WCW- Erin, Co-Founder of VertiGals

Interview written and compiled by Stephanie Hall

This weeks WCW is none other than the brainchild behind VertiGals, our Co-founder Erin Hammes! Erin might seem quiet when you meet her, but she’s secretly hilarious and not-so-secretly full of great ideas. Erin loves gardening and running when she isn’t climbing or working as a nurse, and if she seemed tired when you ran into her this summer it was probably because she worked and overnight and then worked at shift at the CSA farm. Erin also suffered a bad injury due to a lead fall and has had a long road to recovery in the past year. We all love the community that has been created thanks to her idea!

Erin at Sawmill Dome, Minnesota. PC Pete Lande

What made you decide to create what would eventually become VertiGals?

I met my good friend, Molly Wick, at Vertical Endeavors.  We bonded over our love for bouldering. Her and I were on a trip to Hueco Tanks together, and began wishing we had a greater source of support for female climbers locally.  If you want to know more about that, read Molly’s article “Getting Boulder” (https://medium.com/@mollywick/getting-boulder-dc457c08d4a2), you won’t regret it!

Hueco Tanks, Zach Chase
Erin bouldering at Hueco Tanks, PC Zach Chase

What would you like to see change in the Duluth/North Shore climbing community?

Experienced women step forward as mentors to those wanting to climb outside.  Climbing outside can introduce new barriers for the beginner climber: seeking out someone with experience and some basic (but expensive!) equipment…to name a few.  This can make it feel elite and intimidating.  It is a personal goal of mine to work toward breaking barriers that prevent beginners from climbing outside… and who better to teach women than other women?

I have had some pretty darn fantastic mentors over the years, but looking back I realize that 95% of them are dudes.  WHAT.  I know plenty of women in our small climbing community that are not only super strong beasts, but have a wealth of technique, experience and climbing knowledge.  And to top it off, they are good teachers…They have a unique way of supporting/pushing one another that is not overbearing…They are able to work their way through a climb creatively (sure, climbing “powerfully” can make you feel badass, but there is something to be said about watching someone climb with stellar footwork or utilize hip flexibility to get a crazy high foot and make it through a sparse crux)…These women are feisty and deliberate.

So my word of encouragement to the ladies with some experience is to be proud of what you know and your unique strengths as a climber.  Celebrate that.  Maybe even flaunt it a little bit.  Make yourself approachable to the curious new climber.  Correct the person that automatically assumes your dude climbing partner set the anchor.  Continue to build your skill set.  These things might seem trivial or cliché, but they also just might set the stage for some impactful mentorships that are empowering for both parties.


You had a pretty significant accident in El Potrero Chico last year, has that affected you mentally at all while lead climbing or affected how you feel about climbing? How have you been able to move past any anxieties or struggles with that?

Kind of funny to be talking about this today, because this week marks the one year anniversary of my climbing accident.  Uff-da.  Toward the end of the trip I took a fall on lead and the impact crushed a bone in my ankle requiring surgery and a whole of hardware.  Basically I have a bionic ankle now.  My prognosis was poor. I vividly remember my surgeon telling me it was unlikely I would run >2 mi again.  The immediate recovery period was a horrible combination of feeling anxious about how my ankle was healing and not being able to exercise to get rid of that antsy feeling.  Is reading this a buzz kill for you yet? Cripes.

But, life goes on.  Several weeks post surgery, when my bones were somewhat together again, I began climbing.  I would hop on in with my crutches and then climb one footed.  I probably looked like a nut job. My foot was too fat and fragile to fit into a climbing shoe so I wore this awful boot contraption that was worthless for edging.  I will never forget how good it felt to climb in shoes again and be able to tolerate the pain of standing up on my toes.  Fast forward to the present and I am fairly close to my former climbing shape (and running 6 miles…so that’s pretty neat).  Sure, a hard day of climbing still leaves me hobbling around for several days like an old lady, but it just plain feels good to be climbing again.

My latest and greatest obstacle has been overcoming the fear of re-injury.  Before the accident, I would have considered myself primarily a boulderer and somewhat gutsy.  I secretly enjoyed a good dynamic, powerful move and thought falling was kind of exhilarating.  But now, a fall in which I might land on my ankle at a goofy angle or fall from a significant distance is out of the question.  I think to the outsider, that might seem silly.  It has been an entire year…Get over yourself.  But, my stability and flexibility in that ankle is still poor, and I am highly prone to rolling my ankle.  It will likely be another year before the soft tissue around my ankle is close to normal again.  So, I have been playing around with leading and bouldering again, but with things significantly below my range of abilities.  And, I still have to give myself little pep talks.  A lot of them.  It’s been frustrating… even more so than the physical healing.  But it has also been a good lesson in patience and being gentle with myself.

My biggest take away from the whole experience is self awareness while climbing.  I had such an adrenaline rush during the accident, that it is difficult for me to remember the details of what made me fall and why my foot got so mangled.  Was I pushing myself too hard or being reckless? Was it slabby?  Did I land on a tiny ledge?  Did my belayer have me extra tight?  The details of the actual accident aren’t important.  What IS important is the perspective I have gained because of it.  I have a much greater appreciation for anticipating what a fall would look like at any given point during a climb.  And a huge respect for those that are able to evaluate a situation and decide NOT to continue because things don’t feel quite right.  That takes guts AND brains.


Palisade Head Laceration Jam photo by John Ruvelson
Palisade Head Laceration Jam photo by John Ruvelson

Favorite local crag:

Governor Dodge State Park in Dodgeville, WI.  Beautiful sandstone…good range of difficulty…and a bit quieter than Devil’s Lake.  It’s great. CHECK IT OUT!! I own a copy of the MN/WI Bouldering Guidebook and would love to lend it to you!  I also have a soft spot for Palisade Head, my first introduction to the world of outdoor climbing. There is a unique energy that comes with climbing over Lake Superior on a warm summer day…just be prepared to be filmed by drone and bombarded by tourists.  Darn it.

Smith Rock, Pete Lande
Smith Rock, OR. PC Pete Lande

Other non-climbing hobbies/passions:

One of the best ways for me to deal with the stress of life is to throw on a pair of trail shoes and get lost in the woods for a few hours.  Winter is my favorite running season! I am also fanatical about plants and getting my paws in the dirt! I have created some pretty crafty pocket gardens over the years as a renter, and this last year I got a seriously gross farmer’s tan and calloused phalanges working at a CSA in Wrenshall.  If I get to know you well enough, I just might borderline harass you to create a garden of your own (win-win?).

Climbing at Palisade Head. PC: Unknown


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