Mo Beck looks on as she rock climbs

Climbing Beyond Conditions

Photo: Courtesy of Mo Beck

Whether she’s climbing alpine rock, sport, or indoors, Maureen “Mo” Beck, a professional athlete born without a left forearm, brings expertise with an infectiously positive attitude—and a unique ability to deal with adversity.

The southeast face of the Lotus Flower Tower in Canada’s Northwest Territories, near the Arctic Circle, stands like a giant castle in an arena of gray stone called the Cirque of the Unclimables. At 2,200 feet, it’s taller than Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Despite being listed in the book Fifty Classic Climbs of North America, the Flower Tower route begins with loose, awkward holds on a lot of wet, dirty rock. Then, like a light switch, it turns world-class with a transition to 1,000 feet of extraordinary climbing, featuring so-called upper “ski tracks,” which are paralleling fissures an arm’s length apart that gradually widen from fingertip- to body-width. This final stretch over rock with granite protrusions resembling braille makes it one of the world’s greatest alpine rock climbs.

For two-time paraclimbing world champion and eight-time national paraclimbing champion Mo Beck, climbing the tower was the perfect target for a first ascent by an all-adaptive team. In August 2018, she partnered with Jim Ewing, a below-the-knee amputee who lost his leg in a sport climbing accident in 2015. “Ewing has wanted to do it since he was young,” Beck says of the idea presented by the 55-year-old. “After he almost died climbing in a recent accident, he knew he wanted to finally climb it.” 

Though the ascent was showcased in the 2019 film Adaptive, it wasn’t all highs. Mosquitos ravaged their base camp. When they weren’t festering in the cold, they carried heavy loads to the wall over rocky, unstable ground and climbed in the rain to keep the momentum up the wall. There, with tape wrapped around the stump that protrudes from Beck’s left elbow, she wiggled, clawed, and fought her way up the rock while drenched in runoff. Making the most out of 20-hour daylight, the team fixed ropes late into the evening. After resting and when the rains subsided, Beck and Ewing went back up and climbed to the tower’s midway ledge. There, they bivvied as green Northern Lights danced above. In the morning, they continued to the top.  

For Beck, the trip instilled a sense that climbing under adverse conditions provides the full experience. “Being in the middle of nowhere is really appealing,” she says of the successful ascent that earned her a 2019 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year nod; a title given to only six athletes annually. The trial-by-fire expedition inspired her to add alpine rock climbing to her repertoire, which already included competitive sport, traditional, indoor and ice.

“There will always be routes that are well within my ability that I’ll never be able to safely lead, due to clips or gear placement stances,” she wrote on Instagram. “But I’ve enjoyed pushing a little more of what’s possible, even if that means a big increase in brown-pants-wearing incidents.”

Mo Beck climbs on an indoor rock wall Photo: Courtesy of Mo Beck/Kris Ugarriza

When she’s not competing for first place on the U.S. paraclimbing podium, winning the Paraclimbing World Championships, mentoring the U.S.A. adaptive climbing team, or speaking at engagements across the U.S., Beck and her husband Brian combine a multitude of adventures. They’ll fish, raft, and climb, all in the same trip. Beck likes long, 5.10 and harder alpine routes, like those found in the Bugaboos in eastern British Columbia (imagine an alpine version of Yosemite Valley). Last summer, she and Ewing completed five major routes there over seven days of climbing, ticking a season’s worth of terrain in a single week. “We couldn’t take any rest days as it was perfect weather,” she says. “I really like covering a bunch of ground throughout the day.”

The trip went perhaps a bit too perfectly—the conversation about it from her home in Arvada, Colo., strays back to the adversity of the Lotus Flower Tower. That, and helping others through hardships by volunteering at the Adaptive Climbers Fest, where Beck introduces new people with disabilities to climbing.

It was an act of outreach that first hooked her as a 12-year-old summer camper in Maine, where a counselor strung a rope up at Baxter State Park. “I just fell in love with it,” Beck says. “After that first time, I went to the local bookstore and started buying books on mountaineering with the money I made babysitting.” Though it was a four-hour drive from home in Ellsworth, Maine to the closest gym in Portland, there were some climbable rocks nearby Acadia National Park, but not partners. She remembers, “being a teenager and trying to read about climbing; it was like a foreign language. I was like, what the hell is a redpoint? What does this mean?” Fortunately, she found good climbing company at the University of Vermont, frequenting Petra Cliffs, as well as a desire to compete.

Now, Beck is on the U.S.A. Climbing team with a full slate of sponsors (Sterling Rope, The North Face, Petzl, SCARPA, and Gnarly Nutrition). Her duties include a slew of public speaking engagements in theaters and corporate locations across the country. (For the National Geographic speaking tour, she counts 30 cities over two years.) She also teaches adaptive clinics at various ice climbing festivals, from Colorado and Montana to Munising, Michigan. She’s starred in the Reel Rock Film Tour, between Fine Lines, Adaptive, and a profile in Stumped, where Beck projects her first 5.12 sport climb. In the film, Climbing Magazine describes her as “a beer chugging, loose-lipped, Oreo-powered ball of energy of a climber” with the film shining “a light on her resolve, her grit, and her talent.”

And though she still continues to climb in the gym several days a week, where it’s climate controlled, she’s always thinking about that next experience pushing herself in harsh conditions. 

PUBLIC LANDS: Speaking of challenging conditions, aside from overcoming your physical disability in international competition and ends-of-the-earth expeditions, have you ever experienced additional challenges on account of gender, climbing as a woman in a male-dominated space?

MO BECK: We all have identities. My disability has always been at the front part, the most obvious. If someone does have doubts of me with a disability, they might also have doubts of my ability as a woman. If that’s the case, maybe that person is just a jerk. 

Maybe I’m clueless I was never bullied (or never noticed) over my disability. I’m confident with my disability, so negative things don’t bother me I guess. 

As an indoor and outdoor climbing expert, what do public lands mean to you? 

In New England, you are constantly fighting with private land ownership. You want to respect their lands, but sometimes finding public and wild areas can be frustrating. For example, there are only 600,000 acres of public land in Maine. Once I moved to Colorado for work (in finance for Vail Resorts), I discovered the Western style of public lands. In Colorado, there are 8.3 million acres of public lands. We bring the camper and the dogs and live off the land for a couple of weeks at a time. I’ll be floating on my raft, fishing, or climbing somewhere or after, driving my truck down a road and camping, and I’ll pinch myself.

What do you like most about living out West?  

The access to public lands is still mind-blowing to me. I know it’s a unique situation in West versus East, but when I talk to my friends from Europe about how public lands work, they say how lucky I am. Twenty-eight percent of the U.S., 640 million acres are on public land. In Europe, 80 percent of the land is used for cities, agriculture, and forestry. 

Tell me about your involvement with the Adaptive Climbers Fest (ACF) in the Red River Gorge of Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest. I understand it was founded in 2018, touted as ‘an annual, community-focused, three-day event that provides space for climbers with disabilities to come together, learn, and celebrate with one another.’

ACF is my favorite event of the year because it provides a space that wasn’t there for me when I was a new climber. We offer educational clinics, taught by disabled instructors, as well as just providing a space for regular, fun cragging sessions in which everyone there also has a disability. That just takes a big chunk of anxiety out of the day. Everyone is weird, so no one stands out anymore, and you can just focus on the climbing and community.

Most of all, I try to get someone, especially in the adaptive community, just so stoked on climbing. I think of it as spreading the addiction of climbing. As it grows, I see more benefits, and I have more people to climb with.

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