Many years ago as a freshman geology student at the University of Oregon, I learned to rock climb at Smith Rock State Park — specifically at Bunny Face, a 5.7 climb. (Ratings are on a Class 5 scale, with 5.0 being the easiest and 5.15 the most difficult). Between the sun exposure, sharp rock and vertigo, Smith Rock 5.7s can be formidable.
I reached the apex that day, and while the moment was two decades ago, I’ll never forget the empowerment of that first lead sport climb. Just being a woman present in a predominantly male-populated sport can be a balancing act — always on your toes, always feeling like you’re on that first lead climb.
As a former climbing teaching assistant and coach, I can attest to the ongoing need to open space for women and girls, women of color, trans and queer women — all womxn — in the climbing community at large.
While I don’t know Lizzy VanPatten well, I recently connected with her to ask about her work promoting diversity in Oregon’s rock-climbing community. She’s the chief executive officer of Bend-based nonprofit She Moves Mountains, a lead climbing and hiking guide service that curates local and international expeditions and retreats for womxn of all backgrounds and walks of life.
“The medium can’t help but bring women into a space of confronting fears, trusting each other, pushing themselves and creating connection,” says VanPatten, who launched the program in 2017. “This is a medium for women to see how powerful they already are.”
Tapping into a market share of capable, willing and eager women, VanPatten attracted 90 participants during the program’s first year. She’s now booking up to 125 experiences for womxn each month of the season, March through September. She offers intro to advanced climbing courses and retreats.
Finding Her Joy
Smith Rock is the world-famous birthplace of American sport climbing, which requires permanent protection (bolts) on a rock face. Compared to alpine and traditional climbing, sport rock climbing is a little more accessible to a novice. Smith Rock includes more than 2,000 bolted routes — ranging from classic beginner lines to advanced technical climbs — all on a mix of columnar basalt and predominantly volcanic welded ash tuff.
In the 2000s, VanPatten earned her stripes as a rookie climbing guide on Bunny Face and similar routes. Initially working for Chockstone Climbing Guides, she was adding pages to the Smith Rock history books as one of only two females in a 40-person cohort of local guides. In 2016 she began leading all-women’s inclusion-oriented events. Yet climbing wasn’t always her life.
Before she was a guide, VanPatten was on track to pursue a career in mathematics and struggled with depression, which she says held her back from trying to climb. “As I came out of depression — with lots of therapy — I was left in a really raw but excited state of being, where I wanted to figure out what I enjoyed,” she says.
She took a solo trip to Patagonia, where she lived out of a backpack for six months and climbed daily, coming to the realization of how little she needed to be happy. “I was the most joyful I had ever been, and following that trip, I just couldn’t imagine working behind a desk 9 to 5 for the rest of my life,” she says. So she decided to give guiding a try.
Helping Each Other Triumph
Now she wants to create the same kind of transformative moments for other womxn. One of those moments, for instance, happened when she was coaching one of her climbers, Alexis Martin, up Bunny Face. Though holds are there, they are tiny, and one false move promises a fall that could cause the infamous Smith Rock road rash.
Martin wanted to quit, VanPatten recalls, but ultimately made it to the top. “I literally just climbed at Smith Rock,” Martin expressed to VanPatten, who filmed her triumphant ascent. “I can’t wait to go home and tell my Black family members I did it! It’s important to crush barriers out here.”
No matter what a person’s fitness level, VanPatten feels that in climbing, the challenges are unique to every person and each body type. Climbers have to be vulnerable in many ways, including having someone you just met belay you up a rock face.
On the final day of her climbing retreats, VanPatten has a favorite tradition. Smaller groups of varying-level climbers all meet up and climb together at Rope de Dope, the 40-foot massive stand-alone boulder containing 5.4 to 5.10 routes. “Beginner to advanced,” she says, “it’s incredible to see climbers side-by-side equally challenging themselves, equally cheering each other on.”
If You Go:
Climbing season in Oregon is March through September. Beginners are encouraged to book a guide service, and there are many at Smith Rock including Smith Rock Climbing School, Oregon Adventure Guides, Chockstone Climbing Guides and Smith Rock Climbing Guides Inc. She Moves Mountains is the only female-led and operated guide service at Smith Rock.