Paraclimber Michael Füchsle: “Always picking myself up”

Michael Füchsle climbing in Finale Ligure on the Italian Riviera
Michael Füchsle climbing in Finale Ligure on the Italian Riviera

This is not how he wants to go out. Actually, paraclimber Michael Füchsle had wanted to end his competitive career this year at the latest. But the corona pandemic and health problems put a spoke in his wheel. “I have purulent fistula ducts on my intestines that can burst open again and again,” the 54-year-old from the small German town of Bobingen, south of Augsburg, tells me. “I couldn’t walk two meters because of the pain. Between March and June, I almost didn’t climb at all.”

Michael is thinking about whether he will compete again in 2022: “I’m still undecided, but if I do it will be the World Cup in Innsbruck on 21 and 22 June.” If Füchsle makes it back into the national paraclimbing squad, the German Alpine Club would cover the cost of his start. “If not, I would be stuck with it.”

Cheated death

In a paraclimbing competition

Füchsle is probably one of the few paraclimbers in the world who call themselves professionals. Actually, he’s been doing it since he was 14 years old. Not disabled at the time, he dropped out of school and devoted himself only to climbing. He later earned his money by writing climbing guides and magazine articles, giving lectures and climbing in competitions. At 18, Füchsle was diagnosed with chronic inflammation of the intestines, but this did not stop him from continuing to climb.

Twenty years later, he just barely escaped death. After an intestinal rupture including blood poisoning in September 2005, he had to be resuscitated during an emergency operation and lay in a coma for 16 days. When Michael woke up again, he not only had an artificial intestinal outlet, a so-called stoma, but was paralyzed from the neck down. The doctors declared that he would have to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Climbing videos as a motivational aid

Michael Füchsle while bouldering
While bouldering

He did not want to resign himself to that. Füchsle began to train, managed to walk again, and in 2012 – thanks to his partner Marion, who encouraged him to do so – he also started climbing again. Three years later, he competed in paraclimbing. His biggest success was finishing second in the overall World Cup standings in 2017. “I train almost every day,” Michael says. “Currently, I’m at about 80 percent of my capacity.”

Getting motivated is not a problem for him, Füchsle says. “I’m a stand-up guy. I always pick myself up. After health setbacks, I do ask myself from time to time, ‘Should I keep doing this to myself?’ But then I just watch videos of world-class climbers Adam Ondra or Alex Megos, or even earlier films of (the late German top climbers) Wolfgang Güllich or Kurt Albert. And I’m motivated again.”

Mentor for younger paraclimbers

Michael Füchsle with paraclimbers Korbinian Franck (l.) and Florian Singer (r.)
Michael with paraclimbers Korbinian Franck (l.) and Florian Singer (r.)

After sport climbing celebrated its Olympic premiere in Tokyo last summer, there are many indications that paraclimbing will also become a Paralympic discipline in Los Angeles in 2028. “I would find that useful, then paraclimbing would become better known,” says Michael, who celebrates his 55th birthday on 28 December. In 2028, he would be too old to compete in the Los Angeles Paralympic Games. But perhaps he could be there in another role.

As a mentor, Füchsle advises younger squad athletes such as 23-year-old Florian Singer, who finished fourth at the 2018 World Championships, and 32-year-old Korbinian Franck, who became Para World Champion in 2016 and has since achieved numerous podium finishes at World Cups and World Championships. “I train with them and help them find sponsors. That’s where my experience helps me,” Michael says.

Dream of new route on rock

“More rock climbing again”

He still gives climbing courses as well. “Many non-disabled climbers don’t even notice that I climb with a handicap,” Füchsle reports. “It’s not like you can see it on my face.” When climbing, he wears a bandage over his stoma as well as a plastic protector that is barely noticeable under a loose climbing shirt. In the future, he wants to focus more on rock climbing again. Michael dreams of becoming a paraclimber who succeeds in a first ascent of a challenging rock climbing route.

He can’t imagine a life entirely without climbing. “My role model is the (German) climber and crime novelist Irmgard Braun, whom I’ve known for more than 30 years,” Füchsle says. “She’ll be 70 soon and still climbs a 7c+.” This value on the French scale corresponds to the upper ninth degree of difficulty on the scale of the UIAA, the World Association of Mountaineers and Climbers – for comparison: in the 1970s, the seventh degree was considered the measure of all things. Does Michael Füchsle have the confidence to climb at a similarly high level even at the age of 70? “We’ll see,” the paraclimber answers and laughs.