We speak to Mark Altman, member of the Australian paraclimbing team.
Can you give us the Mark Altmann 101?
I was born in 1983 with a disability affecting both of my upper limbs. But most importantly I was never raised disabled. If I wanted something I had to learn to figure it out myself, I had to adapt.
I took to the water at an early age winning medals and setting Australian records. When I was just 17 I represented Australia for the second time at the 2000 Paralympic Games, where I won a bronze medal. It was not all smooth sailing growing up, I spent a lot of years in hospitals having a large number of surgeries on my hand and then when I was 13 to correct life-threatening scoliosis.
I have represented Australia, I am a Paralympic medalist, Australian record holder, Australia Day Ambassador, part of the first all-disabled crew to sail the Young Endeavour. Now I have found climbing and absolutely love it. I am dedicated to seeing Paraclimbing grow in Australia, which is why I sit on the Australian Paraclimbing Committee. This is also why I am competing again for Australia, this time in Paraclimbing, to help encourage and hopefully make it easier for other Australian adaptive athletes to get involved.
I’m 35, I have an amazingly supportive wife and two children (1 boy and 1 girl). I work as a technical support officer and have done so for many years after finishing school in 2001. I have lived and worked all around Australia and loved exploring our country.
How did you get into climbing?
I started climbing after moving to Canberra where there is a big climbing culture. Some friends took me and from my first top I was hooked.
What do you most enjoy about climbing?
It’s like a meditation to me. When I climb I’m free and I’m quiet.
What has led you into competing?
I started climbing and watching my friends compete, they asked why I wasn’t competing. I thought that was a great question and attended my first climbing competition a few weeks later.
Can you tell us about your climbing competition history?
I have competed at the NSW/ACT State Bouldering Titles followed by the National Bouldering Titles in Perth where I became Australia’s first National Paraclimbing Bouldering Champion. I then asked ‘What’s next?’ The next thing I knew we made Australia’s first ever international Paraclimbing team. I recently competed in the State Lead Titles and now we have an Australian Paraclimbing team of three. We are all heading over to Austria and France to compete for Australia in June and July.
You’re currently raising money to compete overseas, what events are you hoping to travel to?
I will be representing Australia in the Paraclimbing masters in IMST Austria then off to the World Paraclimbing Championships in Briancon France in July.
Do you have any goals for the competition season?
As Paraclimbing competitions are still relatively new in Australia my main goal is to attend overseas competitions representing Australia and helping to raise awareness about Paraclimbing in Australia. In the hope to encourage more adaptive athletes to take up the sport. I am also very excited about the upcoming boulder season in Australia later in the year.
What have been some of your favourite competition moments so far?
For sure it has to have been Nationals in Perth and being Australia’s first National Paraclimbing Bouldering Champion.
You’ve just competed in Imst, perhaps you can give us a quick synopsis of how it went and what you learnt from it?
I have just completed in my first international Paraclimbing event representing Australia with Australia’s first ever Paraclimber team. The hosts and competition were just amazing, absolutely next level.
On day one we had three climbs and unfortunately I drew the short straw and had to start first on every climb. Which was unfortunate as I then set the standard for the rest of my competition. Plus I have never seen another person with one arm climb before so I didn’t get a chance to watch their beta first.
The climbs were next level hard using a lot of holds that I have never used before. But I gave it my all and even though there were no tops, I was happy to see I was only 2-3 holds from the world’s best AU1 climbers. Nerves definitely played a part on Day One. But I felt calmer and more like myself on Day Two. There were two climbs on the second day and I was really happy with my first. I really held my own on that climb but unfortunately came off when I struggled to reach the next hold. However, this is all such valuable lessons and I learned a lot about my strengths and weaknesses for international events for my category. I did pull up with a fifth place which I am happy with. There were only five competitors in my category but who’s counting anyway. I walked away with more valuable lessons learned than anything else and that is so valuable to me.
I have new goals coming out of this and know what I need to be working on for the future. I loved this competition, it has to have been one of my favourites by far and I really hope I get the opportunity to come back and do it again.
When and where is your next competition?
My next competition is the World Paraclimbing Championships in Briancon France in July and I am very excited. There is unfortunately a change to this event for me, as there was not enough competitors to reach the required number for my category. My category will not be run at Worlds. I will still get the opportunity to compete but it will be in an extremely much harder category for me. This is all 100% part of the rules for the competition and no one is to blame, sometimes as a disabled athlete it happens. I learned many years ago to just roll with the punches and keep getting back up. Being an adaptive athlete can be such a mental game so much of the time. At the end of the day I am just happy to be there representing Australia and I will be climbing for me on the day.
You’ve previously been to the Paralympics as a swimmer, what about competitive swimming has been useful to you as a climber?
I learned a long time ago that I’m not here to compete against other people, yes everyone wants to win and I do too. But I am always only competing against my greatest threat, me. I am only wanting to be better than I was yesterday and keep pushing boundaries.
What do you get from climbing that you don’t get from swimming?
Silence and meditation. People think swimming is a sport that is ‘quiet’ or ‘alone time’. Watching the black line kilometre after kilometre for me was never quiet, I was always just stuck in my head with so many thoughts and noise.
But climbing, I have to be focused, my mind has to be absolutely clear to climb. No matter what is going on in the background the second I pull on the wall the world goes quiet.
You have said that climbing is different to swimming, can you tell us in what way it’s different and why that difference appeals to you?
You can go to any pool in any corner of the world and get in and train like you normally would and register the times you normally would. But climbing is on a whole other level. There are so many different contributing factors on how you will climb. The walls are never the same, the angles can be different, be it vertical, slab or overhang. There are millions of different holds out there plus the countless different ways they can be set. This means that every time I pull onto the wall I am challenged in so many different ways and that is what I love about climb. The challenge, the unknown.
Let’s be honest 99% of the time in a swimming race everyone starts and everyone finishes. But in climbing very few people get the chance to top out a climb in an international event. It is a mind game as much as it is a physical one.
Looking at your Instagram feed it seems you’ve been very innovative when in adapting your training to your disability, what have been some of the adapted training methods that have been most useful?
I found very quickly that there was a lot I couldn’t do when it came to training for climbing. A lot of that has to do with my hand, how it is formed and lack of strength in it. So I have had to do what I have done all my life – adapt. I always like to give myself 15 minutes at the end of my gym sessions to play around with ideas and try to train specifically for climbing. I have found my biggest weakness is my hand so I love standing on a Swiss ball while changing hand holds on the 45. It gives me a chance to feel new holds and weight my grip in a more controlled environment while also smashing my balance and core.
Do you have a coach?
No unfortunately I don’t. I would love one but have been unable to find one with the time to train me. I did however have an amazingly supportive climber Kale McCauley who gave up his own time to help prepare me in the weeks leading up to this last event. His insights and willingness to work with me I will forever be grateful for.
Do you climb outdoors or have any ambitions to?
I have been bouldering outside a few times but not rope climbing. Absolutely I would love to give it a try. I think it would be exciting to get out there.
Are there any climbers that you find particularly inspiring?
There are so many amazing climbers out there but the one climber that really lit the fire of competitive climbing for me and opened my eyes to Paraclimbing is Maureen Beck. She has shown me that climbing and competing as a Paraclimber can be a reality. Her short film Stumped really hit home for me. I heard her say exactly what I was thinking when I climbed and the struggles I had overcome too when working out different ways to complete a climb.
Mark would love to give a massive thank you shout out to his sponsors True Protein, Blochaus and Rocktape Australia.
And thank you to the companies who have supported him in the lead up to this, Drypoint, Club Strong, Capital Brewing and Climbing Anchors.