Vertical limitless — Asian women climbers reach new heights, find identity in the outdoors

By Nan Nan Liu
Northwest Asian Weekly

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Laura Domoto on a recent climbing trip (Photo provided by Laura Domoto)

The rugged climber in the wilderness — it’s not an image readily associated with Asian American women.  

A handful of Asian American women in the Pacific Northwest, however, have defied the stereotype and have tackled outdoorsy sports without fear. Some of them, at young ages, have made great achievements. Others have made “conquering” the wilderness their life’s pursuit.

How they started

According to the Outdoor Foundation, Blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans are significantly underrepresented in outdoor recreation compared to the general U.S. population. For decades, advertisements for outdoor clothing and sporting goods stores have overwhelmingly featured white models. For minorities, there can be negative associations with camping, hiking, and being outdoors. Sleeping outdoors in a tent can evoke feelings of poverty for immigrants and minorities.

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The trend, however, is changing. According to a reporter from The Outdoor Foundation, in 2011, 30 percent of outdoor participants were minorities. This was an increase of 3 percent since 2007.

Yinan Zhao, who came from China, now volunteers as an instructor at The Mountaineers, an outdoor recreation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Her love of the outdoors came from her friends.

“When I was in China, I had many friends who climbed snowy mountains in west China. They were student climbers that got their mountaineering funding from their college. For that reason, I couldn’t join them and couldn’t find other ways to start mountaineering. But I hoped for a chance to climb in the future.”

Zhao’s chance came when she moved to Seattle and found The Mountaineers, through which she learned how to rock climb and fell in love with the sport. She now teaches others how to climb.

“I volunteer as an instructor for the basic alpine climbing and intermediate climbing courses, sport climbing and crag courses, intro to aid, and big wall course, as well as entry-level seminars and workshops.”

Twelve-year-old Melina Costanza, a member of the Vertical World Climbing Team, also started under a friend’s influence.

“My friend invited me to go climbing with her. I went a couple more times. I thought it was a lot of fun. I was about 7.”

In just one year, Costanza made the Vertical World Team. She is now an award winning team member. In fact, she just placed second in nationals.

Teammate Cameron Mason started even earlier, at 3, due to her parents’ influence, “I started climbing because my mom and dad did it.”

Mason is also an award winning climber on the team, who has “gotten a few first place ribbons and… made it to nationals three times.”

Her mom, Laura Domoto, a fourth-generation Japanese American, is an avid climber who has been climbing for 19 years. She started because of her husband.

Eleanor Lee, an avid hiker, has hiked different parts of the world. Her love for outdoor sports began during graduate school, also due to her mother’s influence.

“My mom mentioned Alpine Lakes.”

Now, Alpine Lakes is one of Lee’s regular hiking routes. But she has tackled much more difficult grounds, such as Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams and even mountains in New Zealand and Argentina.

Where the passion comes from

Climbing trips, practice, and competitions consume much of these women’s lives. Such a hobby takes a lot of time and dedication. Domoto spends three hours, two to three times a week, at the gym, and she goes on climbing expeditions that last several days. But for these women, it’s all worth it, particularly because of the confidence they feel from climbing.

“[Climbing] makes me happier. It makes me feel confident,” said Sidney Trinidad, also of the Vertical World Climbing Team. “I always look forward to [climbing]. It helps that I’m really good at it.”

Trinidad just came back from nationals, where she won first place in bouldering. Trinidad likes climbing so much that she wants to go pro.

“Climbing gives me confidence,” confessed Costanza. “In bigger competitions, you go in front of a big audience. I used to not be able to do that.”

Even when faced with defeat, Costanza never gives up. “Sometimes, some people beat me. But they just make me climb better.”

“Climbing is important to me because it makes me stronger both physically and mentally,” said Zhao. “Climbing gives me confidence, makes me more careful, helps me work on teamwork, and develops my leadership ability.”

“Climbing is a great way to enjoy being outside in some beautiful places,” added Domoto. “As a family, it has given us a way to enjoy active vacations together while experiencing different environments and cultures, both in the U.S. and in other parts of the world. I love how climbing requires complete focus and gives me an opportunity to set goals and work toward them.”

Male vs. female

Climbing, however, does take quite a bit of physical ability, especially upper body strength. But these women are not letting their physical disadvantage get in the way.

“Anybody can do Helens or Adams,” said Lee. “I see an equal [number of men and women when I go hiking].”

“I think there probably are more men than women climbers,” said Domoto. “[However,] I think that as a group, men and women tend to have different strengths and weaknesses, but I wouldn’t say that one gender is better than the other [for climbing].”

“From time to time, I’m discouraged by my physical disadvantage compared with male climbers. I have to face it since I usually climb with guys,” confessed Zhao. “To keep up, I train hard to achieve a higher level of physical fitness and use lighter gear to help me to move faster. Also, when I choose climbs, I research the difficulty level to assess how strenuous a climb will be and to make sure that I’m competent enough to maintain an appropriate pace to complete the climb.”

“Boys do more powerful moves. Girls do more technical moves. They are both good,” revealed Costanza, whose team at Vertical World is approximately half boys and half girls.

“In some ways, girls can be better at climbing than boys because of their flexibility and/or lightness. Boys, on the other hand, can be stronger in huge dynamic movements,” said Mason. “So I guess girls and boys have their strengths and weaknesses.”

Advice for others

Because of their own positive experiences with climbing, all these women encourage others to try the sport.

“My advice for the girls who are just starting is [to not] give up,” said Mason, “even if the walls look really tall and you don’t think you can climb them. You really can.”

Trinidad concurred, “I would tell them not to give up. It’s hard and it’s scary. But once you get on the team, you get encouragement from [team members].”

“Learn the basics from someone who really knows what they are doing — safety first! Focus on technique first, rather than strength,” advised Domoto. “The strength will come over time, but you don’t want to develop bad climbing habits that you will need to break later. Climb outside on real rock every chance you get!” (end)

Nan Nan Liu can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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