The WilderWomen Wednesday series celebrates women who are kicking ass in the outdoors.
Jess was born in upstate New York, and “grew up in the outdoors, going to the lake every summer and fishing” with her dad. Jess earned a degree in Outdoor Education at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. After graduating, Jess became a backcountry climbing and backpacking guide in Pisgah National Forest. For six months she lived in El Potrero Chico, Mexico as a barista and Christian missionary serving the climbing community. There, she became a part of the rescue squad and developed an all women’s climbing group: Potrero Chicas. She has honed her rock climbing skills as well as a passion for organic farming, and currently is transitioning to work as a wilderness therapy field guide in Colorado.
I first met Jess at the indoor climbing wall in college, where we immediately bonded over my tye-dye Bassnectar t-shirt and festival wristband. Our relationship formed around climbing: we took an outdoor climbing class where we learned how to build anchors and rappel in the Appalachian mountains, and would later live together in El Potrero, Chico in Mexico: a paradise for sport climbing.
Jess belayed me for my first ever lead climb, teaching me how to clip into bolts and lead belay with a grigri. It was an exciting and scary day, for I had recently recovered from a dislocated elbow after falling from the top of a bouldering problem. Climbing above the bolt seemed like a ludicrous idea, but Jess the Cheerleader assured me I was strong enough to do it.
“If you fall, I’ll catch you,” she said, giving me a hug at the base of the rock. When I clipped the first bolt, Jess told me I was a badass. With each bolt, her encouragement grew, not in an overbearing or distracting way. At times her voice was soft, cooing with confidence. “That’s it, nice, yep,” she’d say as I traversed rock and moved dynamically up the route. When I reached the anchor, Jess bursted into cheers. Another hug was waiting for me at the bottom.
Two years later, Jess invited me to join her in traveling to El Potrero Chico, Mexico: a world class multi-pitch sport climbing destination. When Jess worked as missionary at El Buho Cafe, she created community among international climbers and locals by providing a place to rest on off days and to meet climbing partners, read, play board games, or spend the holidays.
“In the outdoor recreation world of Christian climbers, there is a belief that we can do more than we think we can, because we are safe under Jesus Christ. Being Christian was a confidence inducing aspect of climbing,” Jess said.
In Potrero, Jess continued to mentor me in climbing by teaching me the technical skills of multi-pitch sport climbing. What I respected most about Jess’s teaching was gentle feedback but firm emphasis on safety. Before leaving the ground, Jess showed me how to build an anchor for belaying from the top of a climb, and watched me practice it several times before allowing me to go up.
When she’d meet me at the top of a route, she would ask to give me feedback and immediately correct anything unsafe. Jess did not accept sloppy rope management and taught me how to create redundant systems. Everything she taught me, she would explain the how and the why behind the request. In her teaching, I felt her desire to mentor me in becoming a smarter climber. She was not interested in what grade I climbed or how many routes I sended in a day; nothing was a competition.
Jess celebrated spending a day outside and emphasized the importance of safe rock climbing and rappelling practices. Under her mentorship, I became obsessed with multi-pitch climbing, and by the end of my time there went from never climbing a multi-pitch route to completing more than 25 routes.
Jess empowered me and a number of other women through Potrero Chicas, a climbing group for women to meet up once a week in the canyon.
“I thought it would be a safe place for local women to climb for the first time and for international climbers to find partners they felt safe with from the get go,” Jess said. “In my experience, climbing with other women creates a safe place to fail and talk about your emotions. I don’t think that can only happen with women, but I’ve found it more natural with women.”
Jess reached out to rock climbing companies and sourced donations of climbing shoes, harnesses and helmets. She arranged people traveling from the US to bring the gear across the border to have available for women who wanted to try rock climbing for the first time.
“The culture in Mexico is not normal to see Mexican women climbing. I thought, if a local woman comes to this group and sees another woman with all of these rock climbing skills, maybe they would see that they can do it too, or be more open to trying,” Jess said.
To create the group Potrero Chicas, Jess teamed up with another badass wilderwoman in the community: Vero, who grew up in the town of Hidalgo, two miles outside of the canyon. Neither women could speak each other’s language well, but they worked together to create a space for women of all languages and nationalities to climb together.
“I taught Vero how to lead climb without knowing how to speak Spanish. She copied my hand gestures and learned how to clip by watching. It was so badass! She invited her friends from the community to Potrero Chicas, and women would show up with their children to learn how to climb. I ignited the flame for this group to start, but I wasn’t running it,” she said.
To this day, Vero and other women continue to run the weekly meetups of Potrero Chicas.
My first climb in Potrero was with the Potrero Chicas group. I didn’t speak Spanish, but was able to communicate with the local climbers through smiles, whoops, thumbs up and head nods. One woman showed up in jeans and a sweatshirt, ready to try climbing for her first time. I watched in awe as she learned how to tie a figure eight knot, turned to the wall with fear in her eyes, and left the ground. Several times she froze on the wall, with her leg shaking and her eyes darting from the rock to the ground.
“Venga!” Vero shouted, giving her encouragement but not advice. It took her forty five minutes to reach the anchors. She never gave up, and reached the ground exhausted and smiling. Hugs and high fives were exchanged as the sun set over the canyon.
In my first encounter with Potrero Chicas, I was grateful for the atmosphere of support and silliness. Whenever a climber found a sturdy ledge for their feet, the belayers would shout from the ground, “ledge dance party!” and the climber would shake their butt with quickdraws clacking together or chalk puffing out in smoke around their hips. After climbing in the crag, the members of Potrero Chicas enjoyed eating dinner together, deepening friendships between international climbers.
“My thoughts around creating an only women’s group have changed since I started,” Jess said, recounting a conversation had with a man who was angry that only women were allowed. “I felt hostility from him, and it actually helped change my perspective of not making it a men suck group, but a supportive safe place for women.”
To me, feminism is about supporting women and advocating for equal rights, equal protection, and equal opportunity. Feminism is not about placing women above men, we do not need to get rid of men for women to be celebrated and respected as leaders. Gloria Steinem said it perfectly, “A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.”
“Men are welcome to join, but with the understanding that the space is focused on connection and learning from other women. We don’t believe that life is all about climbing. We see climbing as a way to process life,” Jess said.
How can men best support women’s groups? By leaving the space for women only, or by showing up as a supportive member? Men who worked at El Buho Cafe advertised for Potrero Chicas both verbally and physically. Posters hung up in the coffee shop and when female identifying climbers came to the cafe, I heard men behind the counter hyping up the women’s group and advocating for them to join. One day when I was belaying a new climber, a man in his twenties came to Potrero Chicas with his sixty year old mother.
“I love this group,” he beamed at us. “This is wonderful! My mother has never climbed before, but I told her about Potrero Chicas and she has decided to try it,” he gestured to his mom as we welcomed her in. He asked if it was okay if he stayed to watch, which I thought was respectful. He watched her put a helmet and harness on with a huge smile, and when she began climbing, he cheered for her. His pride was oozing out of his smile. He did not offer any advice of where to put her feet or how to climb the route, he was mostly silent except for when she returned to the ground. He jumped up and down and hugged her, asking what she thought and told her he was proud of her. His presence in Potrero Chicas was not overbearing; he did not attempt to teach or correct or criticize. He did not dominate the conversation, he listened. He did not ask to climb, he asked to belay his mother on another route. I beamed with joy watching their relationship strengthen over a love of climbing.
I wondered in that moment- do men need a space to climb with the absence of women? What could inclusive spaces look like for all genders? Our world could benefit from more intentional spaces held in the outdoors.
To adventure empathically is to live with a giving mindset. Traveling, climbing and adventuring to new spaces gives the traveler life of wonder, awe, and discovery. How do we as travelers give to the spaces we visit? How do we show up not as tourists, but as humans with curiosity?
What Jess felt in the Potrero community was a desire to connect with more women. She noticed the crag was full of climbers who traveled to get there, and wondered where the local women were. Jess traveled to Potrero with empathy in her heart, and lived there in service. She saw a lack of women climbing together and did something about it. She created a space for women to show up, to teach others, to learn, to try, to talk, to cry, to dance, to do whatever they felt like doing because they were safe and welcome.
Jess and I lived together in Mexico for six weeks, when I had originally planned to stay for only two. I fell in love with the community there, which included women’s crag days, multi pitch marathon afternoons, hot tub parties, coffee dates, cacao ceremonies at The Big Tree, acroyoga classes at the campground and ice cream cone walks around town. The climbing was badass, but the people carry the spirit of what it means to be a part of a community. I decided to stay in Potrero for several weeks after Jess left, and weekly Potrero Chicas meetups were a staple of my time there.
Watching women climb for the first time enriched my life as a climber. Seeing their eyes light up when they could remember how to tie a figure eight knot from last week reminded me of the importance of learning new things. Listening to a woman expressing fear or disbelief in her ability to climb, then watching her try anyway and maybe get to the top of a route was badass. I observed women gain confidence in their strength and enjoy moving their bodies. I noticed women returning each week and getting stronger, climbing faster and more frequently. Beyond the transfer of skills, I watched friendships form between women of different ages and languages.
When I led a route to set up a top rope for other women, I felt powerful and proud. Grateful for the knowledge Jess passed on to me, I became eager to share my passion for climbing with other women. Potrero Chicas was my favorite time of the week to climb, even though I would only climb one or two routes in the two hours. It wasn’t a time for me to crush or push my limits, it was a time for me to teach and belay and encourage others.
At a single Potrero Chicas meeting, one to four different languages could be heard at a time. I climbed with women from Mexico, Canada, all over the United States, Europe, and Australia. I climbed with women in their fifties and twenties, single windows, mothers with their daughters, solo travelers and toddlers.
The community that Jess advocated for is everlasting.
What makes Jess a badass wilderwoman goes beyond her technical resume of leading 5.11s and beyond her professional resume of working as a backcountry climbing and backpacking guide, a position dominated by men. What makes Jess a special wilderwoman is her passion for empowering other women to learn, try, fail, and play in the outdoors.
I asked Jess what she thinks the outdoor world needs more of, and she said, “More mentorship. The passing down of knowledge person to person, verus having to go to a class to find it. We need people who are more willing to be with people who are less experienced than them.”
“Who has been an influential mentor for you in climbing?” I asked.
“My co-guide Dan during my first summer as a climbing guide. I’d go over to his house and he’d pull out a whiteboard and talk about leadership. He would pull out ropes on his front porch and we’d practice rescue techniques. He was stoked to teach, which I really appreciated. But I’ve wanted a climbing mentor, specifically a woman. I tried taking an SPI course, and there was only one woman leading courses on the whole east coast.”
What are the biggest barriers to women participating in climbing and pursuing other outdoor pursuits?
“One of the biggest barriers for me is dealing with the constant fears of others. My first serious boyfriend didn’t want me to trad climb, he said the risk was too high. It was a hard line, he would get legitimately upset if I brought it up. When we broke up, I got a trad rack and did my first lead.”
It is not uncommon for people to fear the dangers of the wilderness, nor is it uncommon for that fear to amplified and projected onto women. I was reminded of a hike I took in Zion National Park, labeled “strenuous” by the park service. On my way up the trail, several different groups of hikers, both men and women, asked me, “Are you hiking alone?” I was shocked by their shock when I said yes. One woman put her hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m a mother, and I wouldn’t let my daughter hike alone. Go back to the parking lot, for your mother’s sake.” Her husband stood behind her nodding with his arms crossed. When I assured them that I hiked alone all the time, knew how to navigate, had a backpack full of water and snacks, the woman put her hand over her heart and said, “Bless your poor mother’s heart.” The look on her face as she watched me walk away was as if she believed she’d be the last person to see me alive or with all my limbs.
Whoever taught her about the wilderness instilled fear in her. She was acting as if suddenly my period would activate and attract a bear; and without a big, strong man to protect me I would get raped by the coyotes, then eaten alive from the vagina up.
“Other people’s fears feel like barriers, like I have to defend myself for liking the outdoors,” Jess said. “When I go hiking with my mom, she freaks out when I stand near a ledge, because she’s afraid of heights.”
Jess reflected on her childhood and navigating her parent’s fears around her participation in the outdoors. She noted two instances where she was not given the same opportunity because she was a girl.
“I wanted to play football,” Jess said. “My parents had the coach convince me not to do it because I was small and going to get hurt, but I had a good arm. To this day I think that was a mistake, they should have let me get hurt. Instead, I joined the cheerleading team. I remember being upset that I couldn’t join the football team, and watching the games thinking: that looks like the more exciting thing.”
What would it have been like if the coach told her parents she could do it? What would have happened if he was willing to let her try? In our communities, we need men who stand up for women. We need fathers to teach their daughters the same things they teach their sons.
“I saw my parent’s friend’s sons doing adventurous things like snowmobiling trips. I wanted to go, but it was a guy’s trip. My dad and my brother went,” Jess said.
Throughout history, women have not been given the same opportunities as men. Sexism lingers in our culture today, and women continue to push the boundaries of society’s expectations. We have a long way to progress, and that starts by educating ourselves and celebrating the accomplishments of other women.
While looking through a timeline of women’s climbing history from The American Alpine Club, I was struck by my lack of knowledge. As a wilderwoman who calls herself a climber, I had never heard of any of these names. These women are not celebrated widely. Many were criticized or considered scandalous for pursuing a “man’s sport.”
1808: 18-year-old Marie Paradis of France becomes the first woman to summit Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Western Europe.
1832: Henriette d’Angeville summited Mont Blanc wearing an outfit which consisted of a dress over men’s pants. The outfit weighed a total of 14lbs and included petticoats and a boa. Short of a bathing suit, this was the most stripped-down climbing dress to date.
In some places, it was against the law for women in the 1800s to wear pants, even in the backcountry where no one is around to see them, they were required to wear dresses still. While that sounds outrageous, women are still held to dress standards today. In my high school, there was a dress code for women: shorts were required to be knee length and leggings were not allowed because they were “too tight and distracting.” Men can’t think about The Civil War or the the pythagorean theorem if a woman is sitting in a desk in leggings.
1911: Annie Peck, a founding member of the American Alpine Club, climbed Coropuna (21,079 feet) in Peru, and waved a banner atop the summit reading “Women’s Vote.”
In a society where women’s voices are not heard but actively suppressed, climbing a mountain for fun was not offered as an acceptable women’s activity.
1928-1932: In 1928, Miriam O’Brien Underhill participates in the first complete ascent of Les Aiguilles du Diable. In the same year she becomes the first female to lead the Grépon. A year later, O’Brien and Alice Damesme make the first “manless” ascent of the Grépon. O’Brien and Damesme also make the first all-women’s ascent of the Matterhorn in 1932.
1947: Barbara Washburn makes the first female ascent of Mt. McKinley / Denali.
1952: Jan Conn and Jane Showacre make the first all-female ascent of Devils Tower.
1953: Gwen Goddard Moffat becomes the first certified female climbing and mountaineering guide in Britain.
1970: Grace Hoeman and Arlene Blum lead the first all-women’s expedition to Denali. All six members summit.
At this time, Title IX had not even become law yet. In 1972, Title IX became law, making sports an equal opportunity for women and men. Prior to its passing, only 294,015 girls nationwide participated in sports. According to the 2015-2016 survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations, that number has grown 1,030 percent to 3,324,326 female participants.
1993: Alison Hargreaves solos the Alps’ famous six north faces in a season, a first for any climber. Two years later, Hargreaves makes the first unsupported female ascent of the Everest without supplemental oxygen. Only Reinhold Messner had climbed Everest solo without oxygen at this point.
1994: Lynn Hill becomes the first person to free climb the Nose in 1993 and a year later repeats the climb, free, in a day.
2015: Ashima Shiraishi, at age 13, climbs Open Your Mind Direct- a 5.15a in Spain.
Thank you for reading and joining me on this WilderWoman Wednesday. Go ahead- hug the wilderwomen around you! Celebrate their success as your success. We can do more together.
To all of you badass wilderwomen out there: I love you, I support you, and I want to adventure with you.
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Follow the Potrero Chicas Facebook page for updates and a chance to meet up with the wonderful wilderwomen in Potrero.
Learn more about the history of women climbing here.
Join the Ladies Climbing Coalition to meetup with other female climbers
Watch “Within Reach” on Flash Foxy: a documentary about women’s equality in climbing.
Get involved and sign up for a Women’s Climbing and Mountaineering program by the American Alpine Club.