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October 29, 2016

Redefining Access

An abridged version of the speech Shelma Jun gave at the Access Fund's 25th Anniversary Dinner on October 22, 2016, on the next 25 years of climbing advocacy. 

Like many newer climbers, I learned to climb at a gym in the city with no idea or knowledge of the magical places that climbing could and would take me. I still remember how I felt the first time I climbed a route outside. The movement, the exposure, the fear and the inimitable communing with the rock itself… I was hooked.

Shelma Jun at the Gunks | © Chris Vultaggio

I’m lucky to have found amazing mentors – experienced climbers willing to take the time to teach me not only about the technical side of climbing, but mentors who wanted to share the roots of climbing – the history, the ethics, the stories of the men and women who discovered and developed climbing areas, what drove them and how that was connected to me. As I progressed, I found equally stoked climbers, eager to explore, excel and push their mental and physical limits. We supported, challenged and inspired each other, learning from close calls, celebrating summits and commiserating failures over whiskey and dreams of new objectives. Damn, climbing is awesome!

Despite all of this, I still felt unsure whether the climbing community was my “home.” As an immigrant woman of color, I felt that the predominantly white male climbing community at the crag and as portrayed by climbing media did not represent me. I loved climbing but felt disconnected and began to seek something more.

I‘m fortunate to have met some amazing ladies in NYC. We all have our hustles as designers, community planners, artists, riggers, photographers and more but what brought us together was the bond of being women who love climbing. I started Flash Foxy as an instagram account with a simple goal – share photos of the girlcrew with the hope of spreading stoke and inspiring ladies to go out and get theirs.

2016 Women's Climbing Festival in Bishop, CA. February 2016 | © Colette McInerney

The initial couple of likes turned into thousands of followers. Emails, messages and comments followed – women looking for more female partners where they lived, women wanting to transition into the outdoors but unsure of how to take that first step, and well, women just searching for something more relatable to them within climbing. It was then that I realized that this search for a different space in the climbing community was not unique to me and it was this that ultimately led me to create the Women’s Climbing Festival.

Climbing is changing and growing at a rapid pace. 97 new climbing gyms were built in the past three years, with a total of 388 gyms at the end of 2015. A recent survey of over 1,500 climbers found 78.9% of respondents reporting that they’ve been climbing for less than five years. As a result, climbing is facing a mentorship gap – the ratio of available and relevant mentors to new climbers seeking mentors is now skewed strongly to the side of the latter. So how do we ensure that as new gym climbers transition into the outdoors, they are equipped with the technical knowledge and stewardship principles so important to keeping climbing areas safe and open?

As climbing grows and grows in urban areas, you’re also seeing more women, people of color and queer folks who love climbing… future lifers. Within New York City alone, there are groups for queer climbers, climbers of color, adaptive climbers and women climbers. We’re searching for a space within climbing that feels comfortable, supportive and relatable to us. How do we shift climbing media and culture to accurately reflect the changing demographic of climbing?

2016 Women's Climbing Festival in Bishop, CA. February 2016 | © Lizzie Meyer

So… what does this have to do with the Access Fund? When it comes to the idea of “access” and barriers to “access,” the Access Fund has historically recognized the barriers to be the physical gates closing off a climbing area.

As we look forward to the next 25 years of climbing advocacy, I’d like to challenge the Access Fund and our climbing community to consider expanding what we define as “barriers to access.” Could it include representation in climbing media and industry, the breakdown of our traditional mentorship model, high cost of gear, travel and free time or even a cultural disconnect from the outdoors? And if these are the true barriers that our climbing community now faces, does Access Fund need to grow or change as an organization to address those needs?

The climbing community is truly an amazing one filled with passionate, driven caring folks and I’m so happy to be a part of it. I’m confident our community is strong enough to look honestly and critically at ourselves and work towards making climbing as accessible as possible to anyone who loves climbing!

WCF_SashaTurrentineBy Shelma Jun
Shelma is the founder of Flash Foxy and creator of the Women's Climbing Festival. A California native currently based in Brooklyn, Shelma's writing has appeared in Climbing Magazine, Outside Online and other publications.