“Are you sure you want to do this?” That’s what I was asked while being strapped into a harness to go adaptive rock climbing up a rigid and extremely steep mountain. No, I wasn’t sure. But as I sat there getting strapped into this harness, I remembered the No Barriers Summit motto — “What’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way.” After all, I came to No Barriers to challenge myself and this wasn’t an opportunity that comes about every day. Suddenly, I was reinvigorated and ready to take on the mountain. “Yes, let’s do this!”
I attended the No Barriers Summit in Park City, Utah, in July, to discover what it’s all about. I’m a big risk taker, which ends up not being the best idea all the time, but I had full faith that this would be a weekend to remember.
For those unfamiliar with the annual four-day conference, the mission of No Barriers Summit is to “unleash the potential of the human spirit” through transformative experiences and inspiration. The conference brings together scientists, inventors, academics and people of all backgrounds and abilities to create a truly diverse network of attendees. Events range from adaptive sports workshops like rock climbing to a concert by the Grammy-award-winning Blind Boys of Alabama. This mix of activities fostered joy among conference attendees while allowing us to stretch both our bodies and our minds.
Each year, the Summit and No Barriers University, which takes place every evening, brings in an impressive roster of speakers. One of the closing speakers, and perhaps my favorite of the entire Summit, was Cara Elizabeth Yar Khan. Born in India and raised in Canada, Yar Khan, 43, wowed me with her personal and professional achievements in the face of a rare progressive muscle-wasting genetic disease known as hereditary inclusion body myopathy. There are less than 1,000 known cases in the world. In her speech, Yar Khan mentioned always having big dreams and plans for her life. When she was diagnosed at the age of 30, the doctor told her to basically go back home and just ride out her remaining time. Yar Khan did the exact opposite of what the doctor said and moved abroad. She has traveled around the world, and in her past role as a child protection specialist with UNICEF, she used the challenges of her disease as a source of inspiration to fuel her work of helping people all around the globe.
The Summit was not just about inspiring people and achieving personal growth, but also dealt with helping people around the world. One of the conference’s core tenets is that our world should not be defined by limits. Whether it is technology pushing the limits of biology and physics or raw human spirit pushing past the limits thrust upon us by others or ourselves, No Barriers schools you in living life to the fullest.
A Wide Variety to Choose From
There were 850 attendees, a film festival, community yoga, a slew of scientific presentations and about 50 adaptive workshops, including art clinics on topics from writing to painting to music. I chose to go the more adventurous route and opted for the sports clinics. With everything from water sports to sled hockey to challenge courses, it was hard to decide which clinics I actually wanted to attend. I ultimately ended up choosing the outdoor rock climbing clinic, adaptive skateboarding and fishing. Unfortunately my skateboarding clinic was canceled due to rain. However, the other two were great.
Even though I was nervous, I was looking forward to the outdoor rock climbing clinic the most. It did not disappoint. We drove about 45 minutes away from Park City in a wheelchair-accessible vehicle and went to Big Cottonwood Canyon, where the climbing took place on real Alpine rock. The mountains were breathtaking, but I’ll admit that thoughts of going up the rock started to terrify me when I realized how huge they were. The professionals at the summit calmed my nerves and assured me that climbing would not only be possible for me, but safe as well.
There were all kinds of harnesses. I used one that was basically like a seat. It had a padded cushion and full back support, just like being in a chair. I don’t have a lot of upper body strength due to SMA, so pulling myself up the mountain wasn’t easy, but I did make it a few feet up with the help of the staff. That may not seem far, but it was awesome to see that it was possible and how much adaptive equipment there is.
“This activity required extensive problem solving and teamwork. We made it work and figured out how I can climb further next time,” says Daman Wandke, 26, a fellow rock climbing participant from Bellingham, Wash., who has cerebral palsy. It seems like almost anything would be possible with today’s technology. I learned with this clinic that even the toughest activities are possible with enough determination and a little help from others.
Yar Khan said that rock climbing was one of her favorite activities also, in addition to kayaking and scuba diving. She was impressed with the creativity of the available adaptations: “When I was about 20 feet high, they tied a rope from my foot to the harness so that I could pull my foot up when my legs were too tired.” Like me, she recognizes it’s not about whether we made it to the top of the mountain or just a few feet off the ground. “It was not about how high I climbed or fast I paddled or how long I was under water, but rather the triumph of trying and succeeding to the best of my ability.”
After my rock climbing adventure, I headed over to Jordanelle State Park and had a relaxing boat ride. I boarded a dock-level entry, wheelchair accessible 35-foot pontoon boat and off we went for the next few hours. Jordanelle was absolutely beautiful, and the weather was perfectly sunny. I even managed to get a pretty bad sunburn, despite using sunscreen. We caught about three fish while out on the water, including trout. I ate some Utah trout later that night at one of Park City’s best new restaurants, Fletcher’s. Maybe I was just craving trout from being around it earlier in the day, but this was seriously the most delicious fish I have ever eaten.
More Than Sports
While each and every aspect of the Summit was informative, there were specific clinics that fell under the heading of educational. Jack Kavanagh, 21, a first time attendee who traveled all the way from Ireland for the Summit, said one of his favorite clinics was the Post Summit Action Plan workshop. The workshop provided practices and tools to help attendees develop goals and awareness of fears and limitations by using a concrete action plan focused on staying grounded. “In this clinic we discussed making a plan to implement some of the things that we learned at the Summit in our lives at home,” says Kavanagh, a quad. “This really allowed me to get a perspective on my experiences and come home with something very different in mind.”
Sometimes when you attend conferences, you feel yourself changed, but your new awareness slips away when you return to “real life.” This workshop was an antidote to that — it was instrumental in making sure that everything you learned stuck with you and continued to change you.
Another clinic that Kavanagh attended was Adaptive Mountain Handcycling. “I was really looking forward to handcycling and it didn’t fail to impress me. There was a huge range of bikes … and after trying three different setups, we got something that really worked for me,” he says. Within just a few minutes, the staff could quickly rig something up that worked easily, whether the participant was paralyzed or an amputee. The staff was always more than accommodating and was determined to get everyone in on the action of adaptive sports.
All in all, No Barriers made me realize that in many ways, with the help of technology, innovation, and my own constructive mindset, I can smash through what I had perceived (and what society had taught me to perceive) as insurmountable barriers. I made countless new friends and acquaintances, and I know this won’t be my last time rock climbing or taking risks with a number of other activities. I am already eagerly awaiting the 2016 No Barriers Summit, which will be held in Colorado. Will I see you there?
To register or learn more, go to www.nobarrierssummit.org.