INWOOD — Adam Payne’s rock-climbing medals — one gold and one bronze — hang inconspicuously from a shelf in the corner of his kitchen, not far from where he keeps his leg braces and wheelchair.
Payne, 43, was diagnosed 17 years ago with ataxia, a degenerative neuromuscular condition that affects his balance, muscle coordination and speech. But he has not let that keep him from scaling cliffs as a competitive climber.
Two years ago, Payne took up rock climbing through a program for people with disabilities at Brooklyn Boulders. Now, after winning the bronze this July at the paraclimbing national championships, he is raising funds through an online campaign to help him get to the world paraclimbing championships next month in Spain.
“We’re all different. We have various issues, from cerebral palsy to paralysis to people who are amputees,” Payne said of the group with whom he climbs. “We all get up a wall differently, but we all get up a wall.”
So far, he has raised $625 of his $2,500 goal through the site CrowdRise. The money will go to cover airfare and living expenses during the weeklong competition. The Adaptive Climbing Group, an organization that supports paraclimbing, is also raising funds to help the climbers cover costs.
Payne, who is also an avid cyclist, got into rock climbing by accident. He was planning a long-term cycling trip and went to an Eastern Mountain Sports store to stock up on equipment. One of the employees who helped him suggested that Payne talk to another staffer.
That employee, Kareemah Batts, got into rock climbing after her left leg was amputated below the knee. She was in the process of organizing clinics to teach people with disabilities to climb when she met Payne.
“We started chatting, and she told me all about the adaptive climbing group she was starting,” Payne said. "She asked me to come, and I did.”
After that, he was hooked, making the hour-and-a-half journey from his Inwood home to Brooklyn Boulders in Gowanus at least once a week to climb.
Batt's Adaptive Climbing Group, which has helped to expand the sport in the northeast, has grown substantially since then. There are now twice-weekly clinics for climbers with disabilities at Brooklyn Boulders, which also offers the program at its Boston location. The adaptive climbing group also includes programs in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and greater New York. Climbers of all ages and with all types of disabilities are welcomed.
Of all the participants in Batts' program, Payne has stood out.
“If I had to say who is the hardest working climber with our program, it’s Adam, hands down,” she said.
Payne, who does not use any special equipment to climb, said that the biggest challenge for him is balance.
Payne compensates by working on his core and grip strength, which he says are much better now than when he occasionally rock climbed in his early 20s, before his diagnosis.
“I had more control over my body back then, but I definitely have more strength now. I have a six-pack now,” he said. “Well, sometimes I have a six-pack.”
Payne's progress has not been lost on those who have climbed with him.
“People don’t understand his disability and what it takes for him to do daily, ordinary stuff," Batts said. "To add rock climbing to that, he’s just prolific.”
In addition to building his strength, Payne believes that rock climbing has helped to improve his overall health.
“I think it has really helped with my disease to slow the progression,” he said. “Every once in a while, I go downhill very fast and then I plateau. I’ve been in a plateau now for a long time.”
In July, he traveled to Atlanta to compete in the country's first national paraclimbing championship, where participants competed in divisions for those with arm or leg amputations, climbers with neurological disorders or visual impairments, and those who must be seated, often due to lower limb paralysis.
Payne took home the bronze medal for his division, earning himself a spot on the U.S. team for the world championship. The competition will take place in Gijon, Spain, from Sept. 8-14.
He hopes to medal in Spain, but even if he doesn’t, he is proud of what he has accomplished.
“I feel I’ve put a lot of work in here,” he said. “Not to toot my own horn, but I’ve put a lot of work in and it’s paying off.”