Many of the strongest people in my life have been women. Witnessing the strength of my inspiring single mother, the career and later family drive of my stepmother, and the various artistic and intellectual talents of my six sisters taught me that long ago. Yet on the flip side, I was also conditioned starting in my youth to see physical strength as primarily a masculine quality, and I’m sure I still make unthinking assumptions.
I work as a movement coach, climbing guide, and photographer in Salt Lake City, Utah. I am proud to work and play in a sport that embraces athletes of all genders, shapes, and personalities. In my role, I’ve coached and guided an array of climbers, from jacked bros who, ironically, were timid while climbing to tenacious girls who just would not let go. I’ve watched an unassuming grandmother emit battle screams as she fought for every hold, sometimes emerging from her sessions bloodied. And I’ve witnessed a tattooed mountain of a man tremble on an indoor toprope. Every time I think I know who is strong and why, someone comes along and challenges my assumptions; every time I try to typify and categorize people, I discover exceptions.
The photo-essay on these pages is the result of interviewing and photographing women who train and climb at the Momentum Millcreek gym in Salt Lake City. As I learned over the year—early 2019 to early 2020—that I worked on this piece, there is no typical training experience. I certainly believe that all of the women featured here are strong. I view their stories as a deeper way to explore what “strength” is, to trade simple explanations for more nuanced ones, my hope being that as a community and culture, we can move toward a deeper understanding of what strength is in all its many aspects.
Years climbing: 13
Occupation: Professional climber (and graduate of the University of Minnesota)
Favorite local areas: Maple Canyon, Joe’s Valley
“When I was in middle school, I told some of the guys on my bus that I wanted to have a six pack when I got older, and I remember them making fun of me and telling me that six packs are ‘gross’ on girls. It’s crazy to think that a social stigma about what ‘beauty’ is had been so ingrained on such young men, because we were all probably eleven years old. I hope that has changed.
“Recently, I did an ‘Instagram questions’ story, and one of the most common questions I got asked by other women was if I was self-conscious of being so muscular. These questions definitely stem from social pressure to be skinny, not muscular. I answered, ‘No, because I’ve worked really hard for this.’ But it took a lot of time to think that way.”
Years climbing: 23
Occupation: Geological engineer
Favorite local area: American Fork Canyon
“One evening about ten years ago, I found out I could do one-arm pullups. I hadn’t been doing any one-arm training or anything special … I was at a barbecue at a friend’s house, and they had some Rock Rings hanging from their porch—I was monkeying around. To my own and my friends’ surprise, I busted out, like, three pullups in a row on my right and two on my left. It remains a constant struggle to find the right mind-body balance, and definitely something I have not mastered yet: sometimes the strength of the body is limited by what our mind thinks is possible.”
Years climbing: 5
Favorite local area: Joe’s Valley
“You have to have strength to do a pullup, but you also have to know how to engage your shoulders and use your muscles properly. The perfect pullup starts with a hollow-body position with the toes pointed and the shoulders engaged. Keep that position for the entire pullup, and then lower slowly back down.”