December 03, 2021 13 min read

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Anoushé Husain, a para-climber based in London. Anoushé was born missing her right arm below her elbow, she also has multiple health conditions and is a cancer survivor. Not only this but she is breaking barriers for minorities being a muslim woman in sport. Her charitable work includes being an ambassador for Ehlers-Danlos Support UK and Limbpower and she supports the Grit&Rock Foundation which aims to help teenage girls aged 13 to 15, from deprived inner city backgrounds, develop greater grit, determination and self-confidence. In 2017 she won the Asian Women of Achievement Award for Sport and was the recipient of the Helen Rollason Award for Inspiration at The Sunday Times Sportswomen of the Year Awards. Then, in 2018 she went on to co-foundParaclimbing London, a social enterprise which helps remove barriers people with disabilities might have when accessing climbing in London. As if that wasn’t enough, she works a full time job as a civil servant and has just started a Masters degree. Her whole life she has been challenging her own beliefs as well as societies. She talks us through her life changing climbing journey below.


Anoushé Husain Portrait - Muslim woman wearing a black and red hijab and red top missing her right arm below her elbow. She is putting climbing chalk on her right elbow with her left hand.

Photograph by @nylasammons


How did you get into climbing?

So it wasn't natural, it was one of those things that wasn't really meant to happen. I tried it on a school trip as an eight year old. I really liked it on that school trip, but when I got home my parents were worried that it was a dangerous sport and we didn't know anything about it. There was maybe some cultural influence, too. The only climbers they've ever seen are the ones who die on Everest. Why would they let their daughter do a dangerous sport like that?!

At that time I was doing martial arts and there was never really a good opportunity to climb in Luxembourg, where I was living. I had to drop martial arts at 16 because of hyper-mobility, which at the time we didn't realise was Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. I was doing it about 16 hours a week after school, it was basically my life. When I dropped it I was heartbroken. I was desperately trying to find another sport that would work for my joints. A lot of the sports I was being proposed were things that I found boring. I tried a load, but nothing was really keeping my attention.

Then, before I moved to London, I had cancer. I had a 10 year period where I was really unwell and I was only having surgeries and a lot of sedentary time, getting my Bachelor's done, and getting my Masters done. One of the things that had happened post cancer was that my left arm was becoming a problem.

One of my best friends, who went on the same school trip as me when she was eight, who happened to become a climber, said we should go climbing. My first thought was 'you've got to be kidding me. It's one thing to go climbing as an eight year old when you're fit and healthy. It's another thing to go climbing as a one and a half armed, non healthy adult, who is having trouble with their other hand and is struggling to walk because of the chemo sessions’. But she assured me she could help me. I was making all these excuses about looking silly if I fell, and my parents not letting me. But she told me ‘Let's go once. Best scenario you love it, worst scenario you find something you don't enjoy. Ultimately, if that's the worst that can happen, then it's worth a shot.’ Which is a convincing argument.

We went and I loved it. It was really weird, physically I hated it because I was in so much pain. But I could sense it wasn't pain from the climbing, it was pain from me having to learn how to move properly. The climbing moves weren't causing me pain, although saying that I couldn't move my arms the next day. But what new climber doesn't go through that a few times?


What made you want to go back?

The focus that I need to, for instance, reach something on my right side when I couldn't reach with my right arm meant that, mentally, for the first time in ages I forgot I was ill. It's that feeling that kept me coming back. You're so focused that almost all of the emotions of what you're going through get left behind and you get this respite from whatever is going on in your life.

However, I never intended to take it up as a proper sport, my friend and I would go climbing for a couple of hours every two to three months. Because I really wanted to see myself improve at the wall, I got into the gym and started doing a bit more cardio. It was motivating me to get stronger. I wasn't planning on training for anything though. There were no competitions in Luxembourg so why would I even bother?


How did it go from that to being the para-climber you are today?

When I moved to London in 2013 I didn't know anybody. I started to realise I was missing the climbing because I'd go home to Luxembourg every couple of months and that's the only time I would climb. I didn't know there was a climbing scene in London and I certainly didn't know the UK was as into climbing as it is. Then, in November 2015 I moved into a new flat. While chatting to my new flatmate, we realised we both wanted to go climbing except she didn't know how to do her knots, and I had coincidently just done a taster course. So, we decided that we would turn climbing into our social bonding sport as a way for us to get to know each other and relax.

Around the same time, I heard there were competitions in the UK thanks to a charity reaching out to me and letting me know. I was so shocked because in Luxembourg there were no disabled competitions, so to find this out was pretty cool.

The competition was two weeks away from me finding out. I thought to myself ‘I can’t turn up to a competition without training. That's just not me. Even if it's just to come and meet people, I couldn't do that to myself’. So, I decided since it's been 10 years since I last trained for a sport I may as well give it a go and try competing the year after. I got a coach within 3 months and I ended up ranking second in the UK in my category in year one of competing, since then second and third.


Muslim Woman wearing black hijab, pink long sleeve top and black and purple leggings,indoor rock climbing. She is a para-climber and she is missing her right arm below her elbow. She is facing to the left and resting on the wall with her left leg up.

Photograph by @clairecliftoncoles

Anoushe Husain - para-climber missing her left arm below her elbow. She is wearing a brown hijab, a pink t-shirt and black trousers. She is on a climbing wall with her right leg and arm above her head.





What have you been working on in the last year since there have been no competitions running?

I decided to change my focus a little bit. I am still climbing but I'm actually working on a secret project, which I hope to complete in December. I've been training months for this, and I’ve never worked so hard on the wall. There are diaries and bullet journals and mathematical calculations going into this and a huge team supporting me to get this perfect finish. It's a big project. I was supposed to do it last year, but then we locked down and I fell pretty ill. So this year I decided to go for it.

I'm also doing my four adaptive adventure challenge. I'm raising money for four different charities, Reach, Limbpower, Shine Cancer Support and Ehlers-Danlos Support UK, by climbing Everest, rowing The Channel, cycling from Lands End to John O’Groats and walking/wheeling Hadrian's wall.


How did you decide which adventures made the cut for your challenge?

I decided to pick challenges I would never be able to do in real life. So I’m doing them in an adaptive way.

Everest was kind of an automatic choice because I did it four years ago so I knew I could do it. The only difference was four years ago I was a newer climber and not as good at climbing. Since then I’ve built more muscle mass which is better for climbing. However, I also had a year where I'd been very sedentary and was struggling to walk 100 metres and when I came back to climbing earlier this year, a 3 class was out of the question. But I thought why not still give it a go.

The other three were a bit of an interesting one. The original idea I had for the charity challenges were actually above ground, on ground and on sea challenge. So I wanted a land, water and air challenge essentially. Air was going to be Everest, land was going to be Land's End to John O'Groats cycling on the lands, and then water was going to be rowing the Thames. As I got into this year, I did quite a lot of testing. I wasn't going to kick off the charity challenges till I knew I could actually withstand climbing more than 3+.

For the rowing we realised that 300 Miles was not an option because my prosthetic falls off after 10 minutes. It’s painful. It's annoying. It's stressful. You lose the rhythm completely. So I decided to go for a shorter challenge, which is why I'm doing the Channel for the rowing.

Walking/wheeling Hadrian's Wall was something that wasn't originally in the plan. However, because I wanted to raise money for four charities, and I only had three challenges, my best friend told me I needed a fourth challenge. She went, ‘Well, what are you most missing?’ and I said, ‘the thing I'm most missing is just walking randomly in nature’ It's something I used to do before climbing, I did my Duke of Edinburghs and I used to hike in the forest all the time, even last year. In the run up to training for this big project that I'm currently doing, one of the things I would do is spontaneously walk from place to place as a way of getting more endurance. Walking is something that has been gradually becoming more problematic over the last three years or so because I’ve sprained my ankles far too much. But over the last year, I really haven't had it in the same way, I can now walk around my three buildings in the block in the estate. I can now just do that once and that's been a year and a half fighting to get my walking back. I miss being out in nature, having that independence or going out to the high street independently. At time my new chair hadn't arrived and nor had the electrics from my chair, so I really was absolutely dependent on everybody else to get out the flat. That's why Hadrian's Wall was the choice, because I wanted something that realistically I probably won't be able to do in real life for a while. I would love to work towards that. But realistically, it's going to take a while and it's probably going to require quite a lot of adaptation. But then there's nothing stopping me from doing it adaptively.


Have you found the rowing to be the most difficult so far?

It's really interesting because I'm tracking how many weeks it would theoretically take me to complete if I went at the current pace I’m at. The assumption is that as I get stronger I should get more volume out. That's the theory, but actually the cycling has proved to be fascinating, because I'm not always on the same one, I can be at the gym, at home or at my parents in Luxembourg. Depending on the week, I could be getting a ton out or not, depending on the cycle I'm on. It's frustrating because obviously it's changed the distances quite a lot, but we've now inherited a good spin bike for free which means I can get a tonne of volume out. The cycling is acting as a compliment to training for the climbing challenge I’m on so when I'm not climbing I’m cycling to simulate the same stresses on my body.

Rowing has been more challenging not only because of the prosthetic issue, I've now got a prosthetics company that are supporting me in making an adaptation so I don't pop off, but I've also got a tendinitis problem. The climbing has to take a priority because of the project I'm on so the rowing is on hold. Saying that, even if I was looking at the current weekly rate, it's still quicker than the others.


How far through the challenges are you now?

So as of a little while ago, I’d done 15% walking of the challenge. I've comfortably hit 15% of the cycling as well. I've done 12.5% of rowing, but again, every time I row I'm knocking out out 5%.

Climbing is going much quicker than I thought it was, because of the project. So when I did Everest last time, I remember my target every week was to get 20 climbs in. At the moment my average climbing is about 40, sometimes 50 routes in a single week. So I'm comfortably knocking Everest down now.

I’ve taken a little break because of injuries and things so I've just been waiting and biding my time. For some reason I have an October issue. Every October every year for the last six years I've had a really spontaneous injury. So I have what we are now calling ‘October itis’.

Photo of Anoushé Husain  a muslim woman wearing a black hijab, purple top with blue sleeves and purple patterned leggings, hanging off a climbing wall with left arm. She is a para climber and she is missing her right arm below her elbow.

Photograph by @knowjack

Black and White Portrait of Anoushé Husain. A muslim woman standing wearing a black top, trousers and hijab missing her left arm below her elbow. She is smiling and looking to the right.

Photograph by @lisabennettinsta



How do you find having breaks from climbing when it means so much for your mental health?

A break is not a bad thing. You know, my attitude towards training has really changed in the last year and a half. Pre Covid I used to be really upset if I missed a climbing session. I wasn't sleeping enough at all. I wasn't sleeping more than six hours a night if that on average. I definitely wasn't eating or fuelling in the right way either. I think being really ill last year completely changed everything because I can't actually physically train unless I've got the right amount of sleep. I can't do it the same way as I used to, that level of fatigue is still there.

It's a silver lining, I mean, my body has completely changed shape. A GP would still absolutely say I'm overweight. But I am stronger than I ever was. When I started climbing, I could not open jars. It's little things like that which I know don't sound a lot, but when it comes to quality of life, it makes a huge difference, because it’s your independence.


Are there any specific highlights from your climbing journey?

Probably getting my first ever 6. I think and I’m sure other climbers think it too, that if you can get your first 6A you can officially say you're no longer a beginner anymore. I remember climbing and I was stuck on a 5+ for absolutely ages and a load of my friends and social network were climbing a 6A far quicker than me. Obviously, when you have two hands, it makes the situation a bit different. I just wasn't quite finding a 6A and that would work for me. The problem is I believed I wasn't a good climber, rather than there wasn't a route that was suitable for me.

I went on a photoshoot to Manchester climbing centre and got my first 6+ over there. That was a high moment. I think it was that moment where I said ‘that's it I can now call myself a climber because I've got that first 6A’.


What helped you get out of the mindset of thinking you weren’t a good climber?

That was probably thanks to a lot of good friends who pointed out to change your rhetoric. I'm not allowed to use the words ‘I can’t' on the wall with my friends. Unless I can justify why I'm saying I can't. So it's got to be ‘I can't do this because…’ or ‘I cant yet…’ I'm just now getting to know what’s not for me. Often it’s not a lack of knowing what the move is, it's a lack of being able to execute the move. Sometimes your body just doesn't want to do that movement and it is perfectly okay.

Another thing that changed from pre-lockdown is the mentality I had. I used to put a lot of pressure on myself, whereas now it's very much just being playful with myself on the wall, seeing what I can do. I invite my buddy to come with me to the wall and we see what we can do together. If we can't do something, that is also okay, because I know she'll come back another day and train. I can do it, just today was not that day.


How did you start your social enterprise, Paraclimbing London?

When I first started climbing, I didn't know any other Pakistani climbers. You'd see the odd Indian climber, but you wouldn't see any other hijabis. I was basically training with people who didn't look like me, who were much taller than me, and who didn't necessarily understand the challenges I was going through. When it came to being able to talk about some of my specific issues, I didn't know anybody to speak to and I found that incredibly isolating.

I used to see all of these amazing, women's groups and men's groups and LGBT plus groups doing their social sessions at the climbing walls and I was like, well, what about disability? Why can't we have a social group as well?

I hadn't met another para climber before I went to Ratho for my first competition in 2016. I'd been climbing a year in London, having never known any para climbers. I didn't know who to look to as a role model. I didn't have anyone to learn from or any advice about how to manage my skin or my left hand, or my right arm. Meeting with other para climbers was a huge moment and definitely shaped me for Co-founding Paraclimbing London.

Since we've launched and since we've become known, loads of other Para climbing clubs have formed in the UK. There's at least 10 or 15 in the country now, if not more. Although we are by far the biggest para climbing club in the UK. We have the most clout because we have the most members and we cater to a very big range of diversity, not just in terms of disability, but also in terms of ethnic minority and social background as well.


Is there anything you are keen to try you haven’t yet?

I want to get out and do some proper trad climbing. I have no idea how I'd do it, but I really want to try and do some some some stuff in the Peak District. I've not really had a chance to do much outdoor at all because I've been so focused on competitions or just haven’t been well enough. The other one is ice climbing. I would love to give that a shot. There are indoor ice climbing walls so it could be an option.

Thanks so much to Anoushé for taking the time to speak to us and tell her story. Inspirational doesn’t quite cut it. To find out more about Anoushé and her projects visit herwebsite orinstagram. You can donate to her Adaptive Adventures Challengehere.

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