One arm, no sweat – Hill civilian learns to belay with one arm

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah — Victor Meier confidently strides out to greet me with a likeable smile and holds out his left hand to shake mine. I was kind of expecting this because I set up a meeting to interview him knowing he had only one arm. I didn’t know which arm he had, so I wasn’t expecting to shake his left hand. I may have hesitated a millisecond, unsure which of my hands to shake with, so I just used the hand I normally shook with, and of course that was fine.

His easy-going nature immediately put me at ease and we started conversing like new friends do; even though I was there to interview and tell his story. And his story is not about only having one arm. His story is about tenaciously finding a way to do something he wants to do, even if it may be more challenging.

Which brings me to why I was talking to Victor in the first place. Meier, Director of Youth Sports and Fitness with the 75th Force Support Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, decided a few months ago to try his hand at rock climbing as a way to increase his arm strength for his adaptive cross fit workouts.

He soon realized rock climbing put a bit too much stress on his elbow; however, he wanted to still be a part of the sport. He saw at the Warrior Fitness Center there were more people who wanted to climb than those who have the certification to belay or teach the sport.

“So I was like, I can be that person,” said Meier. There was one small hitch. Even though there are other one-armed rock climbers, there didn’t seem to be anyone else who was belaying with one arm, much less with just a left arm. No instructions, no YouTube videos, but that was not going to deter Victor.

That’s when Meier enlisted the assistance of Eli Whitman, Director of Community Services also with 75th FSS, to help him figure out a way for him to pass the belay class. “It was kind of a science project for us,” said Whitman.

Whitman has been rock climbing for more than 20 years and also has been climbing with mountain search and rescue for the past 8 years.

“It’s challenging because he is missing his right arm and a lot of belaying requires your right arm to do the pull, break, under-slide method, which is the gold standard for climbing and belaying,” Whitman said.

After doing some research and talking to the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah, and a few search and rescue peers, Whitman discovered they could modify the pull, break, under-slide method and still be within the gold standard.

Instead of sliding the right hand towards the assist device as a person with two arms would do as they pull up the slack, Meier steps on the rope to allow his hand to slide up which allows his break hand to never let go.

They also tested different devices to see which device would give Meier the best ability to stop a climber’s fall. They found a geometry assisting device works best as opposed to a mechanical assist device which most climbers use.

“He picked it up really quickly and that’s what you really want,” said Whitman. “Within minutes he had it figured out. It’s all about how comfortable the climber is with the belayer anyways. Vic can stop a fall, he’s a belayer.

“Ever since I’ve known Vic, he has always been the ‘I can do it kind of guy’ and his ability is not hampered in anyway. In some ways, he’s more able than most. He has this drive and he’s not going to let his missing arm hold him back,” Whitman continued.

Victor told me during our conversation he had a very stubborn personality. As he said this while in his workspace, his co-worker behind him nodded her head emphatically toward me agreeing with him.

“Some things are easy, some things are not,” said Meier. “My mind right now is I could probably do anything I wanted to do, but I don’t like to do certain things just like anybody else; like I have no desire to try archery,” he joked.

Meier said, “I do let it get in the way, but the biggest thing is I fight through it because I know there’s stuff out there more important than worrying about it. So yeah, it does suck, don’t think that it doesn’t. But you just got to take the good with the bad and live with it, that’s what I do.”

That philosophy is what got Victor through life since he lost his arm when he was 13 while snorkeling in the Bahamas. One moment he was reaching for a starfish, the next he was blacked out. A drunk boat driver had driven over him and cut his right arm off up near the shoulder. They retrieved the arm, but there was too much damage to reattach it.

Victor said he was given a prosthetic arm from the Shriners, but after a couple months, he realized he didn’t like it and felt life was better without it. After graduating from University of Utah and while in the midst of graduate school, Meier joined the Peace Corps and went to Panama.

In the community where he lived in Panama, the mayor lost his arm in an accident. Meier started working with him and decided to have his parents bring the arm that had been sitting in storage to give to the mayor, hoping he could utilize something Meier felt like he never needed.

And that’s the impression I get from Victor as he is living and enjoying his life. From him as a teenager kicking for his high school football team, to joining the Peace Corps, to rock climbing and belaying at the fitness center, he may only have just the one arm, but that is all he needs.

A few days later I got to witness Meier rock climb and belay. His smile and enthusiasm was contagious and I told him, ‘I want to learn to rock climb!’ He said just to let him know, he’ll belay for me. I remembered what Whitman had told me earlier how it really was about the comfort level between the climber and belayer.

And so I said back, “Of course! You can belay for me anytime!”