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Ice Climbing Like a One-Legged Girl

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Wielding an axe and a tenuous grip, Heidi Duce is precariously perched along a 10-story vertical curtain of ice. The 17-year-old high school senior is exactly where she wants to be; in her element.  As Heidi prepares to continue picking her way up the frozen face of the Uncompahgre Gorge she hears a voice calling out from below, “You climb like a one legged girl!”

Most people would take this as an insult, but that’s the best compliment you can give Heidi. She turns her head to glance back at her best friend Sydney Tall, smiles and says, “Thank you!”

Heidi was born without a calf bone – a rare disease known as fibular hemimelia. Her climbing partner, Sydney Tall was diagnosed with bone cancer at age six. Although the reasons differ, both girls had a leg amputated at a young age.    

Although Heidi grew up in Ouray, CO - which is known as the ice climbing capitol of the world - she didn’t start climbing until this year. That’s when family friend and mountain rescue team member Chris Folsom introduced her to the sport.

Heidi’s amputation posed a few technical challenges, but Folsom figured if she had the will, he would find the way.  Folsom consulted with Heidi’s prosthetist at Shriners Hospital for Children in Salt Lake City.  Scott Hosie provided the SACH foot adaptor and the technical expertise necessary for Folsom to build a crampon Heidi could screw into the bottom of her leg.

Like all beginners, Heidi tackled the kids wall - a 60 foot WI-2 rated top rope climb. Twenty feet into her ascent, the crampon snapped and Heidi fell. Instead of losing her composure, Heidi found she could trust her gear. She also discovered an insatiable hunger for harder and higher climbs, “The fear and work that you put into it … I love every bit of it. When you top out, it’s the world’s greatest high.”

The qualities that make ice climbing treacherous are the same traits that level the playing field for athletes like Heidi. The slick and ever changing nature of frozen waterfalls are impossible to climb without adaptive equipment.  Equal may be a good place to start, but Heidi says it’s not where she plans to finish, “I threw my entire being into this to prove to people I can do this. I can be better than people with two legs. It’s all about work.  It has nothing to do with what you are given.” 

Folsom and the girls are forming a nonprofit called Amped which will host up to ten youths with disabilities or war veterans in Ouray every winter for a week of ice climbing instruction. 

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