and Meirion who climbed with us. They had no obligation to offer me any tuition but they happily shared advice and were brilliant with cheering me on each foothold of the way. It isn’t always easy to find other deaf people to share activities with and it is important to be able to participate fully in activities even if you are the only deaf person.
Having the confidence to try things is the biggest hurdle overcome. Yes, communication is easier with my CI but in some situations, I still can’t hear properly. I’ve found that having inclusive, supportive people with me, setting out a clear system for communication when I can’t hear or lipread and having the confidence in myself to achieve my goals, helps me to be my best. I found my climbing experience really empowering. Women Climb did a brilliant job of being deaf-friendly and supporting me on my first step towards becoming a climber.
I don’t think it is fair that I live in a world where deaf people are so marginalised and excluded, in many areas of life. I want to see a society where deaf people can participate in any activity they wish and to find a friendly and inclusive welcome. It isn’t difficult to achieve, unless you have a limited imagination. With the right attitude, anybody can do anything they set their hearts on.
By Natasha Hirst
Natasha Hirst getting her first taste of outdoor bouldering at Hobson Moor Quarry on the western edge of the Peak district.
If you like this you might also like: