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Sandy Journal

Nothing to hold them down: adaptive systems help children with disabilities learn rock climbing

May 18, 2018 10:18AM ● By Keyra Kristoffersen

Children of all ability levels can learn indoor climbing through the NAC adaptive adventures programs. (National Ability Center)

By Keyra Kristoffersen | [email protected] 

In partnership with the Momentum Climbing Gym in Millcreek and Sandy, the National Ability Center (NAC) offers eight-week indoor climbing camps for children ages 5 to 17 and their siblings. 

“It's a great program,” said Laura Lambert, leader of the Rock On! program. “My son was a participant for probably three years back when he was 10.” 

The camps were sponsored by the NAC in 1985 and based in Park City, which merged with Splore, an adaptive adventure company, in January 2017. Splore began in 1977, offering first river-rafting trips then skiing and rock climbing trips custom designed for individuals and families with special needs. Adaptive teaching and equipment were specially designed to ensure that almost any physical and mental ability could participate in Utah adventures. 

“There’s really not much we cannot accommodate with these adaptive systems,” said Lambert. “It’s pretty remarkable how these guys are able to adapt the system for each kid.” 

The Rock On! climbing program has been around for over 10 years and began by working with children and teens on the Autism spectrum. Its success in building confidence and social skills caused it to be expanded to kids with other types of disabilities and even some young adults who have down syndrome or cognitively and intellectually fit in with a younger crowd. The former Salt Lake program director went to Petzl, a climbing equipment company, and he would change the type of grip depending on upper body strength or lower body strength. There are also special gloves to help the climbers keep their hands on the grips. It was a lot of trial and error to get chest or full-body harnesses that could be used to work with each child depending on what their abilities are. 

For children on the spectrum, it can be a big deal just getting them in the harness and to be okay, said Lambert, but the adjustments have come a long way. One boy who has cerebral palsy had an adaptive chair built for him, but it was too big. Now, just a couple of years later, he fits in it perfectly.

“It’s fun to watch them grow through the program and their progress,” said Lambert.

Volunteers are climbing mentors in each class and work one-on-one with each child throughout the eight weeks. 

“It really helps with things that the kids don’t even realize they’re working on,” said Lambert, whose own son needed help with social skills and was learning them as he built a rapport with his climbing mentor and didn’t realize it. “There was some amazing improvement, even better than some of the therapy he had been getting.” 

Volunteers are not required to have climbing experience, but are trained in skills like belaying, as well as ability awareness and how to work with people of different ability levels. The volunteers go through a training session before each camp starts.

“We’re totally reliant on our volunteers program, which is great that the community gets involved,” said Lambert.

The Rock On! program runs year round (except for December) and each eight-week session rotates between the Millcreek and Sandy Momentum locations with two evening classes per week. There is no minimum number of students per class and all ability levels are welcome. Siblings are also welcome to join in the sessions.

“We have one family that has a set of triplets and a younger child who all participate,” Lambert said. “It’s really nice for the kids to be able to do something together that they might not be able to do in another setting.”

Pricing for the camps runs around $130 to $160, around $20 per class, and covers entrance fees and gear rental for the entire eight weeks. The next class begins in Sandy on May 23 at 220 E. 10600 South, Sandy. Millcreek Momentum is located at 3173 E. 3300 South, Millcreek.

Volunteers are always needed for the various adaptive, confidence-building Utah activities the National Ability Center offers. For information about volunteering or upcoming events, visit