Interview written and compiled by Molly Wick
This week’s #WCW is the woman (usually) behind Womxn Crush Wednesdays and one of the founding members of the VertiGals, Stephanie Hall. From the very beginning, Steph has been passionate about the VertiGals and has contributed countless creative ideas and countless hours to pull the group together and make it the success it has been.
I met Steph in the gym in 2017, around the time when a few of us were mulling around the idea of a womens’ climbing group. Steph shared some of her experiences and really helped validate the need for a group like this. And, Steph is an inspiring climber who I’ve learned a lot from, usually over conversations during hikes and/or drinks. We connected about similar experiences and fears, and she has become a great friend. Steph also brought a ton of energy into helping start the VertiGals, despite being pretty occupied already with her accelerated nursing program. Steph’s great creativity, organization, and follow-through as the secretary have been a huge asset – the North Shore VertiGals wouldn’t be here without her.
If you see Steph climbing at the gym, you’ll notice she’s got mad technique, great footwork, and makes climbing look easy. Steph applies her creativity to great route-setting at VED, and chances are you’ve enjoyed one of her balance-y routes at some point. Besides climbing, Steph enjoys hiking, reading, traveling, cross country skiing, playing volleyball, and hanging out with her family and family doggy, Malyshka, on Park Point. Steph just completed her post-bach degree in nursing at college of St. Scholastica and is moving out west for a position as a nurse in the Oncology & Nephrology departments of a hospital. Luckily for us, her family is in Duluth so she’ll no doubt be back often, and she even wants to continue her involvement with the VertiGals and highlighting the amazing women crushers in our community every Wednesday!
What do you love about climbing?
Climbing feels like a puzzle to me; I love the challenge of figuring out the balance, movement, power, and strength needed for a route, both indoors and out. I cannot adequately describe the positive emotion that radiates through me when I’m climbing well, it’s like feeling beautiful, intelligent, strong, fierce and full of joy all at once, while covered in sweat, chalk, maybe a little blood, and peeling skin. I haven’t found that feeling anywhere else. Couple that with being surrounded by beautiful rock and views and at least one good friend, and it’s pretty hard to beat.
What is your favorite local crag?
Palisade Head is unbeatable in my book; the views, the force of the lake and weather, and the variety of routes. I did make it a point to get to every crag in northern Minnesota this past summer, and every area has some jems and quality views, you really can’t go wrong.
What non-climbing hobbies do you have?
Right now I’m recovering from shoulder surgery, so my biggest hobby (ha!) is rehabbing it so I can get back to climbing at full strength and functioning at normal levels in the the rest of life as soon as possible. I love to hike the Superior Hiking Trail (convenient since a few of the crags are along the SHT), read, travel, XC ski, write about amazing women in our community and always love a good nap in the sunshine.
What made you get involved with VertiGals?
I love my gym and the community in it, but I won’t deny there were and are times that I felt I was treated differently because of my gender, especially as a beginner, and witnessed other women go through the same thing. Some of my negative experiences were from men often in the form of unwanted beta, completely ignoring or dismissing my abilities, dismissing my ideas or being told my technique wasn’t valid because it involved too much flexibility etc., which was frustrating and demeaning. Unfortunately, I also experienced some moments when certain women in the community weren’t kind or welcoming either. If I’m being totally honest there’s probably been moments in the past 8 years of climbing where I wasn’t very welcoming or encouraging, and for that I am truly sorry. I think as women we are unknowingly sold on the Scarcity fallacy, and we unconsciously believe it exists in climbing too; which is BULL$#!^. There is room for everyone to climb hard; someone else’s achievements don’t diminish your own; someone else climbing better/harder than you doesn’t make you less of a climber; someone else knowing more than you doesn’t make what you know any less valuable; someone else having fun doesn’t mean there is any less fun for you to have. Recognizing that and recognizing and releasing our own internalized bull$#!^ means we let go of a lot of negativity and make room for the joy of getting to know each other, learning together, celebrating each other’s accomplishments (even when, ESPECIALLY when, they outpace our own), and just relish in the joy of spending time doing a thing you love together. The past few years I have really grown into this mindset, which has been the perfect pairing with VertiGals.
Entering a new hobby where your efforts and failures are on full display for everyone to see is HARD, it’s hard to feel comfortable trying hard, failing, or learning. There’s all sorts of new vocabulary, new tools, new ways to move your body, etc., and while it’s really fun and exciting, it can also be a scary and vulnerable space. I wanted a space in which I could climb hard and learn from other women, lift up other women, share my experiences and love of climbing with other women, and reduce some of those uncomfortable moments. I think we are working hard to make VertiGals that type of space for everyone.
How are you hoping to grow as a climber?
I’ll be 100% honest here, for the past 8 years of climbing I have been a scaredy cat and a mooch when it comes to learning how to actually climb safely outside in areas like Palisade Head. I have been happy to go with and completely trust other people who knew how to set anchors and how to manage our safety. I trusted my partners would make safe decisions, or at least I hoped they did. I think a big part of this came from fear of having to trust myself and the system I would create, knowing that my life, and whoever I was climbing with, would depend on it. I selfishly did not want that responsibility. I had that mindset for the first 5 years or so, and for the past couple years I have wanted to learn more, and wanted to gain my independence, but didn’t quite know how and still wasn’t comfortable with the idea of trusting myself. I know I got lucky to have friends that would take me out despite my lack of knowledge or ability to help with certain aspects, but I also know I got lucky blindly trusting others with my safety when I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to check their work (yes I knew a bit of basic concepts but with trad anchors at Palisade there can be judgement calls and less than ideal anchor placements and in reality I had no ability to judge them on my own, I had to trust my partner). It’s not that any of my partners weren’t competent or were bad at building anchors but humans make mistakes, and mistakes are less likely to slip past two sets of knowledgeable eyes checking it out.
Last year I climbed consistently with my friend Sam who slowly introduced bits of the puzzle, he didn’t let me slack off or just watch him build the achor, and for once I didn’t want to. He’s a great teacher and I learned a lot from him, and finally could see a point in the future where I could learn enough to trust myself. So now I’m halfway through the anchor building series of classes at UMD, am reading Climbing Anchors by John Long and Bob Gaines, and I can’t wait to finally take ownership of my own climbing and safety. (TL;DR: Anchor building! Safety and confidence outside!). Also, I really want to get on a multi-pitch soon.
How and why did you start WCW?
I originally wanted to write little blog posts on our board members to introduce ourselves to the community, and then realized how many incredible, multifaceted women are involved in our group, and realized this was something I wanted to expand to everyone in our community. I have been inspired and challenged by these women in the gym and getting to learn more about them and share their responses has been a huge honor. Why do we do it? To lift each other up, to celebrate the women in our communities accomplishments, creativity, strengths, to see each other as more than climbers, to create a closer knit community, to start conversations, to give a voice, to share experiences, to share challenges.
How did you get started climbing?
My first climbing experience was at Wolf Ridge in 5th grade. I don’t remember if I even climbed. It was a non-event in my life. I also didn’t even make it past the second stage of the ropes course, so it’s safe to say I wasn’t exactly a fearless child at that age 🙂 My second experience was during my freshman year at college, my friend (Stacy!) and I started attending the Hamline’s climbing club outings to VE St. Paul. I remember being in awe of one of the club leaders, Brandy; she was tiny and so badass in my mind; she had climbed outside a bunch and had all this knowledge and epic stories, she taught us to belay, she was a beast in the gym. Climbing made me feel strong and empowered; and I loved flailing around on these routes that felt so tall at the time, struggling with even the tiniest bit of overhang, but despite the constant failure I felt strong and good.
Unfortunately, I ended up tearing a ligament in my foot playing volleyball, had to get 4 bones fused together and had a hard time even walking on uneven terrain for the next 2 years, so I thought climbing was something I would never do again. Eventually, I ended up back in Duluth and bored during one of the cold winter months, and my coworker Katie Challis and I decided we needed to try something new, so we looked up offerings at UMD, and found the Woman on the Wall program. Even though we weren’t students we were welcomed and had a great experience learning from other women (shout out to Amanda Meyers, and the whole program for being such a great experience).
We eventually switched over to VE, started climbing with other coworkers, and started getting outside with them as well, and this time climbing stuck. I have had some amazing climbing partners over the years, Stacy, Katie, Jenna, Dan and the whole original and evolving EPA crew, Ryne, Shelby and everyone at Roca, Sam, all of the VertiGals, and countless others. Climbing is fun but has only turned into a passion because of the people I get to do it with and the mentorship that many have offered me. I am forever grateful for all of the experiences I’ve had and people I’ve shared them with, and I cannot wait to continue for years to come.
What is something about your climbing history no one would ever guess?
For the longest time I had ZERO interest in learning to lead climb. I saw a few people take some nasty falls in the gym within a couple month period and it just did not seem worth it to me. I finally learned at Roca, and loved it. I still hate lead climbing in VED, for some reason I never feel safe or like I’ll have a clean fall, but I’m still excited to get back to it when rehab allows and get leading more outside.
What does the future entail for you?
Recently I accepted a job in the Northwest and will be moving away from the VertiGals community in a few weeks. I am so grateful for all of the friendships I’ve made through VertiGals and am really proud of what this community has become. I hope to stay involved while I’m gone and hopefully continue contributing to the WCW blog from afar, but I am also excited to see the ways VertiGals will grow and evolve while I’m gone. I take comfort in the fact that I know I’ll have a wonderful community here if and when I decide to move back to our gorgeous area. In the meantime, I would love to have visitors and friends to go on climbing adventures with (there are SO many cool places to explore!), so hopefully I’ll see some of you out there!