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Duluth rock climbing group teaches women the ropes

"It's not about who can climb the hardest. It's about who can have fun ... there's no pressure."

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Starr Brainard of Duluth looks for her next handhold while rock climbing with the North Shore Vertigals at Vertical Endeavors in Duluth on Feb. 8. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com
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Tori Ward fit the tips of her shoes onto "rocks" as small as a child's fist. From below, Molly Wick fed Ward rope as she made her ascent 10, 20, 30 feet in the air.

Along the way, Ward clipped herself to different bolts in the wall at Vertical Endeavors in Canal Park. She dug in a pouch fastened behind her back and rubbed chalk on her hands.

"It's scary," she said, looking down.

"You got it, Tori," Wick said.

It was the monthly meeting of the North Shore Vertigals, a Duluth-based group of women with a mission "to unite female (cis and trans), trans people of all genders, and gender non-conforming climbers of the Twin Ports."

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The Duluth Climbers Coalition and the Minnesota Climbers Association focus on community and the preservation and development of climbing areas; the Vertigals aim for mentorship and representing the underrepresented, Wick said.

"We started the group to serve our own purpose of being able to meet other women who climb," said Wick.

The impetus: during a climbing trip in Texas, Wick and Vertigals co-founder Erin Hammes met a remarkable boulderer. It's encouraging to see "really badass women do their thing," Wick said.

"I could imagine myself being like her. I couldn't imagine myself being like these guys."

Hammes suggested they start a women's group in Duluth to encourage others. They launched the North Shore Vertigals in 2017.

Outside of formal training, the best way to learn is one-on-one with people you trust, and women are able to support and encourage each other in unique ways. Because male and female bodies are muscularly different, women may need to know more about techniques, Hammes said.

All-female identifying groups, like Flashy Foxy and Alpenglow Collective, have been emerging the past four years. The Vertigals follow their model and mission.

There's a gap between seasoned climbers who can mentor and people starting out.

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You may not know how to maintain personal safety and what you're looking for during self-checks - and there's a lot of risk, Wick said.

Climbing uses a specific set of forearm muscles that aren't often well-developed because we hardly use them. "Getting pumped" can happen when your forearms give out.

And good techniques will take you further.

Rest on a straight arm and keep your hips in the wall. Save energy by considering your footwork, and avoid being a "starfish" with hands and feet spread far out. That expels energy, Hammes said.

During a recent climb night, Pamela Foster surprised herself. The Duluth woman got to the top of the wall, "only because Baylor told me to," she said, referring to her 7-year-old son.

It was the Vertigals' first family night, and he wasn't the only kid cheering.

Almost-2-year-old Drew Olson said "Higher, mommy," as Jenny Olson scaled her way upward. After she descended, Olson said she did better than she thought. Her sister, Stephanie Hall, had encouraged her to come for a while, and Olson made it to the top twice on her first visit.

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Stephanie Hall of Duluth rock climbs during a meeting of the North Shore Vertigals. Photos by Clint Austin / News Tribune

And when she got stuck, women below called out tips for where to step and put her hands.

"You trust in the people that are helping you, and it was really great to have that security."

For women who may feel pressure or discomfort, the group is "a way to overcome a potential barrier of entry," said Cody Benz, assistant manager at Vertical Endeavors.

"There's a route for all abilities, and it's not about who can climb the hardest.

"It's about who can have fun ... there's no pressure."

The Vertigals hope to eventually move their climbs outdoors, but for now, they see anywhere from five to 30 during their monthly climbs held the second Friday of the month.

And while the community is supportive, some have called an all-female group a "cliche," Hammes said.

To that, she said they take it with a grain of salt.

"There are always going to be people who are against something you believe in for whatever reason, but the Vertigals have already done a lot of positive things for people.

"I think that reaction stems from the unknown."

Mireille Kidd started coming to climb nights a year and a half ago, when she wanted to do something outside the weight room. She gives herself pep talks on the wall sometimes, and pushing past mental barriers and connecting with these women are her go-tos.

Her tip: "Work with what you've got."

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Tori Ward of Duluth belays a climber during a meeting of the North Shore Vertigals.

At the end of her lead climb, Tori Ward rappelled down the wall.

"Rock climbing is a puzzle," she said. "Sometimes, you need a little extra time to figure out how to fit all the pieces together." Lead climbing adds an extra aspect of fear, which makes it a little bit more of "an adrenaline rush."

For Wick, the draws of the sport are the physical and mental challenges. You have to be coordinated, relatively strong and a fast thinker. If you can push past a problem on the path, it makes you feel like you can do anything, she said. "Facing your fears is what it's all about."

If you go

What: North Shore Vertigals monthly climb night

When: 7 p.m. second Friday of the month; next up is March 8

Where: Vertical Endeavors

More info: facebook.com/NorthShoreVertiGals, northshorevertigals.wordpress.com

Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346, mlavine@duluthnews.com.
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