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Meet Fran Brown, the real life spider woman

Meet Fran Brown- Britain’s first paraclimbing world champion. Climbing up a 40ft wall comes naturally to her and she can not believe anyone would not have a go. It is her sport and her lifeblood.

 The 28 year old says “I always was an adrenalin junkie as a kid”. She was a lighting engineer in London’s theatreland seven years ago when she had an accident, a 16ft fall that dislocated three vertebrae in her neck. She became what is labeled “an incomplete C4 tetraplegic”.

“My arms don’t entirely work, my hands won’t open and close completely and I’ve got basic weaknesses in my legs. I can stand with crutches and I use calipers around the house but walking is really tiring. Most of the time I use a wheelchair. My respiratory muscles don’t work well and my abdominal muscles, that help you breathe, they don’t work either. I can’t cough. But due to being superfit, my body makes the most of what it’s got.”

Fran is comfortable on the wall, using one hand to lift her legs into position. Instead of her legs helping her get up the wall, she has to bring them up with her.

“After my fall, my first thought was: 'Oh dear. I’m screwed. Will I be able to climb again?’ At that stage it was my hobby. I’d climbed at school in Cornwall. I came seventh in the British Championships twice in the 13-to-15 age group. It was an idyllic childhood, kayaking, surfing and camping out at weekends on Bodmin Moor. We climbed up granite quarries outdoors. Some of the kids had to be dragged up by ropes because they got stuck. I was like a mountain goat.”

Her twin sister, Helen, was the more conventional athlete. Hockey, athletics, tennis. Fran was the adventurer, getting married at 19, studying lighting technology at Cardiff University and getting a job as deputy chief electrician for Grease and The Lion King in London by the age of 22. Then, she had the accident.

“I was stubborn. I went swimming with my husband and I went back to work because we needed the money. I waited about a year to get into rehab at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and that’s where I learnt my advanced wheelchair skills. It took me three years to go climbing again. I didn’t know paraclimbing existed. I’d once seen a picture in a magazine of a guy climbing who had two missing fingers. I thought: 'That’s pretty cool,’ but it didn’t seem to apply to me. Then a mate took me to the Castle Climbing Centre in north London. That was an OK experience but I felt too dependent on the ropes. So I bought a metal bar, attached it to a doorway at home and did loads of pull-ups".


Soon, Fran tried again. This time at The Arch Climbing Centre in South London. The ramp outside the centre had made her think about taking a look at it! She continued:

“I didn’t know if they’d take one look at me and throw me out. But they didn’t. And after all those pull-ups – I could climb again. Even better, no one stared. If they looked, they just looked for a few seconds. They didn’t stand there glaring at me.”

Furthermore, Fran caught the attention of Fred Stone, the director of the Arch, who then sponsored her– competition fees, travel, accommodation – to compete internationally. Since then, Brown has been thrown into a world of sport.

She won the 2012 world title in the same summer as she one of the aerial acrobats at the London 2012 Paralympic opening ceremony. In Paris, she defeated five other contenders in her category for the world title. “It was still the best moment of my life,” she says. Watch Fran's film below.

Watch Fran's story

Now Fran has lots of plans to further her career. One is to defend her world title in 2014. Others include- to compete at the Europeans this summer (so far only non-disabled climbers are confirmed), begin training as a physiotherapist, carry on being a professional percussionist, go climbing outdoors in Colorado, Norway and South Africa, compete in the British paraclimbing series this spring and have a family (and send them up rock faces instantly).

Read more about Fran on her website

The British Mountaineering Council (BMC) have lots of opportunities for disabled people to join in. They have an Equity Steering Group which looks at barriers underrepresented groups face when they want to do any of the activities. 

The BMC Paraclimbing Series starts this week– 26 March

For more information:

Walking For All: Disability Awareness in Hill Walking

Disability awareness in rock climbing 

Or visit the British Mountaineering Council website


Story adapted from The Telegraph's article printed on 24 March 2013.