Young Women Who Crush

In New York City, mentees and mentors boost one another to become climbers and leaders.

Rose and a Thorn

Marjana Tafader peers down at her feet, her coral-and-magenta patterned hijab tucked neatly beneath her face mask. The young climber’s fingers dance as she reaches slowly and carefully upward with her left hand, seeking the next hold.

Marjana Tafader in Rumney, New Hampshire. Photo: CHRIS VULTAGGIO

“Strong, Marjana. You’ve got this,” her belayer, Alexis Krauss, a group mentor, says softly, her heavily inked arms taut with attentiveness.

The Cliffs at LIC climbing gym in Long Island City, New York, is bustling with laughter, shouts, and movement. But here, Krauss, Marjana, and the rest of the Young Women Who Crush (YWWC) climbers seem to hear and see no one but each other. Support is the name of the game in YWWC, a mentorship and climbing program in New York City for high school girls and gender-expansive youth. Founded in October 2017 by Krauss, Emily Varisco, and Eva Kalea, YWWC is now in its fifth year of operation. Before COVID hit, YWCC met every month and organized many outdoor trips, many of them to the Shawangunks, a two-hour drive north of New York City; these were the first outdoor experiences for many of the girls. Participants range in age from 16 to 23, with most of them coming from the same high school, Central Park East in Manhattan.

“You’re so in control when you’re climbing,” Emanoella Ceni, 16 at the time of this scene and now 18, says excitedly to Marjana, a returning college student, now 23, after practice. Emanoella sits cross-legged on the gym mats, her back perfectly straight. At the end of every session, the girls sit in a circle on the gym’s mats to “debrief” and discuss the climbing and any feelings that may have come up. Today, 13 girls attend.

“It inspires me to climb that way, too,” Emanoella says, “to be more controlled with my movement.”

Marjana’s mask hides her face, but her reaction is clear: a full-body wriggle, followed by, “Awww.”

The girls around them clap in approval, and laughter fills the space. Only a brief silence ensues before someone interjects, “Guess who got into Cornell?!”—which prompts a round of hoots and applause as another young woman, Jamaya Scott, clasps her hands in acknowledgment and gratitude.

Krauss begins to speak, and the girls immediately hush.

“It’s time for a rose and a thorn from the day,” she says. “Let’s share a joyful moment and a difficult moment from our session.”

One by one, the girls share thoughtful anecdotes and feelings, some only offering roses, some only thorns, but everyone says something. When one of the girls expresses frustration at being out of shape, the rest offer encouragement.

“We’re all out of shape!” someone shouts.

When Emanoella shares that today she fell on her first lead, the group erupts in playful celebration.

Marjana Tafader, 23, at the Gunks. Her father, from a different country and culture, was proud of her growing strength. Photo: Sasha Turrentine

Opening Doors

The aim of YWWC is safe learning and a sense of belonging. As interest in climbing has increased exponentially in the last decade, in part due to a spike in the number of climbing gyms, so has the presence of various climbing-affinity groups, with more and more people from different backgrounds and identities entering and navigating the climbing community and outdoor industry.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, in 2017, climbing gyms were reporting on average 100 new members a month, and in 2019, 4.4 percent of all Americans climbed in gyms with some sort of regularity. The pandemic barely dented this uptick in gym popularity: In 2020, 44 new gyms opened in the United States, which was more than in 2019, according to Climbing Business Journal.

Affinity groups have arisen across the United States to address issues of diversity and inclusion from all experiences. Adaptive Climbers Group, Stonewall Climbing, Brown Girls Climb, Asian Bouldering Crew, Indigenous Womxn Climb, Belay for All, Try Hard Crew, Sending in Color, and Black Girls Boulder are just a sample of the many groups that aim to diversify the climbing community and foster mentorship and community. Events like the annual Color the Crag at the boulders of Horse Pens 40, Alabama, which started in 2017, and the Women’s Climbing Festival in Bishop, California, first held in 2016, have likewise boosted visibility and support for affinity spaces.

As Atongular Monique of Rockaway Beach, Long Island, a volunteer and mentor with YWWC and the co-founder of the women’s climbing group Try Hard Crew, says, “Having those spaces where people look like you physically or who are in similar circumstances makes a big difference.”

Monique, 44, grew up near the popular surfing venue of Rockaway Beach, but only learned to surf in her 30s. She is now the Community Outreach and Partnerships Coordinator for the Laru Beya Collective, a nonprofit organization in the Rockaways that recruits Black and Brown youth and teaches them how to surf.

“I want [people of color] to know they have access also,” Monique says.

Ceni, now 18, and the daughter of immigrants from Kosovo, has played “every sport.” During the worst of the pandemic, climbing was the most meaningful. Photo: Sasha Turrentine

Tears of Joy

The first time Alexis Krauss, 37, cofounder of YWWC and a New Jersey native, climbed was in 2014, when some friends took her out to Mount Diablo in California. “I cried literal tears of joy at the top of my first outdoor route,” she says. After that, she was determined to learn everything she could about rock climbing.

In her professional life, Krauss is frontwoman of the noise-pop music duo Sleigh Bells. She is also an AMGA-certified guide. To the girls of YWWC, she is a friend and mentor.

Krauss says: “Learning about climbing from other women was a powerful force in my life, and I wanted to create a program where others could share in that. I was determined to make climbing and the outdoors accessible to more New York youth, especially high-schoolers, and especially high school girls.”

Her cofounder Emily Varisco, 37, originally of Estes Park, Colorado, and now of Eugene, Oregon, has been climbing for 22 years and coaching for 16. She grew up being one of the only girls at the crag, so in 2017 when she took four of her youth-team girls from The Cliffs, where she was head coach for four years, to the Red River Gorge, Kentucky, she couldn’t believe how different their shared experience seemed from her own.

“They were more confident” as members of an all-girl crew, Varisco says. “They were more collaborative. They were more open to talking about tough issues.”

After the trip, Varisco approached Eva Kalea, her then-colleague at The Cliffs, about starting a mentorship program for high school girls. Kalea, 35, and Krauss had just run a busy women’s climbing event called Women Who Crush. The three sat down to brainstorm, and decided to put together a meet-up for high school girls. Young Women Who Crush was born.

A One-Off Takes Off

On October 16, 2017, 16 girls who had been recruited from Central Park East High School gathered with a handful of mentors at The Cliffs to climb for the first time. They spent the first hour learning safety and communication skills, and then they took to the walls. At the end of the two hours, says Krauss, “We closed with a circle where we discussed the things we loved and the things that challenged us about the experience,” a precursor to the rose-and-thorn exercise. The founders were surprised at the girls’ enthusiasm and receptivity to each other when many were just meeting for the first time, even though they attended the same high school.

“Initially, we didn’t think of YWWC as a ‘program’ but as a one-off opportunity,” Krauss continues. “[But] immediately after that first session, we all knew it was something we needed to keep organizing.”

At the time, Krauss was a guide for Discover Outdoors (DO), a New York–based foundation aiming to get urban youth outside and teach them outdoor and leadership skills. Discover Outdoors came on as an informal support network for YWWC, and helped the new group recruit girls and gender-expansive youth. YWWC was able to use the group’s insurance and even the DO van for outdoor trips. Then, in 2018, due to financial troubles and internal mismanagement, DO and the Discover Outdoors Foundation (DOF) abruptly ceased operations.

“We were entirely supported by DOF, so it was a devastating blow,” Krauss says. “We really had to scramble.”

After months of uncertainty, YWWC found support from the Bronx-based adventure nonprofit Catrock Ventures, a group Krauss knew from her time with DOF. Catrock both supported the YWWC and the founders’ need to maintain autonomy.

Over the next year, the founders were able to provide the girls a pathway to climb; then it became important to create ways and opportunities for them to continue climbing. Free gym memberships had been a first step, but staff also helped some mentees find climbing-related jobs, and encouraged them to come back to YWWC as mentors themselves.  The founders could see that many of the skills the young women learned, like empathetic communication and how to be an effective leader, extended beyond climbing.

Kalea writes in an email that the program was intended to “provide opportunities for youth to experience the mental, physical, and emotional benefits of climbing when they otherwise may not have had a chance to,” in a diverse and supportive environment and with an eye toward their futures in the outdoor community and in general.

She says, “We are very focused on giving them life and leadership skills that they can carry with them.”

Young Women Who Crush is a part of a nationwide movement to lower the barriers to entry in climbing and to redefine what it means to be a climber. We talked to some of the members about what climbing means to them.

Mariam Naser, 18, a student at Columbia University, now works at The Cliffs as an instructor. Photo: Sasha Turrentine

Mariam Naser, 18

Mariam Naser, 18, didn’t grow up playing sports, so when she signed up for Young Women Who Crush, she thought it was unlikely to stick. By the end of her first session, though, she was intrigued.

“I’m not a very social person,” Mariam says. “But climbing … wasn’t overwhelming. You can do it with one person, or even alone.” She felt unexpectedly comfortable.

It was in history class at her high school, the Academy for Software Engineering, that Mariam first learned of YWWC. Her teacher pitched it, describing a girls’ empowerment and mentorship program focused on rock climbing.

“My high school is predominantly male, so I was one of two girls in the classroom,” Mariam says. Curiosity piqued, she signed up on the spot.

Mariam had spent the first six years of her life in Yemen, but considers Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, home. “I went to elementary school there,” she says. “My dad grew up there for a large part of his life. When I go to the corner store, I know the people who work there, and the older people always playing games and arguing about stuff; I know them by name.”

She is in her second year at Columbia University, studying computer science, but has also become interested in film and writing. She loves documentaries and climbing movies: Her recent favorite is the 35-minute Black Ice, part of the annual Reel Rock festival, about climbers from Memphis traveling to Montana to climb ice.

“Just watching a group of Black people climbing and having fun outside—it makes me so happy,” Mariam says. “I want to make a climbing movie of my own someday.” Before learning to climb, she had thought the sport was just for white people. But YWWC showed her otherwise.

Mariam says that in the beginning, climbing was an obsession. “It was all I could think about,” she exclaims. But when the pandemic hit, in March 2020, and YWWC meet-ups went virtual, she was forced to step back and think about her climbing.

“People burn out,” she says. “I want to still love it years from now.”

Today she works at The Cliffs as an instructor for kids and adults. A young woman in a hijab is a rarity in the gym, and even more so in a role of authority: Mariam hopes to show her students that climbing can be for everyone.

“Before climbing, I would say to myself, ‘You’re weak. You can’t play sports.’ I was scared of being judged,” Mariam says. “But you don’t have to be that strong. [In YWWC], we’re all different shapes and sizes. And I feel completely safe … to be myself.”

Emanoella Ceni rappelling in the Shawangunks, New York Photo: Chris Vultaggio

Emanoella Ceni, 18

When Emanoella Ceni first heard about YWWC in her high school environmental-science class, she thought, It sounds weird, but why not?

Emanoella is hardly new to sports. “I genuinely have played almost every sport,” she says. She loves flag football, for one. “I’m the only girl on my team, but we are really close,” she says of her teammates, all boys. “They know my weaknesses. They know my strengths.” She also plays soccer and baseball, and runs track and field.

Emanoella’s first language is Albanian. She was born in New York City, after her family immigrated from Kosovo. Her parents filed for asylum during the Kosovo war after a bomb left their then-infant son, Gabriel, with severe hearing loss.

“My parents were very strict about grades,” Emanoella says. “[They] made sure that we had a better start in our life, because they didn’t want us to suffer the same way they did.”

When school went remote in 2020, Emanoella struggled to find normalcy in life and schoolwork.

“I’m a big planner, and needed to keep my days organized,” she says. She made extensive lists to structure her time and efforts: “Otherwise, I was going to freak out.”

Still, she saw a silver lining to the pandemic, and, with no commute to school, appreciated the extra time remote learning offered, using it to do things like her household chores and be with her family. This year, Emanoella’s high school is back in person, and she has started applying to colleges. “This semester has been extremely hectic,” she says. “There’s so much happening in my life all at once.” She has juggled college applications while co-captaining YWWC and playing varsity football, still the only girl on the team.

During the worst of the pandemic, Emanoella found solace, camaraderie, and an outlet for her energy in YWWC, and creating goals in climbing has kept her excited about the sport. For now, she is keen on toproping: “I love doing dynamic moves, but I’m terrified to do them while bouldering!” she says.

She’s trying to train herself to slow down and think through moves as well, saying, “I like going fast … but I lose my stamina really quick.” She recently did her first lead climb in the gym without backup, and now hopes to become lead certified. “My goal is to be able to lead-climb confidently,” she says.

Right now, applying for college is at the forefront. Emanoella is applying to several schools, but seems most excited about the University of New Haven in Connecticut, exclaiming, “It’s only an hour from the Gunks!”

Monifer Austin and Deanna Mendones, 17 and 18, friends through YWWC and climbing, now want to explore the outdoors. Photo: Sasha Turrentine

Monifer Austin and Deanna Mendones, 17 and 18

Monifer Austin and Deanna Mendones, now close friends, met at their first Young Women Who Crush session, in 2017. Deanna remembers it with a laugh. “I’ll never forget it. [Monifer] walked straight up to me and said, ‘Are you Mexican?’ That’s the first thing she said to me.”

Deanna’s family immigrated from the Philippines in 2015. The oldest of three, she talks about how important it has been to have mentorship outside of her family. “I tend to not open up,” she explains, “because it’s hard for me to voice my opinions. But [in YWWC] I can just vent. It’s the only place I can breathe.”

Monifer Austin was born and raised on Antigua, a small island in the Caribbean. She moved to New York with her family the same year as Deanna did, in 2015.

“Isn’t that weird?” she says, laughing. Neither girl has been back to her original home to visit. “I miss my friends and [extended] family,” Monifer says. “Six years”—now seven—“is a long time without seeing them.”

For both, finding friendship and support in YWWC, especially with each other, was transformative. “We listen to the same kind of music,” Monifer says. “Whenever Deanna finds a new song, she sends it to me.” They like “sad music”—most recently, that of Ed Sheeran, “except now his music is too happy,” interjects Deanna—and they also love watching Grey’s Anatomy together.

“When I first started climbing, I was so scared,” says Monifer, who had an intense fear of heights. “I remember looking down and seeing my legs shaking. My hands were sweating, and I was like, ‘Can I even do this?’” But to cheering and shouts of support from other mentees, she finished that climb. “I’m still scared, but I work through it, and that feeling is pretty cool.”

Deanna’s first impression of the gym wasn’t so good. “I remember walking in and being like, ‘This is so smelly,’” she says with a laugh. “Now I’m used to it. I even miss the smell sometimes.”

Climbing has helped Deanna work through issues outside of the program, she says: “Every time I have a problem, I just think about rock climbing. Maybe you can’t do it right now, but then try it again. I tend to panic easily, and if you just breathe, step back, and look at the problem, you can see what you can do about it.”

The many months of pandemic shutdowns and quarantines have given her a lot of anxiety, she says, and climbing “is the only thing keeping me sane.” Monifer agrees, calling climbing “a needed escape.”

Monifer adds that she has a “big bucket list”: She wants to learn to play the guitar—“I can teach you!” says Deanna—and the piano. She dreams of going to college in California, though will probably stay in New York for in-state tuition. Both say that because of YWWC, they now crave the outdoors and adventure.

“I just want to explore,” Deanna says. “The views are so pretty. It’s peaceful, which you don’t feel in the city.”

Monifer adds, “I also want to explore … me.”

Marjana Tafader in the Gunks. Photo: Chris

Marjana Tafader, 23

Marjana Tafader will be the first to tell you that climbing has changed her life.

In March 2020, while sitting on a panel at the No Man’s Film Festival, an annual all-women’s adventure event held in Denver, discussing issues of diversity and equity in climbing, she was hit by an understanding of how much climbing had impacted her. “I just started crying, because I realized how much my mentors and how much [YWWC] have shaped me, and given me,” Marjana says.

She’s been with YWWC since its very first session. Age 18 at the time, she had never even heard of rock climbing. “The first time someone talked about it, the way they were talking about climbing, it felt otherworldly,” she remembers. “And I just wanted to find an escape from school. So I was like, ‘OK, cool. Let’s try rock climbing. Whatever that is.’”

What she didn’t know was that this otherworldly sport would grab her and become a central part of her life. “It’s insane how much I’ve grown since then,” she says.

Marjana immigrated from Bangladesh with her mother and five siblings when she was 10 years old. Her father stayed behind.

“We didn’t see him for almost eight years,” she says. “It was really hard to stay connected to him, and I finally just decided it was better not to talk to him. But I think that was the worst mistake, because once you’ve lost that connection, it’s hard to get it back.”

Her father finally joined the rest of the family in 2018. “We got much closer, and spending the entire pandemic year with him was a big part of that,” she says. She is forever grateful for that time: Her father fell ill in the spring of 2021 and passed away in October.

“Despite the gender norms and cultural expectations he used to have, climbing was an exception,” Marjana says. “He took so much pride in my climbing.” She would show her parents her growing biceps, and her dad would laugh, bragging about how strong she was getting.

At first, the sport made no sense to her parents, she says: “We come from a small village, where you’re surrounded by nature. So telling my mom that I went camping … to her it’s like, ‘You just came from there to this nice place, and now you want to go back into the woods again?’” She laughs. “In Bangladesh, you are in nature because you are poor, not because you want to be.”

Marjana continues, “No woman from my culture would ever go out and explore the outdoors. It’s just not possible. But I want to make it normal. I can still accept my culture and pursue the outdoors.”

In her senior year at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, Marjana is co-running the climbing group on campus, seeking funding to pay for memberships, and working with The Outdoor Society education group to run trips outside. “I feel comfortable setting up topropes now, and have been teaching other [students], too,” she says.

She is actively trying to recruit other young women, especially young women of color, while finishing her degree in neuroscience. After graduation, Marjana will return to New York City to be close to her family, and she is considering applying to PhD programs in her chosen field.

Last year, she traveled to Moab for the YWWC co-founder Alexis Krauss’s wedding. She did some crack climbs with the veteran climber Kathy Karlo in Indian Creek—“She’s so strong and so elegant at the same time”—and led the final pitch of the classic Ancient Art in the Fisher Towers. “Never, ever did I think I could do that. Yet there I was,” Marjana says.

For Marjana, though, the most important part has been the process of receiving and then being able to give mentorship. “These people, they just know … they know that you can do it, and they believe in you. They show you,” she says. “And that’s the goal for me. Passing off that knowledge. That’s what I want.”

Sasha Turrentine is a writer and photographer living between Santa Cruz, California, and Brooklyn, New York. Much of her work focuses on issues of access and equity within the outdoor industry.

Brittany Leavitt is a community organizer and the CEO of Brown Girls Climb, a company owned and run by women of color to provide education and leadership to People of the Global Majority.

Sabiha Tafader mock-leading in the Shawangunks, New York. Photo: Chris Vultaggio
Dipina Khatri Chhetri helps Janaki Rai with her helmet, Gunks. Photo: Chris Vultaggio
Deanna Mendones in Rumney. Photo: Chris Vultaggio
Mariam Naser (orange helmet) in Rumney. Photo: Chris Vultaggio
Tamina Choudhury reaches the top, Gunks. Photo: Chris Vultaggio