KST Cover



From Point A to Point B - Winter 2003

From Point A to Point B
Legally blind, George Adams '94 sees clearly to the top

George Adams climbing an icewall.It's mid-morning in Alstead, N.H. The sun is still below the hills, and the land is cold and white. Four people clad in brightly colored jackets and wearing packs slip and slide up a narrow snowmobile trail, the snow squeaking beneath every step. The trail winds up through young forest, past the bare trunks of oak and maple and under pine trees whose needles sag with snow.

After ten minutes of uphill hiking the trail leads through a gully and onto the frozen surface of a large pond. The rock walls of a large feldspar quarry surround most of the pond. At the far end of the mine are several deep caves and a smooth red cliff more than 100 feet tall. Long tongues of ice hang down from the top to the frozen base. Apart from the crunching of snow underfoot, the mine is silent. No dripping water, no creaking ice. Perfect conditions for ice climbing.

It takes George Adams '94 about 10 seconds to gaze at the ice, declare the conditions "great," and begin to pull climbing gear out of his pack. Ready to climb, Adams is a fearsome sight. Six feet tall and a muscular 190 pounds, he appears even bigger in his bulky clothing. On his feet are size 11 plastic boots, fitted with a pair of razor-sharp 12-point crampons. He clasps wicked-looking ice tools (the business ends comprising a needle-pointed pick and a flat, sharp adze) in each hand. A helmet and his red beard complete the ensemble. Adams is ready to climb.

With no hesitation, Adams picks his way up the waterfall, past bare rock and brittle, chandelier-like ice formations, to the safety of the trees.Trailing a 200-foot rope, Adams walks to the base of the wall and with a short, fast swing, plants the pick of an ice tool deep into the flow. The second tool is slammed in, followed by the front points of each crampon. With no hesitation, Adams picks his way up the waterfall, past bare rock and brittle, chandelier-like ice formations, to the safety of the trees.

Successful ice climbing depends largely on the self-belief of the climber. The trait flows strongly in Adams's blood, accentuated by a particular circumstance in his life. Seven years ago, Adams was diagnosed with an eye condition called Stargardt's disease. Stargardt's is caused by the gradual degeneration of cells in the retina, which creates a central blind spot that decreases a person's ability to see detail and perceive colors. Adams is legally blind.

George Adams climbing an icewall.When Adams rock climbs, for example, observers get the sense that he's making his way up a cliff by Braille. He sweeps his hand across the rock before latching onto a hold and pulling up. The process looks none too easy and somewhat frightening. "It's interesting because in a way I can see the big picture," Adams explains. "But, if I'm looking at a big chunk of rock, I'm guessing that a shadow might be a handhold, and it's not until I touch it that I know for sure." Despite having to hang around feeling for holds, Adams is a speedy, safe climber. He's been known to go into overdrive on alpine rock walls as storms approach, racing upwards and practically hauling his partner to the summit and the safety of the descent trail.

Stargardt's was a blow for Adams. After the diagnosis, he lost his driver's license and with it much of his self-reliance. A carpenter based in Keene, Adams found his employment options were limited to a few firms he could bike to or those that would drive him to work. "I got help with driving from people I'd work with," he explains, "but I'd return the favor by working hard." Over the years, Adams hopped from job to job, doing everything from building houses to crafting specialty items such as kitchen interiors and tea chests. But the worsening condition of his eyes and the on-again, off-again nature of his work wore him down. "I got fed up dealing with all these different jobs," he explains.

Two things kept his spirits up – the outdoors and his family. As a child, Adams spent many hours hiking and hunting with his father in the small patches of forest near their home in New Milford, Conn. "My dad is my idol," Adams explains. "From the time I was six, we'd go into the forest and watch animals, sometimes go hunting." It was from those early experiences that he realized he could go back to the outdoors when he needed to think or refocus. Spending time in a forest or on the side of a mountain, Adams says, makes him realize that life is not as complicated as it sometimes seems. "I can sit in a tree stand for 12 hours and just watch everything move around me – watch animals interacting in their environment," he says. "It's these experiences in nature that I think make me smarter about my life."

Adams came to Keene State in 1988 to study drafting and design and, he hoped, to play soccer. College is a time for change and personal growth for many people, and Adams was no exception. Realizing that he wasn't going to get much soccer-playing time as a goalie, he upped his weight training and running and, in the middle of the 1990 track season, asked coach Peter Thomas if he could try out. After a few modest seasons with the track and cross country teams, including a disastrous NCAA qualifying race in Pennsylvania during which he pulled out after three miles, Adams came to grips with the demands of running. "At first I didn't understand the pain," he says. "Every race I wanted to quit, and I did in Pennsylvania, with my parents watching." Even as he pulled out of the race, Adams knew he had done something that didn't sit well with his personality. Standing on the side of the trail catching his breath, Adams vowed to never quit again.

In 1991, Adams met Becky Wheeler '94, an English major, while both were on the cross country and track teams. Becky, from Pittsford, Vt., competed on the cross country team for four years and was the Owls' lead woman runner for three years. Adams and Becky married in 1995 and moved to Connecticut to be nearer his father, who was recovering from a heart attack. The Adamses moved back to Keene in 1997, where Becky began work as an early childhood teacher at the Children's Learning Center at the Cheshire Medical Center – where she continues to teach – and Adams took on carpentry work. He had just been diagnosed with Stargardt's and was beginning to realize the limitations the disease placed on him, both professionally and recreationally, explains Becky.

"George is very independent," she says, "and it hurt him a lot to lose his independence. At the same time, I'm very proud that he never gives up. He has always put his family first and tried to find work. If something didn't work out, he'd be back out straightaway looking for the next job." If anything, Becky adds, having Stargardt's made Adams a stronger athlete. "Being able to do sports well was a big release for him, really helping him to unwind and to put things in perspective."

Adams says that outdoor activities played an important role in keeping his spirits up as his eyesight worsened. No longer able to drive north to climb rock or ice, he focused his energy on local pickings and made occasional trips with Becky or friends.

George Adams running a road race. Athletically, Adams is best known in the region for his marathon running. Although his build resembles a Clydesdale's more than a thoroughbred's, Adams is a two-time winner of Keene's Clarence DeMar marathon, with a personal best over the 26.2 miles of 2 hours and 30 minutes. He ran his first DeMar in 1995. At the time he was coaching track at his former high school in New Milford. Reasonably fit and looking for a challenge, Adams realized that he had "always wanted to do a marathon." After an intensive eight-week training program, which involved a fast 20-mile run on Sundays and faster 10- and 12-mile efforts during the week, Adams felt that he was in some sort of shape.

The race starts in Gilsum, north of Keene, and follows the Ashuelot River over mostly flat roads. "I was going pretty good for the first 11 miles when this guy came up on me and started talking," Adams says. "I was talking back and then I began feeling a bit of tightness in my legs. At mile 16, he says to me that he's feeling tight and needs to slow down. I was like, 'no, you need to stay with me,' but he didn't. So I picked it up a bit."

At about the two-thirds mark, the course changes personality. Runners are faced with a long hill climb, a steep, thigh-pounding descent, and, after a brief section through Swanzey, an unpleasant stretch along a highway back toward Keene. Coming down Ash Hill Road, Adams was hit by severe stomach cramps. "I had these cramps so bad," he remembers, "that after a mile and a half I had to stop, stretch, push my fingers into my gut. Then I sprinted back to race pace."

Adams followed this pattern for the last six miles, stopping about 20 times, and still finishing fourth in 2:33, just eight seconds out of third. "If I hadn't had the cramps, I don't know what I could have done," he says with some regret. "I know I'd have won, but I think I would have run my fastest ever."

Serious now about the distance, Adams won the DeMar in 1996 and again three years later. He missed only one race between 1996 and 2001 (the 1997 event), and he never finished out of the top four.

Always looking for a new challenge, Adams entered the 2002 race on the spur of the moment. To prepare for a marathon, Adams normally runs about 70 miles a week for three months. This time around, he had barely run 70 miles since the 2001 DeMar. He put in one "good hard training run" of about 20 miles a week before the event and still managed 2:46 and sixth place. This kind of performance, he said, is as much a question of self-belief as it is physical preparation.

Adams shrugs off the effort. "I know I can run 26 miles," he says. "It's just how fast. For me, it was a matter of running smart for the first half and hanging in there for the second."

What's doubly ironic is that he had already pulled the same trick in his first triathlon earlier in 2002. Despite taking the winter and spring "off" with regard to aerobic training and possessing a sluggish sidestroke in the water, Adams decided to enter the Surry, N.H., triathlon the day before the event. Last out of the water in a field of 130, he passed most competitors on the cycling and running legs and finished sixth. "I was trashed," Adams says with a grimace. "I hurt for a week."

The outdoors, though, is where Adams says he finds peace and is best able to express his athleticism and drive. In the past year, he's taken great pleasure introducing his son Dawson, an energetic three-year-old, to the woods and ledges around the Monadnock region. Although he once considered becoming a professional athlete, Adams now has his sights set on offering his son and brand-new daughter the opportunities his father gave him as a child.

"I know that what I got out of my outdoor experiences has helped me define what's important in my life," he explains. "Being outdoors taught me to live for every moment. And living like that has helped me in my goal to be the best I can be, in my job, as a parent, and in sports. I'd like to offer that to my kids."

One final note: After many months working with a vision specialist to develop a special pair of glasses, Adams is driving again. The heavy, black-framed glasses have the equivalent of a miniature telescope set into a lens. This enables Adams to read highway signs and see other cars on the road. Since getting his license, he's been able to buy a truck and expand his carpentry business, Crafting Your Dreams, to the point of having more work than he knows what to do with. Occasionally though, work will be put on hold. After all, winter is ice climbing season and, for the first time in seven years, Adams won't be relying on others to drive him to the mountains.

Dave Orsman is the news coordinator in the College Relations Office.