Take 5: Adaptive MMA fighter and mountaineer Kyle Maynard with No Barriers
June 22, 2016
Kyle Maynard is a bear-crawling machine.
In 2012, the quadruple amputee from Georgia — the same man who defeated state wrestling champions in high school and lifted 420 pounds with no arms or legs — set aside his wrestling gear and Brazilian jiu-jitsu training for an entirely new kind of challenge: summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, the continent's tallest peak at 19,341 feet.
For 10 days and more than 30 miles, Maynard joined a small crew of guides and climbers, including fellow para-athletes Chris Hadsall of the U.S. Marines and Sandra Ambotaite of the U.S. Army, to scramble over rocks, ice, snow and scree en route to the summit. As a congenital amputee — Maynard was born with no forearms and no calves — he switched back and forth between adaptive climbing equipment and bear-crawling. The technique is exactly how it sounds: he'd literally crawl over the terrain, using little more than custom-made arm attachments, leg attachments and pure, raw determination.
"I think the biggest lesson my family taught me growing up is that every person on the planet has a disability," the 30-year-old said. "I can't always look at you and see it, like you can with me, but just by looking at someone you don't know a fraction of their experiences."
When the Kilimanjaro trek was finished, Maynard admits he was beat and battered — but hardly willing to stop. He next set his sights on Argentina's Aconcagua (22,841 feet), the tallest peak in South America, and became the first quadruple amputee to summit there in February.
This weekend, Maynard, who now lives in San Diego for high-level martial arts training, joins fellow adaptive athletes Amy Purdy, Erik Weihenmayer and more than 200 adventurers from across the nation for the 2016 No Barriers Summit. The four-day event features speakers, hikes and more, all built around the idea Weihenmayer put into place when he and several other adaptive athletes founded the Fort Collins-based program: no barrier is too steep, no matter who you are.
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Before coming to town for his first-ever emcee gig — yet another first for his resume — the Summit Daily News caught up with Maynard to hear more about the Kilimanjaro trek, his low-key approach to disabilities and the fine art of bear-crawling.
Summit Daily News: You went from setting records in wrestling and mixed martial arts to climbing mountains. What sparked the change?
Kyle Maynard: I would say probably my greatest strength and biggest weakness is massive attention deficit disorder. I've just always had varied interests and want to experience many things, and I think a lot of people in Colorado can relate to the fact there's a major appeal to the outdoor world once you're exposed to it. But, when you grow up in a wheelchair, it can seem off limits. It can seem inaccessible. The desire to get out there has been latent for me for a long time, but now I'm finally getting at it.
SDN: Did you get into the woods much as a kid, or was it truly off limits?
KM: When we went on hikes I'd ride on my dad's back. We'd play paintball in the woods, but my outdoor experience was very limited.
SDN: When did you first set your sights on Kilimanjaro?
KM: I opened a Crossfit gym eight years ago in Atlanta and did a competition through them, and one of the first events was to do a row and then head up Stone Mountain, which is a 900-foot mountain near there. It nearly killed me, but I made my mind up that night I wanted to do it. When I think about it, Kilimanjaro is 20 of those (Stone Mountain) stacked on top of each other. It's a different world up there.
SDN: What was the planning and preparation like? Not only did you climb — you did it solo.
KM: I moved solo, but you're never really doing anything solo when you mountaineer. The team, the support, someone to carry the gear and water — there's no way I would have done it without them. I'm very fortunate I have some amazing people who came together to make this possible. The first part of preperation was getting equipment, and when I first started doing this I was taking bath towels and taping them to my hands and feet. I went to phoenix, Arizona, where they make some incredibly equipment for adaptive athletes. It made a difference.
SDN: What did this equipment look like for you?
KM: For a lot of the people at the No Barriers summit, they can't go to the local REI and buy a pair of hiking boots. You come up with your own way of doing things, and you might rig something together to make it work different than anything else out there. You get creative.
SDN: When you talk about mountaineering, do you say "climb the mountain" or "crawl the mountain?" Not to be rude — I'm just curious.
KM: I think a combination of climbing and bear-crawling. That gives people a way of understanding how I get it done, and most people who have played sports know that if you do a bear crawl for even 50 yards it sucks. We had a 30-plus mile trail for Kilimanjaro. The Aconcagua trail was shorter, but it was just straight up. One of the toughest things was the loose scree there. I'd take five or six steps and just slide. The balance is hard.
SDN: I ask about climb vs. crawl because I was writing both without even thinking about it. Does verbiage for disabilities matter to you?
KM: I don't really, for better or worse, hold strong opinions about the verbiage people use. To me, the important thing is to have an open conversation about stuff. When you make a big deal about the words it makes it a harder bridge to cross. When someone doesn't know the right words — when they don't have the right education— they avoid asking question and that doesn't do anything to explain what para-sports are about.
To me, I like it when people ask questions. If you have a kid at an airport — a 4-year-old kid — and he's pointing to his mom and saying, "Why is that man in a wheelchair?" I like it when the mom feels comfortable opening that conversation, and maybe even coming up to me to talk about it. That way, the kid grows up with an open mindset.
SDN: Is that what drew you to the No Barriers mission?
KM: I first found out about Erik Weihenmayer, one of the founders, when I was traveling for speaking engagements. I'm constantly in the airport and saw the posters with him climbing Everest blind, and I thought, "Man, how did he do that?" Erik helped a ton by introducing me to Kevin Cherilla, our mountain guide. In business as in life, it's true that it's more about who you know than what you know, and it takes a special guide to hear my background and still say, "Hell yeah, we're going to do that." I want that enthusiastic response, as opposed to someone who just thinks, "We'll give it a try." This takes patience.
SDN: Do you plan on hiking anything when you're in Copper for the weekend?
KM: Definitely. I think the plan is to do a good-sized hike on Thursday. Not sure about the details on that, but I just got back from climbing in Mammoth, California, so my gear is sufficiently muddy and ready. There's some good local hiking around Southern California, but when I'm training in town it's much more involved with jitsu or Crossfit. It's easier to get gear on now, but before, it would take forever just to get ready for a trip.
SDN: Now that Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua are done, what comes next on the adventure list?
KM: Probably… (pause). I'll have to do a little climbing in Australia next year and that should be fun. I have goals for next year too. I mentioned it jokingly but also serious with the ADD thing, is that I have many goals. There are sports I want to get into outside of fighting sports and mountaineering, like water sports. You can't avoid that in the San Diego area.
SDN: How about Everest? You said the poster of Erik inspired you to find out more about No Barriers and that's the ultimate bucket list item.
KM: It's, uh, it's definitely something I haven't ruled out, but I don't think it's something I have to do. Like I said, until I know more for sure that it's something I want to take on I'd rather not try to say it will happen. Like, in 2009, I did an MMA fight and I'd been trying to fight since 2007. It became a two-year process to make it happen and that's a lot of time to wonder if it will happen.
SDN: What needs to be in order before you can even attempt something like Everest?
KM: This year, for this climbing season, the Nepalese government tried to pass laws about restricting people with disabilities from climbing Everest. That almost makes me want to climb it more. It started when they tried to make a requirement that only people with experience climbing a peak 7,000 meters or higher could get a permit, and there are no 7,000-meter peaks anywhere else but the Himalayas. I think Aconcagua might be the closest. (Ed. note: It's the highest peak outside of the Asian ranges.) Anyway, it was to save lives and I understand that, but I just think that the way they approached the disability thing is primitive thinking. It's very close-minded. I know many climbers with disabilities, including Erik, who are much stronger climbers than many of the people who try that peak with no disability.
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