Alex McKiernan doesn’t want us to be “disconnected from the disabled experience – it’s powerful and important and useful to this world.” Alex wants to help people see the value of their experiences and life lessons that able-bodied people rarely get to experience, but need to know. “There is much to see in the ‘darkness’, we need to provide these insights to our community,” says Alex.
A car accident five years ago left Alex an incomplete paraplegic. He considers himself wiser for the years since his accident. Community minded, he and his wife provide ‘farm to table’ fresh produce for their town. He hopes to run for public office someday and currently reaches out to a larger community via his podcast, “Science for the Rest of Us”.
Alex knew it would be difficult to embrace new challenges in one’s mobility but made a conscious effort to accept what came his way and adapt quickly. “You can miss so many opportunities by denying what you need to face”. Without a doubt, the tremendous support of his wife and the honesty of his three daughters helped him adjust to his new life. One of his daughters asked him every day for a year, “tell me what happened to you dad?” Alex just gave her the facts, and this helped her move on.
“The things I’ve done since I’ve become ‘disabled’ are things most able-bodied persons don’t get close to doing. It’s silly the term ‘disabled’… everyone has limitations; mine are just visible.” Last fall with the help of his friend Todd, Alex climbed El Capitan’s ‘Zodiac Face’, an 1800 ft rock wall in Yosemite National Park.
Alex’s Instagram tag, “Livin’ the dream, (one shaky step at a time)” truly captures this man’s humour, passion and ability to clearly see how life’s ‘changing tides’ offer wisdom and opportunity. “Sometimes, you’ve just gotta let go, live life and see what happens.”
How do you overcome mobility challenges when you climb?
Everybody has tools when they’re climbing. Climbing is already an adaptive sport; I mean unless you’re free soloing, you need equipment to do it efficiently and safely. I just have different equipment.
We do a type of protective climbing called aid climbing, where we have a rope and a harness and lots of other equipment that helps you attach to the wall and ascend. Todd would lead, and then when I climb to follow him, he would fix the rope so I would be ascending using that fixed rope that was tied into place and an ascender that I adapted. I put pull-up bars on a regular Petzl ascender so I can hold onto it with 2 hands. The ascender was attached to my legs in a way that I could lift both my arms and my legs at the same time and then pull up and stand up together and so it allowed me to use my leg strength. I used probably 30-40% upper body and the rest was lower body.
Have you always loved climbing?
I have. I’ve climbed most of my life, particularly in college and graduate school. I started working as an arborist climbing trees and pruning and removing trees. I didn’t know it at the time but it was great training.
When I got injured, I heard about a guy named Mark Wellman, who was the first paraplegic to climb El Capitan in 1989. That got me really excited. I got the local hospital and the university to bring Mark to Nebraska and give some presentations. That was sort of a roundabout way for me to be Mark’s chauffeur for five days and pick his brain and that got me back into climbing. I’m pretty confident that I never would have climbed a big wall if I hadn’t been hurt. It’s funny the way life works sometimes. Mark’s actually how I found out about SideStix!
What does Defy Convention mean to you?
I think if everybody just lived their life, they’d be defying convention because very few people truly want to do what everybody else thinks they should do. My definition is just live the life that you have inside you and you’ll be defying convention. I’ve been very fortunate. After my injury, I made a conscious decision to accept whatever came, and I work really hard every day to improve my life and my family’s life. I think that’s a pretty empowering decision if you can make it. This injury has been a big lesson in presence for me.
What are your passions in life?
I’m passionate about being involved in community, and trying to take on leadership roles and motivate people to build a community and a country that empowers everyone to be their best. I’m also really passionate about science and knowledge and truth. In the U.S. we like to talk a lot about how free we are and how important that is. I love the freedoms that we have in this country and think they’re based on truth and justice. Without recognizing truth and building from it, there is no justice and no freedom. I started the podcast (“Science For the Rest of Us”) to interview scientists and get into the nitty-gritty of politically controversial issues to better understand them, and hopefully build productive conversations around truth.
What is your favourite thing about SideStix?
I like a lot of aspects of my SideStix. They’re super powerful. I’m a volunteer firefighter and an EMT, and to get around on an emergency scene, I really have to count on good crutches. I can trust my SideStix, and that’s really important. The rotating articulating tip has benefitted me most. I can maintain really good contact with the ground even at an awkward angle. When I was descending from the big wall I needed those articulating tips to really engage with the ground because I was on some steep rocky slabs. I also like the side cuff a lot because I can get a lot more stability, and they don’t drop off my arms when I’m gesturing. And I do a lot of gesturing!
What is your idea of a perfect day?
Well if you haven’t gathered, I like working. I enjoy physical work, and a perfect day for me would involve exercise, physical work, time with my family, wonderful food, and then something to get my brain moving. A little bit of everything is my perfect day.
How do you stay motivated?
I think I’m just lucky because I’m always motivated. I mean, occasionally I have to try to spark myself but in general I never have to try to stay motivated. If anything I have to try to not say yes to everything! But I think the thing that keeps me stress-free, energetic, mentally and emotionally engaged, and excited for the world, is exercise. I have to be active and when I have regular exercise everything else seems to fall into place. It’s harder for me to be physically active now, but that makes it even more important.
Do you have a message for other crutch users?
One thing I see a lot in people with injuries is the tendency to discount where they are in life, and only view their experiences negatively. I’ve been through an experience that many people haven’t, and that’s important and useful to the world. I try to help newly-injured people see that, when maybe they don’t value the experiences they’ve had. There’s much to see in darkness. The experiences I’ve had are extremely powerful and are valuable to the world, and I wouldn’t have that to offer if I didn’t have to go through all this pain. So hopefully people with new challenges can see some value in it and add that value to their community. I’m totally thankful for what I have and do my best to maximize it every day.