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When New Zealand climber Rachel Māia was 16 she fell during an indoor bouldering competition. Her left foot was shattered and needed multiple surgeries. For the next two decades, Rachel battled chronic pain and increasingly limited mobility. In 2019 she decided to amputate her leg below the left knee. A year after the amputation, Rachel did her first outdoor climb in 20 years, an inspiring story shared in the short Macpac documentary “Rachel Māia: Back to Real Rock”.

Māia is a Māori adjective that means to “be brave, bold, capable, confident” – really the perfect name for an amazing woman. 

Rachel’s first outdoor climb in 20 years took place after she decided to have her left foot amputated.

What’s the story behind your hashtag #adaptdefy?

#adaptdefy has been something I write on my mirror at times to remind myself to keep adapting to every challenge and to defy my own expectations. Growing into that mindset has filtered into every part of my life as a mother, as an amputee, as a climber, as a speaker. In particular as a mother we can box ourself in and feel like our dreams and goals are not valid or possible. I’m a single mum of two active boys (10 and 13) and a super-powered daughter (15, with autism and ADHD). Life is pretty colourful and messy, and I don’t have a climbing wall in my city. If we looked at the odds on their own, becoming world no. 1 feels out of reach. The idea of defying expectations is a lot about staying true to my goals and dreams, amidst giving my children my all, and reminding myself that with hard work and community I can have it all!

What decisive moment set you on a new path?

When one of my sons said: “Mum, you don’t like food, do you, you just eat pills and drink coffee.” It made me take a look in the mirror at how I deal with pain and acknowledge I was allowing it to make my world smaller. This was the point I decided I would go back to climbing, 18 years after my accident, and learn to do it without the use of my left leg. Wanting to model strength to my kids is such big motivation.

Your proudest climbing moment?

My first World Championships, in 2018, in Austria – I remember every emotion. Standing at the bottom of the wall for my first climb on the world stage and breathing it all in raised my expectations of myself – I made history for my country as NZ’s first International Paraclimber. I topped my first climb, and qualified for the finals, which was a NZ record for able or para climbers. I placed 4th, which blew my mind. I had worked hard, but  underestimated my potential. Achievements like that keep me aiming high.

When did you become an ambassador for Macpac? 

I was approached by Macpac in 2019. Being a Macpac ambassador has given me space to have a voice, to gently challenge people and remind us all we are worthy and our dreams are valid no matter who we are. Reliable gear as I start to venture more outdoors, when my leg is so unreliable, is huge! 

Behind the scenes in Back to Real Rock – what was it like sharing a personal challenge with the world?

I won’t lie, there is an anxiety there that your story will become a kind of cheesy inspirational piece that over-dramatises loss and challenges. But Nick, my climbing partner on the day, is a friend, so it really did feel like I was simply arriving to have a good time, irrespective of cameras and drones!

When I have opportunities to share my story, it’s forefront on my mind to be as real, honest and true to myself as I would in any other space without cameras. Letting our guard down, letting people see that we struggle, is an important way of building community and empowering all of us; our world doesn’t need to be ‘Insta perfect’… Our deepest connections with people, adventure and community will be when we come as we are, show up and be fully in the moment.

Rachel’s motivation to model strength in her children was key to getting her back on the rock and climbing again outdoors.

What gives you strength?

Internal self-talk is grounding for me. I have had to learn to turn up the volume on positivity, on truths that are worth repeating to our self over and over until they feel real. I am capable. I am resilient. I can make good, informed choices about who I am and what I want. I am māia (brave, bold). I have survived 100% of my worst days. I can do hard things.

Community is my external strength, but it requires vulnerability. You can’t shut yourself off from the world when you’re in a tough place. Find your tribe who you can be around when you’re not at you best. Where you can just, be. Climbing does that for me. I can arrive, as I am, and climb or belay or just sit and be around people who have a common love. I climbed in Austria with two men in their 70s. They didn’t speak English. I didn’t speak German. We knew nothing about each other. But it felt like home. Climbing gives a sense of belonging no matter where I am.

What are you looking forward to?

Now that I have made my way back to real rock, I want it all! The cold nights in a tent, camp stove coffee in the mornings, scratches, bruises and views from the top. But I am having to pace myself and that’s challenging! At the moment mobility is very low and pain is very high. I am working on my lead skills and I’d like to go back and do those climbs from “Back to Real Rock” again as lead projects. I still want to be World Number one when travel opens back up for competing. The competitive climber in me isn’t done yet!

Rachel’s favourite gear

Macpac Eyre Tank Top
Climbing comfortably is all about body temperature regulation and wearing apparel that doesn’t impede your movement. To this end, Rachel wears a Macpac Eyre Tank Top, made from a bluesign®-
approved polyester/elastane mesh fabric. This combo is treated with Polygiene® odour-control tech designed to minimise bacteria in the fabric. The elastane is ideal for a climbing garment as it allows that bit of stretch that an athlete often needs. RRP: $50

Macpac Pursuit 40L AzTec® Alpine Pack
For the approach to a crag, and then for those multi-pitch climbing epics, a lightweight pack that is durable and weather resistant is an essential – especially in the often wild NZ mountains. The Pursuit AzTec® Alpine Pack is iconic in the climbing scene. It uses Macpac’s well proved Eco AzTec® 8oz canvas and robust Cordura base fabric, to ensure it is up to the rugged treatment dished out by climbers in the hills. The ActiveX™ alpine harness features a moulded and laminated closed-cell foam back-panel that helps minimise moisture absorption. The main compartment is very easy to access (and includes a top compression strap with tension hook for securing your rope), the lightly padded hip-belt offers excellent comfort, and there are numerous attachment points for trek poles and/or ice-axes, plus a top (zipped) pocket for smaller items. And all this in a pack weighing just on 1kg. RRP: $300

Macpac C3 Hiking Poles
Strong and light (240g per pole), these carbon-fibre hiking poles are ideal for added stability when traversing uneven tracks on the way to the climb or campsite. The three pole sections are 18mm, 16mm and 14mm in thickness meaning plenty of strength and durability. The Lever Lock system allows easy adjustment of length, while the extended EVA grips are comfortable and robust. The included rubber pole tips are ideal for additional grip on slippery surfaces, while the tungsten titanium tips will last forever. RRP: $200

For info on all Macpac equipment, see Macpac