The deaf climber creating space for everyone in the mountains

The deaf climber creating space for everyone in the mountains

In partnership with BerghausBerghaus
  • Text by Huck
A new film from Berghaus reveals how Scottish climber Morag Skelton is sharing her experiences to inspire other d/Deaf people to embrace mountaineering.

Morag Skelton learned she was deaf before her first birthday. But that never stopped Morag and her parents enjoying a childhood spent together in the outdoors – usually cycling in the Scottish Highlands. Morag’s parents learned British Sign Language so they could communicate with one another and, later, Morag had an implant fitted that allowed her to join the ‘hearing world.’ Still, without full hearing, activities that most people take for granted, such as travelling across the city, visiting the shops or anything else that requires communication with strangers, can prove challenging and stressful. Those anxieties aren’t present in the outdoors, where Morag can enjoy a more simple existence, without any pressure to communicate beyond her trusted group, which has paid dividends for her mental health.

A keen climber, skier and artist, Morag’s joy and satisfaction in the outdoors is tempered with disappointment that few d/Deaf people manage to enjoy similar experiences. A new film from Berghaus explores Morag’s story and her efforts to make climbing and mountaineering more inclusive. While there are no physical barriers to d/Deaf people climbing, Morag explains that the main barrier is lack of access to appropriate training. Ahead of the film release, Morag told Huck about overcoming barriers for d/Deaf people and how she is working for her Mountaineering & Climbing Instructor (MCI) qualification so she can help teach more d/Deaf people to climb.

Could you briefly explain the role that sound and hearing plays in climbing?

When I’m in the zone during a climbing route, all the other sounds disappear and my mind solely focuses on the sound of my body movement. I’m thinking about the next moves and gear placements. My brain tends to focus on one sound at time.

What are the additional challenges that being d/Deaf adds to the already highly challenging pursuit of climbing?

Communication is extra challenging for me as a deaf climber. I can only lip read at close distances – even at five meters away, it’s still not easy for me. If someone says something during a hard route, I have to stop what I’m doing and look down, which uses up my energy and it can sometimes get frustrating. Since I’m often not able to clearly hear a climber shout commands, I’ve had to learn to adapt. One thing that helps is to pair up with a climbing partner that I know well and who is easy to communicate with. This is key for me to guarantee that the climbing day will go smoothly.

Another way I’ve adapted is to master hand signals. I have come up with a system to communicate with partners which is very handy, especially if we’re both out of sight or the wind is too loud to hear our commands. For example, when the climbing leader is ‘safe’ at the next belay anchor, they will powerfully tug the rope(s) three times. Feeling my harness being pulled three times is the signal telling me that I can take the belay device off and respond back to the leader, “Off belay!” The leader then takes in all the rope(s), puts me on belay and signals back to me with another tug of the rope(s) that it’s safe to start climbing. This system means I can take out a less experienced partner. With them, I tend to aim for an easier route so I can keep them within my sights at all times. As a last resort and backup plan, my climbing partner and I can text each other.

How have you learned to overcome these challenges to climb at the high intensity that you do?

Finding a climbing partner can be challenging due to my hearing. It’s the hobby I’m most passionate about, yet there are days I can’t summon the energy to meet an unfamiliar person. The work of lip reading and generally understanding them uses up a lot of extra brain power. Plus, it’s easy for the other person to forget how much work it is due to the fact that I have good speech. Keeping my climbing partners consistent helps me to overcome the challenges. We share experiences and grow together from our mistakes.

Not long after I learnt to lead climb, I started climbing with Jamie and he is now my husband. Jamie has been my main climbing partner ever since and we’ve experienced everything together, from small days out to epic adventures. Since we know each other’s climbing styles so well, we don’t talk whilst we’re climbing, so we’re probably the quietest couple at the crag! Jamie is more experienced than I am, so he pushes me out of my comfort zone. I am very grateful he does and it has been worth a few tears! I’m fortunate enough to have my husband as my main climbing partner. With Jamie and my close climbing friends, I can focus on climbing and have fun without too much lip reading stress/anxiety because they are deaf aware and we know how to communicate with each other.

How many other d/Deaf climbers are there out there?

When I competed in the British Paraclimbing Series: Round 1, at Edinburgh International Climbing Arena, I was actually competing in a hearing impaired category. However, to my surprise, there were very few of us. Again, for the next round in London I was disappointed to see such a small turnout. I would have been able to continue if there were more d/Deaf climbers because I enjoy competition. There was a huge turnout of people in other categories. So the truth is I do not know if there are many d/Deaf climbers out there in the UK.

There are many deaf folk who don’t feel confident enough to push out of their comfort zone, which is understandable. If you’re learning a new and potentially scary activity, you then have the added stress of maybe only understanding half of what you’re learning and that can be frightening. This is the case even for myself; I remember completing my Mountain Instructor Award (now called MCI) training and having to catch up on all the things I didn’t hear or understand at the end of the day, with help from my friend. This turned a long day of learning into an ultra-long day.

There are many instructors who have never worked with d/Deaf people and are unsure how to manage potential problems. Communication when learning is the main barrier for the d/Deaf people.

What can be done to make climbing more accessible for d/Deaf people?

Short films and podcast interviews with adventurous role models are increasingly inspiring people nowadays. I’ve noticed that it’s definitely one of the best ways to inspire the audience to try out new sports or just to get outdoors more. I have been frustrated that a lot of short adventure films which include climbing don’t have subtitles. If they do, it’s often if the film is spoken in a foreign language. I was eager to know what they said but I wasn’t able to. It’s upsetting.

I am over the moon that Berghaus have made their ‘The Ascension Series’ accessible for everyone with subtitles, British Sign Language and audio description. Every adventure film should do the same.

A general deaf awareness and basic sign language course for professional outdoors instructors would greatly help communication. Outdoor companies should have a system in place for when a d/Deaf group or d/Deaf individual comes, so more time can be spent on a thorough safety brief and developing a system of clear communication. This would be easy to do and make the activity far more accessible.

What would you like ‘hearing climbers’ to know that would allow them to be more supportive, inclusive and welcoming of d/Deaf climbers?

The whole climbing community could help bridge the gap for d/Deaf people by running d/Deaf-only climbing courses and by setting up d/Deaf climbing clubs. This would act as entry point to the sport and make learning more accessible. Climbers who are d/Deaf could then build on their skills, allowing them to become a more common presence on the climbing walls, both indoors and outside.

It is my personal goal to also help bridge this gap. Some deaf people rely on sign language interpretation for communicating with ‘hearing people.’ A signing d/Deaf person who wants to go scrambling is unlikely to hire a guide who doesn’t know how to sign and finding an interpreter comfortable with signing in unfamiliar terrain might be a difficult task. However, I hope that when I’m a qualified MCI, deaf clients would be able to hire me without worrying about an interpreter, as I could communicate with them directly using sign language while climbing and scrambling.

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