Betties360 has partnered with the Mazamas through their Youth Outreach Climbing program for the past four years to teach our youth rock climbing at their location in southeast Portland. Mazamas volunteers start by explaining how to get into climbing gear (harnesses & climbing shoes), climbing basics, and belaying. Our students complete three trips to the Mazamas Mountaineering Center during our program. The Mazamas volunteers also have joined us for bouldering days at the Circuit Bouldering Gym NE.
Our Program Assistant, Arcadia Trueheart, interviewed Molly Mosenthal, Youth Programs Coordinator, and Sarah Lydecker, Mazama Volunteer and Adventure WILD Climbing Coordinator, about their outdoor experiences as women and their work teaching rock climbing to our Betties! We hope you’ll take a moment to read what they had to share.
How did you both get involved with outdoor adventure sports?
Molly: For me it started in really young childhood. I grew up in a rural place so I was constantly surrounded by trees and streams and mud and snow and all that fun stuff. You know, as a young child, I would play in the outdoors and that was just my playground and my toys were sticks. But then as I got a bit older into later childhood and teenage years, my relationship with the outdoors shifted a bit more towards work, with stacking wood and shoveling snow and occasionally damaging my father’s tractor while plowing the driveway or tipping the mower tractor over and getting it stuck in the woods. We lived in a pretty remote area and relatively often we would get the car stuck in the mud or snow and have to slog home with whatever gear we had in the car at the time. And so I guess trudging through the snow in my childhood felt more like work, not fun.
The recreation aspect of it didn’t really come for me until I left Vermont, where I grew up, and moved to Colorado and was in Denver, and despite being a “mountain town” as people say, it is pretty far from the mountains and I definitely felt that distance very heavily and I was like, oh my gosh I’m trapped. I really struggled with that for a while in college and felt very trapped by concrete and the plains and the flatness and bareness of it all was really shocking to me. It didn’t feel as safe, or comfortable like I knew.
So that led me to seek out these outdoor adventures and natural spaces for me to be in. Even just going for a short hike and sitting in nature for my mental wellbeing was a huge help for me in those years. So that was my impulse I guess and I realized, I really do enjoy this and it doesn’t have to be work to be outside. It can really just be fun and enjoyable and it helps my mental health significantly. That was the first impulse for me, a seeking to better my own wellbeing and happiness in this world.
Sarah: My experiences have been pretty similar. Both of my parents were geologists but instead of growing up in the snow, we lived in the desert in Texas and a lot of my memories were of being dragged on long road trips to look at rocks. I didn’t really get it or understand what was so cool about these rocks and I would just sit in the car while my parents would load the back of the station wagon with specimens.
I’ve always been an artist and after I finished college, I ended up working in Portland in the art scene and spending a lot of time inside. I found myself getting very mentally cooped up and looking for more inspiration and needing to feel fresh. So I started to go hiking. So I got into the outdoors pretty late. Not pretty late, but it feels like comparatively late. I was in my early twenties when I started going on hikes and I would just go out by myself. Then I encountered this weird thing called snow which I was pretty sure was going to kill me. So I started taking classes with the Mazamas to educate myself about how to, you know, walk in the snow. I found a neat community of people who are into different sports, hiking, community service, hanging out, and just being pretty positive. I’ve really enjoyed the outdoors for what it can give me and for how I can be involved with it and the community.
Has being a woman/female influenced your experience with these activities and the outdoors and the culture around it?
Molly: I reflect on that one a lot. I guess coming back to growing up and the shift from childhood to adulthood, and how that shifted my relationship with the outdoors and my identity within the outdoors… I guess everyone feels most comfortable where they grew up – in the land and the people and the culture. I think that was very true for me particularly in the way that humans interact with the environment. I was very used to that culture in Vermont. Because it’s so rural you kinda have those ruralisms where it’s like, everyone has this relationship with the outdoors and whether you say, “I’m an outdoorsy person” or not, you just are, and everyone belongs outdoors without question. And then I went to Denver and you could live your whole life without ever hiking through the foothills of the Rockies and living twenty minutes from it. When I was living in the city, and still to this day, it was this Weekend Warrior style of “I live in the city and I live this very indoor city life and then on the weekends I go out into the mountains to recreate and then I go home to the city and go inside until next weekend.”
So there was this very different culture that was a real shock to me, and I struggled, and still do struggle, to acknowledge that I was becoming a part of that culture – I guess sort of feeling like somewhat of a loss of my identity. A big part of that I think was adventuring in groups, and with the culture of outdoor safety, and making everything a really big deal to go on an adventure, like you had to be with a partner or group to go on outdoor pursuits or else it was irresponsible, and that was tough for me. [Being in the outdoors] was a mental health refuge for me so I often wanted to go alone to the outdoors and that’s when I feel most comfortable when I’m responsible for myself and myself only and I feel that sense of independence and freedom. I felt sometimes limited by that in Colorado because of the culture I was surrounded by and because if I just wanted to go drive around on a forest service road and find a nice spot to car camp or hike or something, I didn’t always feel comfortable because I would run into people who said, “You don’t belong here” or said it with their eyes or their body language. And I felt, as a child, that the outdoors were mine to have and then once I was in the city, I felt I was just kind of a city person that didn’t have the rights to those spaces like I used to. I guess I’m talking more about the shift of my identity into being a city dweller rather than being female… I’ll stop rambling now.
Did you feel like when people would look at you like that they were men?
Molly: I don’t want to draw boxes and make stereotypes, but the memories that I have of feeling uncomfortable in the outdoors in Colorado were definitely often with men that were living in those rural communities, and where I was coming in from Denver as a female, clearly from the front range, you know in my Subaru with a Bernie sticker on it. So I guess I just often felt judged or that I wasn’t welcome as a result of my identity – part of that being female, living in the city, having a more liberal political view than the majority of people in the towns that I was venturing into, etc. I guess it’s hard to isolate parts of your identity when you’re feeling unwelcome.
Sarah: Well I feel very lucky to live in the Northwest where the culture of outdoors is so, seemingly, gender split pretty well, which has been awesome. I did learn how to do my mountain skills in an all women class which the Mazamas currently don’t offer. When I was taking it there was a considerable amount of push back for it and support of it. I’ve noticed with adults learning outdoor skills in these kind of group settings, it feels like a competition. When I was younger and everything felt like a competition I was like that too and couldn’t wait to get up Mt Hood or Rainier. There was definitely some push-back at community events of like, “Oh, you’re in the all girls group, they’re too slow” or “Why would you want to do that?” and sometimes I resented that because I wanted to be seen as strong and confident and other times it was like well, “You’re boring and I don’t like climbing with you because you never listen to me.” I don’t want to make generalizations, some of my best climbing partners are men, some are female.
That being said, I really enjoyed learning in an all-female group. The communication styles are subtly different. The way that a lot do women will defer or question or cry but that’s not seen as a sign of weakness. That was one of the strongest things my leader taught is it’s okay to cry. Sometimes when women get pissed off, you cry. Sometimes I’ll be rock climbing and I’ll freak out and start crying but that’s my stress response and it doesn’t mean I hate rock climbing. It’s just I process my emotions like this and once these tears come out, I’m good to go. But that can be really distressing if you’re not socialized in that way. And so sometimes when I climb with guys, they freak out. I’ve also encountered the rural, what-are-you-doing-here vibes. Like I was driving in Colorado and Montana for awhile and definitely you get a vibe of like, “Why are you here?” “Why are you parked on the side of the road in Wyoming?” I don’t know how much of it is an age thing or a gender thing or just a “This is our small town.” When I grew up in West Texas, it was very much of a, “Here’s our town and our spaces.” And you see this a lot with “This is my trail,” “This is my Montana climbing area,” “You can’t develop the Gorge because I hike Dog Mountain without permits” type thing. And I think there’s a sense of ownership that people have towards their public lands and I don’t know if that’s a gender thing or if that’s an ownership thing. I do notice when I’m hiking with my boyfriend or with other guys, people will come and talk to the men for directions when I’ll have more first aid training or more climbing and hiking experience. But on the positive side, I’ve had people cheer for me and female climbing partners when they see us like climbing up Monkey Face. And I don’t want a participation award for being female but it is neat to be noticed for doing a sport.
Molly: I just started reflecting back on learning rock climbing and spending lots of time skiing back in Colorado, and kind of my whole life skiing and often being the only girl in the group. Many of my regular ski buddies in Colorado were guys, and I definitely recall them pretty often saying things like “Molly, you’re a killer skier for a girl” or “your the only real skier girl I know” And I would think to myself like, “Well that’s not true at all, you just don’t give anyone else a chance because you know me and have skied with me a ton, and have implicit, or maybe sometimes explicit, biases towards girls being good skiers.” But I guess I was somewhat flattered by it and wasn’t feeling attacked personally, so never really questions them as much as I wish I had.
Then coming into a climbing space, I started learning climbing coming into Mazamas. I climbed a bit before, but never fully got into until being constantly around it here in this community. I feel so much more comfortable, with climbing specifically, when I’m with a group of women or female-identifying people. One of the first times I led outside I was with two female friends and I felt so comfortable and I knew I could ask any question I had to ask and clarify anything over and over again. And just walk through everything and feel comfortable expressing that concern. And I didn’t feel there was any competition. Where as when I’ve climbed with guys I’m really close with, I don’t necessarily always feel that security of open communication and support. I sometimes feel there’s a competition element that is hard for me to feel fully at ease in.
What is the history of women within Mazamas?
Molly: Well, we were founded in 1894 on the summit of Mt Hood. A collective of people who decided to summit Hood together and found a group of those interested in the outdoors and climbing mountains. I believe somewhere around a quarter of that group was female, which was remarkably high considering that it was 1894. so there’s been a long-standing history of female-involvement in Mazamas, definitely more so and kind of ahead of it’s time for much of Mazamas’ early history. Several years ago we had an all-female Basic Climbing Education Program (BCEP) for adults too. We’re not running it now, but one of our BCEP Leaders this year is running an LGBTQ+ specific group, which is great to see some identity-specific communities popping up within Mazamas. So yeah it’s definitely come and gone but I think female involvement and leadership in the Mazamas has been a long-standing aspect of the organization as a whole.
Sarah: I understand there’s a push to have more female climb leaders and recruit more female basic climbing leaders. Which is pretty cool. I know that when I took advanced rock class recently there were like five women in it which was not a large percent and only like one female lecturer out of all the lecturers we had. But this year the [member] gender ratio is like 50/50 and there are so many more women on the leadership and lecturing roles which is really awesome to see. I’ve learned a ton from women. I’ve really appreciated how communicative and willing to mentor the women I’ve met here at Mazamas have been. There are quite a few who are on various committees who have been climbing mountains for longer than I’ve been alive who are just badass and so cool when you hear their stories of going up Denali or going up Mt Hood in January. Or “I’m going to go hike Dog Mountain and I have enough gear on my back to rescue anyone I meet.” There is so much to be learned and it’s really neat to have that knowledge be available.
How did you get involved in Mazamas, what is your current role/connection?
Molly: I came on originally as the Summer Camp Manager for Adventure WILD, which at that time was a partnership program between Mazamas and Friends of Outdoor School. It started under Friends of Outdoor School in 2012 and used to be a fundraiser program for the state-wide Outdoor School program, and then in 2016, Measure 99 passed and guaranteed state funds for the program that it used to support, so then Mazamas took [Adventure WILD] over and then I came on board right around that time which was the first year that it was being fiscally run under Mazamas. So I came on as a temporary employee, I knew essentially nothing about Mazamas beforehand and was relatively new to the Northwest. After that position ended, I came on board as the Youth Programs Coordinator and Summer Camp Manager in 2017 and since have become a lot more involved as a staff member and generally in the community and understanding what makes Mazamas the Mazamas.
Sarah: I took BCEP in 2014 and I’ve taken a few of the other classes and I was encouraged to volunteer as a way to keep my skills up and meet people. I’ve done quite a few Mazama climbs and now I’ve found that I really like volunteering with the youth groups. It’s just really cool to see people try things and get excited. I like that the Mazamas is a large collective lobbying force for environmental and access issues in the Northwest and I think it’s really cool what they can do with their collective power.
What has been your experience of working with the Betties participants?
Molly: Joy and light in my life! It is such a fun group for me. Some days I’ll come to work and feel busy and stressed all day long and then I’m like, oh, it’s a Betties day! Sometimes it feels like I can’t afford to take three hours away from my desk, and then I go upstairs and the girls come rushing in and their energy is just amazing and they’re just like “We know this space, we got it, we know how to put on our harnesses, we can do this” and they’re just so into it. And immediately all my woes are out the door. It’s been honestly really emotional watching girls get excited about this and feel the sense of ownership of just, “We can come in and this is our space and our place and our sport and we’re doing this and you can’t hold us back.” And it’s just one of the most beautiful things to see for me.
Sarah: I think I like the girls that get really into coaching the other girls more than the star climbers. I love encouraging the girls to climb but when I see someone really get into coaching and they’re like, “No, put your foot there or do that,” that’s really cool. I heard about the Betties when a Mazama climb leader mentioned how she had done some volunteer work with them. I think she led them up St. Helens or South Sister. And she described it as the most awesome, tedious, challenging ordeal that she would not trade anything for. And she was like, “If you can only volunteer for one group, you should go with this one.” That’s really high praise.
What do think that rock climbing specifically gives to middle school girls?
Sarah: A chance to beat the boys! Honestly, developmentally that’s when you have the strength to weight ratio that you can beat them. But it’s not just that! It’s problem solving, physical challenges…
Molly: I think trust building is really huge too. And just overcoming self-esteem and confidence issues. When you’re up on a climbing wall, especially here in our space, like even just the physical set-up of our space, there are probably fifteen people staring at your back while you do something that is very challenging for you and maybe your first time ever doing it and you have no idea what to expect. So being up on a wall, on display, directly in front of people’s eyes and feeling like, “Wow, people are staring at me and they could be saying all sorts of things” and that’s a really terrifying thought for that age/middle school girls and really any human being in general, but especially that demographic. So I think just being able to get up and realize like, “Oh, I can do this and I can do it well…or maybe I can’t do it well but people are here to support me and I don’t have to always be perfect and do it perfectly for people to support me and love me and be helping me through whatever I’m going through.” For me, that’s a really big part. And the trust building, your life is literally in someone else’s hands.
What is your advice for young women interested in trying out outdoor sports/outdoor recreation for the first time?
Molly: Don’t feel intimidated. I think especially with outdoor things, usually the biggest fear or deterrent for most is the unknown, especially for personality types who like to know what they’re getting into, which I’m one of them. That’s been a deterrent for me in the past for particular things where I’m like, Oh I’ve never done that before and I have no idea what it’s like so I’m just never going to do it. I find that sometimes I get over it and I do that things and I’m like, Wow that wasn’t hard at all or that was way more approachable than I ever thought it would be. So I think just knowing that there are tons of people out there that would love to teach you or support you in doing something new and there’s no harm in trying it. And maybe you’ll try it and you’ll hate it or you’ll fail at it and that’s great and you’ll stop doing it or you’ll keep doing it and that’s cool too. But just don’t feel that anything is not for you because everything can be for you.
Sarah: You belong there. If you want to be there, you belong there. There is no one image of what an outdoor person looks like and it’s really cool to see how there are more demographics and age groups going outside now.
Molly Mosenthal, Mazamas Youth Programs Coordinator
Mazamas was founded in 1894 on the summit of Mt. Hood. As a nonprofit mountaineering education organization, they promote climbing, responsible recreation, and conservation values through outdoor education, advocacy, and outreach. The Mazamas offer over 700 hikes and 350 climbs annually. A variety of classes and activities are offered for every skill and fitness level and are open to both members and nonmembers. Visit their website to learn more about the many other programs they offer for adults and youth.