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The City Journals

World champion paraclimber shares story, empowers Girl Scouts to find their passion

Oct 04, 2021 11:25AM ● By Julie Slama

Professional paraclimber Mo Beck speaks with girls after the Girl Scouts of Utah’s Girls’ Empowered event, encouraging them to find their passion. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

About 100 registered Girl Scouts had the opportunity to not only listen to a world-class paraclimber share inspiring tales of mountain climbing, they also could choose to climb with her at the local Momentum indoor climbing facility.

As part of the Girl Scouts of Utah’s Girls’ Empowered event, sixth- through 12th-grade girls listened as Maureen “Mo” Beck described competing at world championships and climbing the Lotus Flower Tower, a 2,200-foot granite rock face in the Cirque of the Unclimbables in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

That alone is challenging enough for many people; however, Beck did those one-handed as she was born without the lower part of her left arm.

By coincidence, her love of mountain climbing came at about the same age as the girls in attendance while attending Girl Scout camp near Acadia National Park in Maine, where she grew up.

“My counselor said that I may just want to sit this one out,” she remembered. “So, the little 12-year-old me just thought, ‘screw you, I’m going to do it just because you think I can’t.’ I’m sure I didn’t do that well and didn’t make it to the top of the rock, but I wasn’t going to not do it. I never used not having my hand as an excuse.”

She also used that same attitude to show her middle school coaches she could play soccer as the goalkeeper, the position where a player can use their hands; play softball—throwing the ball and catching it without a mitt; and play basketball—although she didn’t make that team since she missed tryouts. 

“I just wanted to show I was an athlete and could play; don’t count me out because I only have one hand. My grandma used to say that I was just being a smart-ass,” she said.

But being defiant at Girl Scout camp meant more to the girl who once thought the best thing in the outdoors was hiking.

“I fell in love with mountain climbing. It’s just me and the rock. It doesn’t care if I’m a girl. It doesn’t care if I don’t have a hand. It’s just there to be climbed. I knew then I wanted to be a climber and a good climber. Period. I had never known anything more than hiking. My parents weren’t climbers, so I went to the bookstore to buy magazines about mountain climbing.”

With the help of friends, Beck developed her own style of climbing to accommodate not having a second hand. Her efforts didn’t stop there; she even tried ice climbing by attaching an ice tool to her prosthetic and also duct-taped a paddle to her prosthetic so she could canoe.

Since then, most days Beck has given up wearing her prosthetic.

“I had to figure out I can’t really wear a prosthetic to rock climb. It doesn’t help. So, I’m just going to tape my arm so I can feel the rock and also, so I don’t leave a bloody trail behind,” she told the Scouts.

However, if Beck wanted to become a better climber, she told the girls, she had to confront her ego.

“I had to be honest that it’s hard for me to do some things physically or I was unable to—and that was hard to do,” she said. “I had to realize I didn’t have all the knowledge or all the strength. I finally got to the point where I said at least I have to try and ask questions. I had to admit I didn’t know if I wanted to learn.”

Once she did that, Beck said climbing became even more enjoyable. She told the girls that her first climbing title, the first U.S. Nationals held in Atlanta in 2014, she won because she was the only one in her category.

“I felt conflicted about that. Does it count? Can I brag about being first if I’m the only one? I settled on you can because often times, the battle is stepping out of your front door; the hardest part is showing up,” she said.

Later, she acquired four more national titles.

With only a couple competitive events for paraclimbers each year, Beck made each one count. In 2014, she won the gold at the Paraclimbing World Champions in Spain as one of 15 paraclimbing athletes representing the United States. Two years later in Paris when the next worlds were held, she repeated her title and was one of 50 U.S. athletes, showing that the sport is growing.

One championship was a three-way tie because “the people who built the competition underestimated us because it was too easy,” Beck said.

Recently Jim Ewing, a climber with a prosthetic leg whom she didn’t know, asked her to join him climbing the Lotus Flower Tower; she reflected back on her decision when she said yes.

“Society tells us, our parents tell us ‘no, we should stay safe. Our risks should be small, we should aim for incremental changes in our lives,’ but I think that’s wrong,” Beck said. “I think the more scared you are, the bigger risks you take, the worst that can happen when you take a risk is nothing changes. Failure is where you grow from. Failure when you take a risk is one of the best things that can happen. We’re so afraid of failure that we use it as an excuse to not grow. Life is too short for that.”

Beck and the others were gone one month, most of it waiting for the weather to clear so they could climb. For 10 days leading up to the climb, they camped at the base of the peak, heating freeze-dried food on their backpacking stoves. When there was a break in the weather, they climbed part way up the steep cliff to a bivy ledge where they spent the night. 

“We finally got on mountain, and you can tell, I was a little less than stoked. The rock was still quite wet. I wasn’t ready for truly how loose and gross and mossy it was. Every single hitch that we did…was a full rope length; these were full 200-foot rope stretchers. So, when Jim would take off to lead, I would just be alone for so long during these belays. I was freezing wet and thinking fairly dark thoughts: ‘This was a horrible mistake. I’m not having fun. I’m 1,000 miles away from my family (she’s married, living in Colorado). It’s August. I should be in Colorado right now getting sunburned, sport climbing and having fun at the beach,” she told the girls. “But I knew anytime I was in a dark place, there is always something on the other side.”

After witnessing the northern lights that night and waking the next morning, Beck was excited, but her climbing partner was sick. Knowing this was their only chance, they ascended the mountain, anyway. They reached the top—and rappelled down for nine hours arriving in the dark.

“We wanted this to be the first all-adaptive ascent. We thought about it more and adaptation doesn’t mean you have one hand you learn how to climb. Adaptation is more about taking what is wrong and figuring out how to make it work. I realized the more that went wrong with this trip, the more I learned,” said the woman who was named the 2019 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.

Now Beck is training for what she believes will be her last world championship before taking a break from competition. However, she isn’t ruling out the possibility of competing in paraclimbing if it is added to the Paralympic Games in 2028.

Next, she wants to continue scaling peaks, maybe in Alaska.

“Life isn’t over when you’re out of the spotlight and off of the podium, the world is still waiting,” she said, adding that now she teaches other adaptive climbers.

“I want these girls to find their voice, their passion, what pumps them up. I’ve broken so many barriers now I want to empower them to push those farther,” she said. 

In addition to Beck, the Girl Scouts watched “The Empowerment Project,” a documentary made by women and featuring women across the country who were making a positive impact.

Girl Scouts of Utah CEO Lisa Hardin-Reynolds said that Girl Scouting gives girls opportunities—not only in the outdoors, but from STEM to life skills.

“We encourage Girl Scouts to try new things because it could open up a new passion that they can do for their whole lives, just like it has for Mo,” she said. “We want to give them the opportunity to face challenges, lift each other up and see other women role models so they can see that anything is possible.”