On the 5.7 by Evan
On a cold December morning I watched as the most inspirational climber I know fought his way to the top of yet another climb that seemed impossible only a few weeks before. Tim cruised through the lower section more smoothly than he ever had before, reaching the top of the route, and its previously insurmountable moves, with more energy than either of us had dreamed possible. Just below those crux high steps, Tim rested, chalking up and gathering his resources for the final push into the unknown. Finally, in a sequence of movement that seemed both sudden and prolonged, Tim completed one new move after another and finally found himself at the top of the route.
I have watched climbers send hard routes and boulders, overcome mental challenges, and demonstrate physical strength so far beyond me that it seems superhuman, but none of them ever inspired me more than watching Tim Miller get to the top of that yellow 5.7. You see, Tim has Cerebral Palsy with Spastic Diplegia; basically his brain has a hard time communicating with the muscles in his legs. His nerves are always telling his leg muscles to contract whether he wants them to or not, and when he was 5 years old his doctors told him he would never be able to walk on his own.
Over the past 6 months, I have discovered the same thing Tim’s doctors did back when he was only a boy. Tim has a relentless drive and determination to achieve his goals, and by the age of 8 he was able to walk. Unfortunately, at such a young age, Tim did not have another goal to pursue that would drive him to improve his ability to use his legs. For many years Tim set his sights on other physical activities like alpine mono skiing and skydiving, and his ability to walk and use his legs remained pretty much the same. His abs and back muscles were weak, and while he worked on his glutes, calves and quads with a personal trainer, many things about balance and leg control remained a mystery.
A few years ago, Tim found a new goal, kite boarding. But kite boarding is a full body challenge and Tim discovered that his legs were not up to the task of maintaining balance while holding a kite even while only standing on the beach. This new challenge kicked Tim’s determination back into high gear and he began to search for ways to improve his body. Improvement was progressing slowly until a chance outing introduced Tim to the sport of rock climbing.
In the fall of 2011, Tim walked through the doors of Planet Granite in Sunnyvale, CA and into a realm of possibility he had never imagined. From the first, rock climbing stretched the limits of what Tim was able to do with his legs and core muscles. He discovered a multitude of new things that his body could do, and with each visit he noticed improvement in the way he walked and maintained balance. Climbing requires many of the under-used muscle groups of Tim’s lower body to work both separately and in unison, often in ways that are entirely new to him.
In the 15 months since Tim first came to Planet Granite, he has been able to see changes and improvements to his body that he never dreamed possible. Now, among other things, he can comfortably walk down the aisle of an airplane, maintaining balance and stability with his feet much closer together than was ever before possible. His goal of being able to stand up on a kiteboard seems closer than ever. However, despite Tim’s vast reserves of will and desire, he was not able to accomplish all of this on his own.
Planet Granite is more than just a place to climb or exercise, it is a community as well, and that community has played an essential role in Tim’s physical transformation. From the first, Tim felt accepted and welcomed to the community as “just another climber.” His presence is never questioned, and every climber sees a reflection of his own struggles and triumphs in Tim’s progress on a route. However, there is one person Tim singles out as having had the most impact on him as a climber. When he was looking for a private climbing instructor, everyone on the PG Staff said “you have to talk to Monica!” Monica had previous experience working with people who have disabilities and she provided Tim with invaluable perspectives as he began to learn more about how his body works and moves. Monica inspired Tim and introduced him to new concepts like motor planning. She helped Tim to understand what sort of developmental phases he had missed and how much he had left to work towards.
Tim has made great strides in improving the strength and function of his body, and along the way he has become a better climber too. These achievements came through a synthesis of Tim’s own strength of body and will, the intricate and challenging nature of climbing, and the special knowledge and spirit of one of the many exceptional staff members working at Planet Granite. Tim’s kiteboarding goal is closer than ever, but climbing has played a huge role in getting him this close and he says simply, “I’m a climber now.”
Evan Pearce is one of the advanced instructors at Planet Granite in Sunnyvale and has been working with Tim Miller for 6 months.