Mikhail Martin of Brothers of Climbing (BOC) on Leading by Example and Community Building

Pieter Cooper strode into a downtown Brooklyn gym and saw something through the chalky haze that made him stop in his tracks.

He was alone, but emboldened. With locked eyes he walked across the room. 

“Oh you do this too?” he offered. David Glace reciprocated.

“It was like Black Guy No. 1, Black Guy No. 2. That was the joke,” Pieter says. But where were the other climbers of color?

“We should form a group to bring more awareness that we are out there doing it,” they mused.

Martin and BOC members. Photo source: BOC



Mikhail Martin is the fourth musketeer of the team behind Brothers of Climbing (BOC), along with Andrew Belletty. He comes across like the mastermind of the jig, a willing leader with a programmer’s articulation for simple clarity and a Caribbean easy-goingness. 

Our call opens and it sounds like Mikhail had a long day. He’s not grumpy, but weary. It was Friday at 6PM after all. His straight-shooting questioning softens with a bit of banter and the jokester bubbles in with a chuckle that unveils his characteristic upbeat vibrato.

If you attend a BOC meetup you’re likely to hear Mikhail belt out Bieber, but he doesn’t sing today. Instead we chatted about what it’s like to build a community, and how the role has evolved over the years.


In the REI mini-mentary on BOC, Cooper, who eventually wound up as the Manager at Brooklyn Boulders, relays a story that catalyzed why they needed to form BOC:

“I’ve had black kids say, ‘nah, we don’t do this, we don’t do [climbing].’ That made me go, man, this kid is saying that, what else does this kid think he can’t do just because he’s black or he has not seen a black person do [you name it]?” 

“This goes back to not being exposed to the outdoors. The problem is we’re telling ourselves that we can’t do it, and on the other end, there’s no one telling us that we can do it. So it’s a problem on both sides of the coin, and we have to attack it from both sides,” Martin says in an interview with Off the Strength.

The quartet wanted to show that, yes, people of color do climb. The hope was to encourage others to give the sport a try. 

Mikhail, Pieter, Andrew, and David decided to start simply, informally at first, just a group climbing in the gym. The impetus was to “have a good time, and to try to be as welcoming and personable as possible,” relays Martin. 

Word spread, more people came and the community of Brothers of Climbing developed. 


On Community Building:

Establish a culture of inclusivity

“We were hooked on the sport, and we wondered why more people of color weren’t. We found it came down to the expense of climbing at a gym, the established climbing culture, and a lack of outreach. We couldn’t really do much about the costs,” Martin says. “But we could make a difference with the culture and outreach,” he notes in an Outside Magazine article.

BOC wanted to be as welcoming as possible for first-timers. Many members of the group are newer to the sport, and at their yearly bouldering festival (which they co-organize with Brown Girls Climb), most attendees are climbing outside for the first time. The initial impression could be the difference between one-and-done and on-going interest.

At the meetups, the more experienced climbers help out the newbies and the organizers make sure to establish a fun, relaxed environment. Martin credits having a diversity of interests among the group as a way to connect with members, “not all discussions are about climbing, we talk about new music, movies, etc.,” he says. Even something as simple as playing their own music at the gym sets a different note. 

Karaoke time. Photo source: BOC



Localize the group to local needs

There are now meetups in Chicago, Philly, DC and Oakland. Each locale has its own feel, but the common denominator is that everyone is happy to find community and come together.

“You really have to read your community. What do they need?,” urges Martin. 

In NYC, goofy and outgoing is the MO, including spontaneous karaoke sessions. In other communities, a different style of leadership may be needed. Every city has a unique history, varied experiences, and specific needs. The final “product” has to factor in the particulars of the local scene.


Listen to the community

The group has evolved over the years as the founders themselves have matured. 

“We started when I was 23, now I’m 29. As you get older, you start to realize other issues, other things become more important,” says Martin. In order to be role models for the future, the founders incorporate the concerns of the members into the direction of the group and their personal actions.

For one, communication and mutual understanding is key: Ask if someone is comfortable with you spotting them; Ask what someone’s preferred gender pronoun is. If someone doesn’t feel welcome, the founders want to talk with them to figure out how to fix it.

Since BOC started back in 2013, climbing has changed, the political landscape has evolved, and bigger concerns around equality in employment and representation have taken on a larger focus for the group.


More About Brothers of Climbing

The conversation expanded into a foray on fair compensation, the bigger picture for BOC, and Martin’s goals for the year. Another late night in the books talking about something he cares about. 

“BOC’s mission is to increase involvement of minorities in the outdoors. Right now we’re starting with climbing,” says Martin. Seems like they’re on the right track to do a lot more.


If you’re interested in learning about Brothers of Climbing you can visit their website. If you want to join an upcoming meetup, check out their Facebook group for a list of events. Color the Crag, their yearly bouldering festival in Alabama (how’s that for audacious?), will be held from October 17-20 this year.


Feature photo credit: The Joy Trip Project

Climbing Access Is Not a Given: Tim McGivern on Starting SNECC and the Importance of Participation

The VW Passat barreled along the Pike, a last leg surge depressing the pedal. Tim McGivern, lanky, a quick-talker and antsy was careening back to his childhood home with his wife Syrah, and all their belongings in tow.

He wasn’t sure what to expect, it had been a few years since he left for California. But that was no more.

Tim had been counting down the miles since the Pacific, and adding up the road signs along the way: 90. 95 North. 128. 114 East. Then the familiar struck him: salt-tinged air wafted in through the open windows.

Some things don’t change much in your absence. Or they do imperceptibly like mountains; rocks might slough off but the general shape remains. Others turn course dramatically, like the development in up-and-coming North Shore towns near the Atlantic.

When Tim left, The Promised Land was one of the largest concentrations of boulders north of Boston. 500 problems, a gem, and his hometown crag. Now it was a bunch of townhouses. The subdivisions sprawled out like a swollen river after the spring thaw, submerging and washing away a once pristine boulder field. A permanent landscape alteration.


“I was incensed,” Tim says upon learning about The Promised Land.

“It bugged me. A lot of local crags around here, on the Eastern side of [Massachusetts], they didn’t receive much attention for clean up and care. I saw a void before I left, but didn’t do anything then,” he says. 

When he returned, the need for climbing area stewardship in Southeast New England became clear.  

“Advocacy doesn’t just happen.”

– Tim McGivern


Historically, the crags in the urban 95 loop around Boston were seen as a training ground for bigger objectives elsewhere. They were nice to haves and weren’t given the same oversight as better known places in Western Mass. and New Hampshire. Home spots like Quincy Quarries became tarnished and tagged with graffiti or remained underdeveloped like Lynn Woods.

Tim saw that if climbers weren’t paying attention the land that housed their beloved boulders and cliffs could get sold, fenced off, and even destroyed. 

So he took a stand. He wasn’t going to let what happened to The Promised Land occur again.

Spray paint at Quincy Quarries. Photo source: snecc.org


The Southeast New England Climbers Coalition (SNECC) was started by Tim and Dave Twardowski in 2017 with the mission to “preserve climbing areas for present and future generations of climbers.”

The group has grown to include Shannon McFarland, Ryan Bouldin, Courtney Cutler, Pete Sancianco and Patrick Montague on the Board of Directors, along with an active membership.

They are working towards efforts from land protection (The Promised Land, Quincy Quarries), to access, (Bartholomew Pond), to awareness (Lynn Woods Boulder Bash, New Englands first outdoor bouldering competition), and a Regional Stewardship Plan in order to effect change on a larger scale.

“Advocacy doesn’t just happen,” Tim says. “The more I talk with climbers the more I realize they don’t understand this.”

Regional territory under SNECC’s purview. Photo source: snecc.org


With the rise in popularity of climbing and ever greater attendance at outdoor crags, stewardship is more important than ever.

According to the Access Fund, “1 in 5 climbing areas in the United States is threatened by an access issue—whether its private land lost to development, public land managers over-regulating climbing, or climber impacts degrading the environment.”

The challenge comes down to one basic tenet: Climbing requires rock, which is often on private land and easy to lose. 

Tim advocates that protection requires participation, in being custodians to the areas we frequent, and supporting efforts like SNECC who work at a municipal and regulatory level for long-term solutions. Without engagement climbers have no voice and beloved climbing areas can be inalterably changed, like at The Promised Land.

Results of a hard day at Quincy Quarries. Photo source: snecc.org


Want to get involved, become a member, or learn more?
Visit snecc.org

Josh Cook: On Developing Crags, Self, and the Next Generation

The drill whirls about in place, boring into the soft limestone. Fine grit clouds kick out at the edges of the hole, puff, puff, puff. The walls echo with the ricochet of millions of years of solidity grinding back into individual particulates. Water droplets sizzle on stone from sweat trickling down forearm and dripping off at the wrist. 

The man at the helm is Josh Cook and he is bolting new sport lines. He’s an English teacher at an international school and he’s developing the first sport crag in Škaljari, Montenegro. 

Škaljari, Montenegro
Škaljari, Montenegro. Photo courtesy of Josh Cook.


Josh never thought he’d end up in Montenegro as a mis-fit kid in Denver, CO. 

When he told people he was thinking of going, the response was generally the same: “nobody knows where it is.” He continues, “That’s already cool. Anytime you hear of a country you don’t know anything about, then it’s very enticing. You know there’s something special there.” So off he went.

This type of adventurism is easy for him now—motorcycle trip across the Himalayas? Backpacking in the Andes? No problem—but things were different when he was young. It’s not that he was a misfit, it’s more like he felt mis-placed. 


Josh grew up as one of the few white kids in school. Not that he had a problem with it, he just stood out. Then he got a scholarship and was one of the few lower-income students in a fancy private high school. Not that it was an issue, he just didn’t quite fit in. Then he wanted to be a climber. Not that it should have been too difficult, but there weren’t many of those around.


At last, climbing was a place where he felt he belonged. He started when he was 6 and was obsessed by 16. Every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday: Morrison bouldering area. You know the drill.

At 18 he took a year off to travel the country and climb. He started in Yosemite. To boulder. Mis-fit as he was.

Josh in his element from a young age
Josh in his element from a young age. Photo source: On The Move


If you’re wondering how an inner-city kid from Denver ends up in Montenegro, you have to start with Yosemite. 

Yosemite Valley is an international port of call for climbers. In 2018, over four million visitors came through from 33 countries. Most come in the summer and it can be a madhouse. Especially for an 18 year old out on his own for the first time.

“I’m driving in and it’s just packed. There’s one way traffic, all these cars, rangers everywhere. I’m looking for Camp 4 and I can’t find Camp 4. At that point, it was briefly named Sunnyside Campground so I’m not seeing signs for Camp 4. I finally pull over then realize [I’m here and] you have to have to wait in a long line to get a campsite, and you have to share it with other people. I’m learning trial by fire, this whole rigamarole,” Josh recalls.

He continues, “I squeeze into Site 17 and there’s these scruffy, complete dirtbag-looking climbers. The youngest was maybe 5 years older, the oldest was probably 10 yeas older. I go, ‘oh, uh, I have to share this site with you guys.’ And they just stare at me.” The climbers were non-plussed but helped him unload nonetheless. 

Josh stayed a month and they got to know each other. They became friends. Turns out they were die hard trad climbers from the Welsh tradition. As they would go off to climb big walls, away for days at a time, Josh would be there wrestling pebbles. 

They couldn’t believe he was in Yosemite just for bouldering. Josh couldn’t believe they were climbing those walls. They opened his eyes to a larger world.

Josh's friend, Tania, bouldering in Kashmir
Josh’s friend, Tania, bouldering in Kashmir. Photo source: On The Move


One day, one of the guys hung back. 

“Neil goes, ‘I’m gonna take a rest day and boulder with you,’” Josh reflects. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘oh trad climber, he won’t know anything about bouldering, hopefully he can keep up with me.’”

Josh continues, “We’re at Curry Village, warming up on opposite sides of the boulder. He walks around to where I am, and I present what I’m working on. I was just flailing on this thing, it was like a V4 or something. When he got on it he flashed it. And not only that, he did it with such grace and ease that my jaw dropped.”

“I realized at that point my world of climbing had been all about the media and the value of recognition. [Basically,] you were a nobody if you weren’t in the magazines or at the competitions or whatever it was.” 

Of course, Neil wasn’t in the magazines.

“No one knew who he was,” Josh laments. “But he was the best climber I ever met, ever seen climb.” Back home he was known as a Dark Horse. “The best climber you’ve never heard of,” he says.

Neil still pops up from time to time in mentions, but not features.


That interaction changed everything for Josh. Neil and friends loved climbing for all that it was, and they climbed all that was available around the world. They didn’t seek notoriety, they simply did it for fun and self-improvement. 

“I really came to respect that, doing everything to the best of your ability, climbing all the different styles and disciplines, and to do it humbly. Not trying to seek attention,” Josh shares, admiration ringing in his voice.

“That shifted how I thought about my goals: to become more about being the best that I can be, and to not let it be about ego… I want to know that I can dedicate myself to challenging tasks and become better at them through the learning process,” he sums up.

Josh applies much of his lessons learned in climbing to his teaching pedagogy. 

He explains, “Teaching fits a lot of the same characteristics: constant problem solving and decision making, performance under pressure, mentorship, refining weaknesses, measuring growth and skill development (in the students and in myself), the list goes on.” 

And he teaches because in his words, “I influence the lives of youth, hopefully for the better. I help make them critical thinkers, lovers of literature, and attentive writers. I give them opportunities to be good people and work with them through the process of creating their own paths.”

He encourages that the beauty is not in the big send, but the progression towards the goal: “I describe this process to my students as: attempt, failure, reflection, refinement, and attempt again (repeat… forever). The signs that we have done that well, that we are conscious and attentive to our experiences, are what we call improvement. That awareness of our experiences is also just good living, I think.”

Josh motorcycling through the Himalayas
Josh motorcycling through the Himalayas. Photo source: On The Move


Josh has bopped around, having taught in Peru, Bhutan, Japan, Montenegro, and soon, Colombia. Wherever he goes he welcome new people into climbing, develops a local area, and finds connection through the sport.

“As you live this itinerant lifestyle, intentionally drawing away from people, it [can] prohibit you from being a part of community,” Josh says.

He goes on, “I found recently, because I’m always living everywhere, my community is climbers that I meet. It helps me feel connected to something larger.”

Climbers tend to be roamers and travelers, perpetual motion in new lands. It sounds like he’s found where he fits in.



You can read some of Josh’s writing on his blog, On The Move.

Dirtbags Climbing: Giving Old Gear a Second Life, Sustainably

The climber’s paradox

The equipment that keeps us safe has an expiration date for its usefulness and eventually has to be retired. What to do with the gear?

You can’t recycle it, not in a traditional sense anyway. So we throw away these once indispensables. All that technical matter that let’s us enjoy the outdoors—dashed and trashed—an eye sore filling in the very nature we love.




Jennifer Wood comes from a long-line of climbers. But she wasn’t one of them. A break in the chain, until she met James Dickinson.

Jennifer and James weren’t entrepreneurs. But they knew how to be resourceful, to work with their hands, to fix things up. Then Jennifer found out she was pregnant. Idle hands and an artist’s creativity bred something reimagined.

The young couple didn’t have a lot of money. They begged and borrowed and cleverly sourced materials to renovate their home. Instead of contributing to the growing mounds of trash they found they could help reduce it. 



A bump and a business

A Dirtbags mat for clean climbing. Photo source: dirtbagsclimbing.co.uk


Dirtbags Climbing began out of a reluctance to throw away old climbing gear. They didn’t want to perpetuate the problem of single use, one-and-done products anymore. 

“The outdoor industry, at the end of the day, is really a polluting industry because it uses lots of plastic based materials: polypropylene, nylon, all these fibers that go into equipment. You can’t melt down the fibers in climbing ropes. It’s extremely difficult to recycle them. They will remain on the planet forever,” James elaborates one of the contradictions of outdoor sports.

Jennifer and James encountered the challenge directly: They had old ropes lying around. Past trips were wound into the frayed threads and they were reluctant to toss them; they were mementos of places, people, trips.

They decided to turn the ropes into rugs: Cut out the core (new drying lines!), iron the sheathing flat, zigzag stitch it up and hey, that looks like fabric. Turned out other people liked the idea, and the designs.

Old climbing ropes given new life. Photo source: dirtbagsclimbing.co.uk



A circular economy in Cumbria

The 1968 Singer sewing machine Model 239 whirls to life and taps away with drumbeat precision: thump-thump-thump-thump. Pastel cords are braided along a hanging rack like melted Crayola crayons, an oozing kaleidoscope down the wall. The large front window emanates the artistic spirit from within, and welcomes the petering day’s light towards the craft perched on the workbench.

One of their many refurbished sewing machines. Photo source: dirtbagsclimbing.co.uk


Through and through, the Dirtbags workshop is the embodiment of the company’s mission: It is made entirely from recycled materials sourced from construction sites, as local as they can get it, and is solar powered.  Everything made within is from materials otherwise sent to landfill.

“We don’t want to be just another brand,” James enumerates. “The fact that it’s made in the Lake District, our customers learn where the ‘raw’ materials come from, they know us. Each piece is unique. We’re not churning out 25 of the same bag.”

For Jennifer, a self-described introvert, she enjoys that the artistic expression of her inner world emerges through the materials and helps form a connection with the customer: “I like that it’s just tools in a shed, that our customers can call us up with a custom order and it’s us they talk to, that it’s very personal.” 

Around the community, they have a symbiotic relationship with the local businesses. There are many outdoor companies that caters to the tourism in the Lake District. Year over year they generate waste with cast off material: old life jackets (waterproof material, buckles, straps!), rucksacks (fabric, zippers!), ropes (see above!), etc.

These businesses are happy to give Dirtbags their waste to turn into beautiful “new” goods, which goes back into the Lake District economy. Around and around.




A new reality

If we want to enjoy climbing sustainably, we need to alter our consumption patterns from an environmental to economic perspective.

“We are part of that generation where our parent’s feel privileged that they can constantly add to their wardrobes, buy new cars, [you name it]. We can’t keep up with that, and we don’t want to keep up with that,” Jennifer chuckles, though conveying a serious new reality.

Partly circumstance, partly self-determination, and partly living a life they are proud of, Jennifer and James “get a great sense of satisfaction by doing everything ourselves.”

They continue, “It comes from not having a lot of money. It’s out of necessity. We have been lucky to learn a lot of skills; James’ dad was an engineer, built houses. You acquire craft skills, wood work, metal work. Makes you realize how resourceful you can be.”

Sewing it up. Photo source: dirtbagsclimbing.co.uk


Anyone can make a small change to their habits. 

“Be mindful of the way you use products and materials,” Jennifer urges. “Don’t throw things away that you can use or that someone else can make use of. If things continue as is we’ll be living in a very polluted world.” Each small action adds up.

Dirtbags Climbing is giving back to the sport they love, through the community they live in, in order to create a more sustainable environment.
 
“We live in a beautiful area, and it’s frustrating when you find rubbish about. You realize this is a special place that you need to keep special,” James punctuates with a final note.

We all need to do our part to keep it special, for generations to come.



You can learn more about the work of Dirtbags Climbing (and/ or buy one of their products), explore their community partners, and get inspiration for how to recycle some of your own climbing gear on their website: dirtbagsclimbing.co.uk

I for one felt compelled to make my own bouldering brush after our call. What will your project be?

Boulder brush I made from scrap wood.

Emilia Wint: From Losing Sight to a Laser Focus on Living a Full Life

How might your life change if you only had 20 more years of sight?

The run came and went in a blur. Emilia Wint struggled to navigate the contrast between the packed dirt of the forest floor and the streams of light shooting between the canopy in the afternoon sun.

“Uhh, that was really hard to see, felt sketchy,” she pressed her friends at the bottom of the track, straddling her mountain bike. Hmm. Everything appeared fine to them, they assured.

That’s odd. It dawned upon her, “Maybe I’m seeing this differently.” 

As a member of the US Freeskiing Team, the ability to differentiate between the snow, the sky and the terrain of the slope in flat light is vital for competition. On dark days the sky and snow are basically the same color and she was having a hard time seeing out there too.

Something wasn’t right. After day’s worth of tests at the hospital she found out why.


Emilia in front of El Cap. Photo source: emiliawint.com


Our call crackled in and out, Emilia’s voice was a soft murmur under a barrage of conversation at nearby tables and passing cars. I overheard a pair talk about their astrology signs and the homework they didn’t feel like doing. 

She plugged in her headset and the world of stereo sound faded out. Her voice honed in with 20/20 clarity. The wind, like lifting a sail, would rush in and fill my headset from time to time. 

Emilia speaks in a calm, easy-going manner, and she laughs easily. She emphasizes key points and jokes by talking faster and raising the pitch in her voice; you’ve got to keep up.

She had just gotten back from 3.5 months Patagonia. We talked about the turning point in her life. 



The Turning Point


“You have this thing, it’s Retinitis pigmentosa. There’s no cure, but you’re young. Talk with the genetic counselor and see me again in a year. Don’t look anything up on the internet,” Emilia relays her doctor’s prognosis.

She didn’t know what the diagnosis meant and her mind was focused on other things anyways. A few days later, she left on a six week trip to compete at the World Cup in New Zealand. She would be skiing on a twice reconstructed knee that wasn’t holding up as well as she had hoped after four years of rehabilitation. 

The practices came and went. In the meantime, Emilia was receiving more information about the disease from her mother back home.

One paragraph shook her to her core: “’Presents in people with adolescent night blindness.’ Which I kinda had. ‘Depressed scores in ERG tests,’ (which is basically like an EKG tests for your heart, but for your eyes). And I had low scores in that. And then ‘most people with Retinitis pigmentosa go blind by the time they turn 40.’”

Um, what?

“I called my mom, and was like, ‘what the fuck? This is not WebMD. This is actually in my chart,’” she recalls of the frantic exchange.

Emilia would go on to place 8th at the competition and out of the finals. It was a run that a few years prior she probably would have medaled. The next day she couldn’t walk down the stairs.

“What would I have done if I had made finals?,” she asked herself. She needed to take a hard look at her next steps.


Emilia competing in a freestyle skiing competition. Photo source: emiliawint.com


Emilia had always wanted to compete at the olympics, but she needed to decide if she was okay with the possibility of getting hurt. Again. It’s part of the game.

She did some mental math.

She was 20 at that point. Two years in a physical therapy room would be 10% of the time she had left to see. Was that worth it?



Emilia doesn’t have time to live the life she wants later. Not if she wants to see it all anyway. 

After retiring, Emilia had to figure out who she was outside of skiing. She grew up as a professional and it was her entire identity. Now she was a wasn’t. 

She went on a tear of adventures she had always wanted to try, but never had the availability for because of skiing: Wildfire fighting, completing a college degree in 2.5 years, a remote medicine fellowship in Ecuador, an attempt at climbing The Nose at Yosemite. Emilia would not slow down in her pursuit of living.

It’s a simple decision making process for her: “What are you going to remember in 20 years? I want to remember riding this epic trail in Moab, not doing laundry,” she says.

It took Emilia a year to move beyond the constant feeling of imminent mental breakdown, despite all that she was up to. Now that she’s in a positive headspace, she feels a sense of gratitude. 

The diagnosis has given me a push to live my life right now. Because whatever it is, I might not have this opportunity forever. And that frame of mind is a special thing,” she says on her blog.


Living their dream (grant). Photo source: emiliawint.com


On Committing to Living a Full Life

Emilia shared her perspective on how she’s choosing to live a full life post-diagnosis.

She recognizes that it can be scary and that she’s also coming from a place of privilege (with some financial security, little debt, and a van that offers cheap accommodation, etc.). She’s also burned herself out from time to time. 

Still, her input offers guidance for pushing our own boundaries, and maybe doing more than you thought was possible.


Living Intentionally

“It’s so easy to not do it,” Emilia declares in our call. 

She continues, “I met so many people in Patagonia who said, ‘I’ve wanted to come here for years. I just retired and finally got the chance.’ I don’t have 30 years to do this thing, I want to do it now.

“Acting intentionally is really important. Picking up the phone when you know you should call your friend. Telling someone you love them. Things can change so drastically, it would be so sad to not pick up the phone, not to tell them you love them. Not to do that thing you really want to do.”

Being intentional is making it happen, with the way you spend your time and your money.” she says.


Face the Fear

Emilia has traveled to Southeast Asia, South America and all over the U.S. 

“You can do it, it’s not like I’m an elite travel person, it’s not an exclusive thing. You just have to book the ticket. I went to SE Asia and used my credit card miles there and back. The whole month cost me about a $1,000,” she shares.

“It can be horrifying,” she admits, “but you can push past that. Exist in the discomfort.”

“For weeks in Bangkok, I had this burden: I don’t speak any Thai. I was horrified about this one micro instance. I’m going to land there, then what am I going to do? I couldn’t think about the rest of the adventure because of this.”

“Then I got there and went to a taxi stand, showed them my phone, then got to the hostel. Yea, you will probably be ripped off a few times, but then you’ll learn,” she recalls of confronting her fear head on.


Take a Step

“It can feel horrible failing, but you can’t avoid failing. I’ve had to work towards being comfortable with it,” Emilia offers.

“Take baby steps. Everyone has ideas of something they want to do; put it in your calendar or tell someone about it. Put one thing into motion, and build off of that. Do one thing. Just start. Hold yourself accountable. Make a concrete step.” 

For a long time Emilia didn’t feel these were things she could do, but her mindset has shifted as she’s begun pursuing her different interests. “You do belong here, you are the type of person that can or should do that thing,” she says, both to herself and others.



The perks of #vanlife. Photo source: emiliawint.com


I came across Emilia’s story when researching the American Alpine Club’s Live Your Dream grant. She had applied with the goal of climbing The Nose of El Cap in Yosemite.

From her account they failed their objective: “we scared the shit out of ourselves for two months… we realized we were way over our head.”

She went on to talk about how she mentally re-framed the situation: “We could have walked out of there feeling like failures… but we recognized that, ‘oh wow, we would never have been able to do these 10 climbs otherwise.’ Now we can go back next year and build on that.” I admire her tenacity and light-heartedness in spite of.

You can read Emilia’s stories on her website, emiliawint.com

The Upshot of Migraines: How Juliane Fritz Found Relief in Bouldering and Podcasting

I. 

In May of 2017, Juliane Fritz awoke with a start and a pounding headache. It was like the world was collapsing in on itself, the seismic pressure squeezing her skull from grey matter to diamond.

She’d had migraines all her life, but nothing like this. Her pain killers, the only therapy she’d ever tried, were useless. She couldn’t move, couldn’t think; all she could do was lay in bed to wait out the pain. The attacks came and went over the next three months. 

When Juliane was a child the doctors couldn’t make heads or tails of her migraines. Nothing seemed to work and they had no answers. She had resigned herself to a life of pain. “I just felt that because it had been there all the time, it was a part of my life and there was nothing I could do. It was a feeling of ‘this belongs to me, I have to suffer,’” she explains.

Juliane’s engaging personality shines through the speaker, her steady speech and animated answers rise in a chittering wave that is often punctuated by a self-conscious chuckle. Her upbeat and level-headed persona makes it hard to fathom the dark period she had in her life.

As the months wore on each attack was a new worst. Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore. “I needed to do something,” she says, a tone of defeat rings in her voice. 

She decided to seek support from a place she had always been hesitant about.


Day 1: Walk into Berta Block Boulderhalle down the street. Intimidated. Start on the children’s wall. Fail.

Photo source: Juliane Fritz


II. 

Juliane was dedicated to her work. She’d always been good at radio production and took pride in the final product. She was conscientious, dedicated and a perfectionist. At times she would get carried away, feeling stressed and worn down. She never questioned why she worked so hard. Why would she?

Those three months were a wake up call, and out of desperation she started getting new forms of support from psychiatrists to physical therapists to osteopaths. She was uneasy about it, she recalls, “I always thought, psychiatrists, ‘oh I don’t need that, that’s stupid.’” There was a resistance and a harboring of pain, but something began to happen:

“Slowly I started to learn about me, about how my body works, how my mind works, that maybe the way I had been working for all these years I had been doing too much, working too hard. It was always, ‘I am in this world to make other feel good, but not me.’ And I really have to change the way I operate with myself.”

She started to see a connection between her mind and body, and then the osteopath suggested physical movement as a way to help with the headaches. “I have headaches almost all the time,” she says, and she wondered if bouldering would make any difference. 


Day 2: Encouraged to try again, I go back. Try some new routes. Still on the kiddie wall. Fail.

Photo source: Juliane Fritz

III.

The first day Juliane went bouldering she felt weak, nervous, and by her account, failed to get up the VBs on the children’s wall. Yet something about the movement, the way it made her feel, kept her attention. She decided to go back. And then again, and again, and again.

She stayed with it for years, but after her first session with a headache, it became a whole new ball game. 

“I was so happy to find out that after [that session with a headache] I felt pretty good.” She then started to go after migraine attacks had subsided and discovered it offered a mental convalescence as well. “It helped me to own my own body again,” she notes, you can hear the empowered feeling in her voice.

These sessions became a period of freedom from outside concerns, a flow; they were fun, they were cathartic, and taught her about herself in unexpected ways. 

“It made me love the sport even more,” Juliane says.

Down the rabbit hole she went. “I became a bouldering nerd” as she puts it. She began going every other day and consuming all things bouldering in between: Watching comps, reading whatever she could find, and even visiting the world cup in Munich.

Over the weeks the attacks lessened; from a few days in a row with no pain to long stretches of manageable headaches.

Through pain, Juliane had found something that called to her like the work she did in radio. And there was another interesting twist she discovered:
 
“I’ve been working in the media for years, at a radio station in Berlin. And I found out that sometimes I am free of pain when I interview people. [I thought,] ‘just combine the two things you really like, that make you feel really good, and do a podcast, interview people that have the same passion for bouldering and share it.’ That’s why I started the podcast.”


Day 3: Progress. Go back alone, and something special happened! I managed to send problems I couldn’t do the first two times. This is fun!

Photo source: Juliane Fritz


Bin weg bouldern

Juliane started her podcast, Bin weg bouldern in 2018 and is becoming known throughout Germany as the “bouldering podcast lady.”

She interviews pros, local crushers (in Germany, there are a lot), shares event recaps and educational material, and talks with climbers engaged in peripheral activities, such as Zofia Reych who started the first ever Women’s Bouldering Festival in Fontainebleau.

You can listen to her episodes here, though be sure to brush up on your Deutsch! (The links above are to episodes in English.)

For Juliane, bouldering has helped alter her perspective on work, life, and her relationship to herself. What started back in 2013 with three days of climbing — from flailing to her first send — has turned into a life possessed.

“You can learn so much about yourself, the mental aspect, your body,” she says. But most importantly, “You can just be free and have fun.”



Feature photo courtesy of Juliane Fritz.

The Wall, Ukraine’s Most Modern Climbing Gym in Lviv

Photo source: The Wall

In 2015, Stanislav “Stas” Kleshnov took his place on the podium, waved to the crowd, and walked away from competition climbing as the Ukrainian champion.

For 25 years, this had been his life. The competitive spirit is marked in his sharp-features and stern look, which cracks with an occasional smirk or glint in his eye. His determined expression offers clues of the hard work it took to rise from the 10 year old kid who was inspired the first time he saw the limestone cliffs over the Black Sea. 

He knew then the sport was his escape from a life of mining or metallurgy, the likely paths for those from Donetsk. 

Climbing offered a way to see Europe after the dissolution of the USSR, and it exposed him to the training resources and gyms in other countries. For years Ukraine had a strong showing in international competition, from Olga Shalagina (1st, boulder), Olena Ryepko (1st, speed), and Maksym Styenkovyy (2nd place, speed), claiming medals as World Champions in 2005 to multiple podium placements across the three disciplines (speed, boulder, lead) through the early 2010s. Danyil Boldyrev remains one of the best in speed, but the country has seen its position passed in the other disciplines by the likes of Japan, Slovenia, China, and others.

Photo source: The Wall


In the end, Stas was proud of the national team’s accomplishments, but disappointed in the state of things and where they were headed. 

“The government just hasn’t invested in the sport like other countries. They didn’t build any modern gyms. They thought professional sportsmen would grow up in the private sector [at commercial gyms], but those gyms [here] aren’t designed for that. Ukraine is falling behind,” Stas demurs.

When he decided to hang up his boots, he wanted to leave a legacy beyond his medals. He used what he learned from international competition to open the country’s most modern climbing gym, The Wall, in Lviv, and to welcome others into the sport.

Stas says, “Before the modern gyms, you could only start climbing in a sports institute or in school. There was no other way: Only children’s school or a sports school. We make climbing more open.”

The Wall is taking an innovative approach borne out of necessity, some luck, and a rise in accessibility to the sport, such as climbing gear being more easily available and rising wages. 

Photo source: The Wall


The Gym:

Stas flashed a smile and greeted me in English, a language he hadn’t had to use in months. 

“Добрий день (dobryj den, ‘hello’),” I offered, and he showed me around the gym. 

Tucked into the side of an office building, The Wall offers a unique model that is perfectly suited for the small, but growing climbing community in Lviv. At 210 sq. meters (689 sq. ft.), it is tiny by conventional standards, but it suggests a viable “micro” gym for corporate and residential buildings as climbing continues to increase in popularity.

In Lviv, this size works just fine given the cost constraints (rent can be as expensive as in Germany), shifting cultural acceptance around paying for sport, and the gradual but developing interest in climbing in Ukraine. Still, The Wall welcomed over 1,200 unique climbers last year, most of whom tried the sport for the first time. 

Photo source: The Wall


The gym itself is bathed in light with floor to ceiling windows on three sides. The place is cozy without feeling cramped, and amazingly, it packs in over 50 routes up to 14 meters high. Given the strength of the instructors (many have competed on the national team), the setting is high quality, catering to the moderate range. There is a bouldering area with plenty of features to keep it interesting, and a workout space that doubles as a yoga room.

I spent August, 2018 in Lviv and this was my first dedicated time to top-roping. The instructors were personable and friendly, and were quick to offer encouragement in the form of yelling “давай-давай (davai davai, something like ‘let’s go!’)” at me.

It was a fantastic place to learn the ropes.


Amenities:

Yoga, hang boards, plyometric boxes, personal instruction, instructors who will happily belay you, changing room.

How to Get There:

Google Maps doesn’t show all the bus and tram options, so download the Eway app.

The 2 tram and the 29 bus will get you there.

Photo source: The Wall

Address:

Lviv, Geroiv UPA 72 housing 40, Technopark

Info:

A single day pass is between 100-120 UAH (~$3.80-$4.50), depending on what time of day you go, while a monthly pass is 1,700 UAH (~$64).

Phone number: +380 67 711 0496
(They are also responsive on Facebook Messenger)

Hours:
Monday-Friday: 3:00-9:00PM
Saturday, Sunday: 11:00AM-8:00PM

About Lviv:
Lviv is a fascinating city with a long and complicated history. It is on the western edge of Ukraine and is one of the cultural centers of the country. There is beautiful architecture from the Hapsburg days, vast parks throughout the city, and a lively tourist scene with many restaurants and bars.

Resources: 

The Wall website
Facebook page