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Spotlight on The B.I.G. Initiative: women, climbing, unlimited stoke

August 18, 2022

Found in Community news, Activities

When you flip through the pages of a climbing magazine or peek into the office of a climbing gym, who do you see? Who’s designing routes and building careers in climbing?

“Although almost 50% of climbers are women, they are largely underrepresented in the media, in climbing competitions and in central positions such as route-setting, coaching and management,” says Alexa Fay, general manager and co-founder of The B.I.G. Initiative. The non-profit organization supports and trains women to take on leadership roles in the climbing industry – and it has big goals.

Climber and group instructor Emma Contaoe, smiling and wearing a climbing helmet

Above: MEC Ambassador Emma Contaoe, owner of Climbing Escapes, recently led an overnight climbing and camping event with The B.I.G. Initiative in Quebec, with support from MEC.

The big idea behind The B.I.G. Initiative

“We aim to help the climbing industry reach gender parity in typically male-dominated jobs,” Alexa says. Elaiza Datar, outdoor program coordinator for The B.I.G. Initiative, explains further, “Having more diverse representation in climbing leadership is important to unlocking more possibilities and innovations that can serve the wider climbing community.”

The organization initially focused on route-setting workshops, training women to design and build bouldering problems and gym routes – crucial skills for a career in climbing. So far, they’ve introduced 64 women to route-setting and trained 24 advanced route-setters.

“People with different body types or different strengths are usually going to set differently,” says Alexa. “And that’s a good thing! If you have more diversity in who is setting, then you’re going to end up with a better, more rounded, more diverse product that is going to cater to a wider range of people.”

“We strive for a climbing culture that embraces and is respectful of all female-identifying and non-binary individuals.” – Alexa Fay, The B.I.G. Initiative

Climber smiling and giving photographer a fist bump

Taking The B.I.G. Initiative outside

When COVID shut down climbing gyms, The B.I.G. Initiative pivoted to offer outdoor climbing workshops. As they planned a course in Quebec, Elaiza immediately thought of climbing instructor Emma Contaoe, MEC Ambassador and owner of Climbing Escapes. Emma suggested expanding the course into a two-day beginner climbing and camping retreat, which quickly became a reality.

Group of BIG Initiative participants eating at a picnic table at a campsite

“Events like this help create a positive and supportive environment for learning new skills.” – Kimberly, retreat participant, climbing for one month

After meeting at MEC Marché Central, 12 participants and 2 instructors travelled up to Montagne d’Argent in La Conception, where they met Emma for dinner and a campfire. After camping overnight, the group enjoyed a “feast of a breakfast,” according to Alexa, and headed to the crag. Emma and another guide, Marie, gave everyone instruction on knots and how to belay a partner.

Emma Contaoe helping a new climber belay

“This event helped us meet new people, get out of our comfort zone, discover new places and have fun... all while staying safe.” – Lucie, retreat participant, bouldering for 1.5 years

Emma Contaoe pointing up a climbing route with participants looking on

Some participants had never climbed outside before — and some had never climbed at all, says Alexa. “We also had some people who used to climb and had stopped, and this was their way to start climbing again.”

“My biggest takeaway? That we should be confident – we’re capable of doing so much if we’re given the means to do so!” – Marianne, retreat participant, climbing for 2 years

Climber on a wall outside, cheering

"Inclusivity means cultivating an environment where the focus is all about everyone pushing their own limits and having fun instead of being all about looking hot and crushing high grades.” – Joanna, retreat participant, bouldering for two years

We asked Alexa and Elaiza to tell us a bit more about why their work is so important.

What kind of changes do you want to see in the climbing world?

Alexa: “We want to see more women in leadership roles. We want to see women get the respect they deserve in their sport, but also in their work. We want the women who are already working in the industry to get more visibility, in hopes that they can then inspire others to see themselves in leadership positions in the industry.”

Elaiza: “As a person of colour, I would love to see more diversity in the climbing world. Climbing can have a high barrier to entry and being able to climb is a privilege that a lot of people don’t have. It means a lot to me to have brought in female BIPOC climbing guides and instructors in leading our outdoor climbing events. This kind of visibility of BIPOC instructors can be important for those who aren’t used to seeing people that look like them at the climbing gyms and crags.”

“Inclusivity means equity. It is realizing that certain groups have certain barriers that others might not have and putting procedures or systems in place to reduce or eliminate those obstacles and give equal opportunity.” – Alexa, The B.I.G. Initiative

Emma Contaoe showing rope management skills to a group of participants

Want in? How to get involved

Learn more about The B.I.G. Initiative on its website, where you can sign up for route-setting workshops and outdoor courses.

Plus, we asked Alexa and Elaiza for some of their suggestions for fantastic organizations working to make the outdoors more accessible and inclusive – check them out:

MEC was proud to support The B.I.G. Initiative with their Quebec retreat with funding for gear, instructors, transportation and more. Want to see more outdoor groups doing awesome stuff? Check out MEC Outdoor Impact.


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