A Dyslexic Who Has Been to the Mountain

Times Staff Writer

Ever since she left the valley floor last Saturday at 7 a.m., Ellie Hawkins has been engaged in a mountain climber’s fantasy--pioneering a major route that’s never been scaled before.

As of Wednesday, the solo ascent of a 2,000-foot rock face next to El Capitan has gone well. But at some point before she’s done--if past climbs are any indication--Hawkins will secure her rope to a carabiner (a metal device that clips to a bolt in the rock) and there will be an instant of distress. Where she thought she had fastened the carabiner, she will see nothing.

The rope will still be fixed to the rock. It’s just that a learning disability called dyslexia will have caused Hawkins’ senses to fool her.


Similar disappearing acts used to occur when the climber was in grade school. When the teacher accused her of being lazy because she skipped words in a sentence, she would go home and break furniture in her frustration. “I developed quite a temper,” said Hawkins, 35, who lives with her husband in Bear Valley, which is northwest of Yosemite.

Perceptual Tricks

But on the granite face, there is no teacher and no parent to rail against. There’s nothing in the 120-pound bag of gear that Hawkins hauls behind her that she can afford to destroy in a tantrum. If she is to complete this climb, Hawkins has to figure out her own way around the perceptual tricks played by dyslexia, which can be aggravated by fatigue.

If she succeeds in overcoming the vision reversals and vanishing hardware illusions, she’ll christen the new route “Dyslexia” in order to draw attention to the condition. She expects to complete the ascent as early as Saturday.

There are no real cures for dyslexia, which affects as many as one in 10 people, interfering with their ability to read and write, and, in some cases, to listen and speak. Each dyslexic’s challenge is to develop his or her own pathways for getting things done, according to the vice president of the Orton Dyslexia Society, Marcia Henry of Los Gatos, who came to Yosemite to see Hawkins off. The society is helping to sponsor the climb.

The methods of compensation for people with dyslexia are time-consuming. Hawkins, for instance, must check each knot she ties three times. If she’s tired, a simple figure-eight knot may take her 10 minutes to execute. Although she can’t move as quickly as other climbers, she still has managed to become one of the top female climbers in the world, according to Bruce Brossman, director of the Yosemite Mountaineering School.

She was the first woman to solo Yosemite’s Half Dome, and the first woman to climb the North American Wall, a demanding route up El Capitan. In June of this year, she was the first woman to solo Never Never Land, another El Capitan route, despite a rope burn that rendered her left hand useless for the final 2 1/2 days of the climb.

‘Major, Major Feat’

The dyslexia climb, if successful, will be a “major, major feat,” Brossman said, because only a handful of routes in Yosemite Valley have ever been soloed on a first ascent.

In learning to live with a rather severe case of dyslexia, Hawkins has developed a tenacity that allows her to continue where other climbers might turn back. When the start of her current climb was postponed because of rain one morning early this month, she seemed no more disappointed than if she had to reschedule a dentist appointment.

Leaving her gear at the base of the mountain so she would be ready to go when the rain stopped, Hawkins slipped sweat pants over her pink climbing tights and retreated to the Ahwahnee Hotel for breakfast. Her trademark hip-length golden hair--which readily identifies her to those on the ground who watch Yosemite’s big-wall climbers through binoculars--was braided into a rope and secured with a gold barrette.

Hawkins initially resisted publicity for her climbing feats. Her mother, Hazel Knepper, said in a telephone interview from her home in Portland, Ore., that when a newspaper reporter called after Hawkins climbed El Capitan at age 23, Ellie told her mother, “Mom, I don’t want this attention from people.”

In recent years, however, Hawkins has been speaking to grade school classes and showing slides of her climbs; she’s granted television and magazine interviews in hopes that she can help adults and children who suffer because of dyslexia.

“It’s something people hide, and more and more people I know are hiding it,” Hawkins said of her decision to talk publicly about the learning disability. “Dyslexia is not a thing to be ashamed of. I think it motivates me.”

Knepper remembers her daughter as a “skinny little girl” who received attention for her hair, which was long and blond even when she was a child. (Hawkins’ father died when she was 18 months old; her mother raised Ellie and two brothers.) But when Hawkins got to school age, she began using her hair to hide behind, Knepper said.

‘Figured I Was Lazy’

“In the fifth grade, my teacher gave me a third-grade math book, then pretended I wasn’t there,” Hawkins recalled. “They (teachers) just figured I was very lazy.” At some point, reacting to her teachers’ disapproval, Hawkins said she simply stopped talking.

Physical and emotional abuse is not uncommon among dyslexic children, because parents and teachers mistakenly assume the child isn’t trying, according to Henry, who is a research and teaching assistant at Stanford University. Four out of five known dyslexics are male. Henry said boys might be more likely to be identified because they show their anger at not being understood and develop into behavior problems. The silent ones, like Hawkins, tend to be forgotten in the back of the classroom, she said. Damage to their self-esteem can occur before the problem is diagnosed.

“There’s pressure on the child, pressure on the parents, teacher and principal, and no one really understands what the problem is,” Henry said.

Part of Hawkins’ aim is to encourage schools routinely to test children for dyslexia, and to provide tutors to assist dyslexic students through what to them is a mysterious realm of written and spoken language. (California Assemblyman Bill Bradley (R-Escondido) has introduced legislation which, if it is signed by the governor, will require schools to screen for dyslexia and other learning disabilities at the kindergarten level.)

Hawkins said she didn’t realize that there was a word for her particular difficulty until she was 27 and happened to see a public television show on dyslexia. She knew immediately that the characteristics described applied to her. At that time she had already started to climb with her mountain-climber husband, Bruce Hawkins. Free-climbing came easily to her because she had enjoyed ballet as a youth and found a similar grace in scaling cliffs using only her hands and feet, with no equipment.

But when she advanced to the sort of climbing that requires ropes and hardware, the dyslexia hampered her. Any novice climber can be discouraged by the prospect of figuring out the climbing paraphernalia that winds over, under and around a climber like so many tangled vines.

But Hawkins has a history of not giving up easily.

She didn’t get her driver’s license until three years ago because she had trouble deciphering one-way signs. She didn’t have her own checking account until she was 29 because whenever she tried to sign a check, her signature ended up in the wrong corner of the document.

At Her Own Pace

The way she finally mastered driving and signing checks is the same method that has served her in mountain climbing--she concentrates completely, and she goes at her own pace.

Meeting challenge alone has become the norm for Hawkins. Like most dyslexics, she said she doesn’t do well in team sports where there are other players operating at what, to her, is an accelerated rate.

Yet climbing solo adds considerably to the difficulty and risk of a major ascent. In addition to wrangling with ropes and bolts, Hawkins also must rappel back down to remove the protection she places in the mountainside, and to unhitch the haul bag from rock snags. It’s an endless up-and-down dance that would be draining even for someone larger and more muscular. Hawkins is 5 feet 2 inches and 104 pounds.

Oft-scaled routes are free of debris and pocked with drill holes where previous climbers have placed their protection. On this climb, however, Hawkins must clean decades of accumulated dirt and moss out of cracks in the rock and pound holes for each step she takes. She said she got in shape for this by beating with a hammer on a railroad spike for 10 to 15 minutes a day. She also supplemented the exercise she gets in teaching climbing at the Yosemite Mountaineering School by working out on a rowing machine and with weights.

In preparation for whatever she may encounter on this climb, Hawkins recently completed two major solo climbs. She’s had an introduction to dodging loose boulders--her helmet was dented by rockfalls on the Half Dome climb. And she sat out a snowstorm 400 feet up Half Dome, just weeks before three climbers succumbed to hypothermia on Yosemite walls.

Pleasing to Her Eye

For the current ascent, which she expected to be the most difficult of her 15-year climbing career, she chose a route that’s pleasing to the eye. While many climbs are really an assortment of cracks and lines pieced together, Dyslexia “is a line that goes straight up. It’s a nice, substantial line,” Hawkins said.

For safety reasons, because she could not be seen from the ground if she were injured during certain portions of the climb, Hawkins is checking in regularly by two-way radio with Yosemite Park and Curry Co. spokesman Alan Richmond.

She reported Monday evening that she had taken a day off to rest and to enjoy the view, which, she said, was “spectacular.” The route is set inside a natural amphitheater. Hawkins told Richmond that Ribbon Falls, which she had hoped would be dry for the duration of her climb, had started to flow again in an early winter storm, and that she was being splashed now and then.

On Sunday, Hawkins said she placed a pin behind a 50-pound rock, which suddenly gave way and crashed down the wall and out of sight. Hawkins was unhurt.

“It’s been very cold and windy (at night),” Hawkins said over the radio. Along with climbing and camping equipment, her haul bag contains several changes of wool clothing. “The guys will wear the same thing throughout the entire ordeal. I won’t do it, forget it,” Hawkins said before the climb. She favors the colors purple and pink because they contrast well with the granite.

Hawkins’ days are spent mostly in the shadow of the rock--the sun doesn’t reach her until about 1 o'clock in the afternoon. To compensate for her dyslexia, she works in a trance of concentration that allows for little thought about anything except placement of bolts and tying of knots. “I become like a machine on the rock,” she said.

Like a Bat on the Mountainside

But at night, hanging suspended from three bolts in her sleeping hammock, like a bat on the black mountainside, she can allow her thoughts to drift. She fiddles with her tiny radio to see how many rock ‘n’ roll stations she can tune in; and she nibbles on chocolate-covered almonds.

She undoubtedly thinks about her husband, who works in real estate and as a construction foreman. Bruce Hawkins plans to rappel down the top of the route to meet Ellie on the final day of her climb.

In the evening, she writes in a log about her frustrations and triumphs during the day. She plans to share parts of this diary with the dyslexic schoolchildren she visits, she said. She wants them to know that the same problem that might cause their teacher to yell at them can also be the thing that motivates someone to strive toward a mountaintop.