Suspended over an 80-foot granite face with her hand touching the metal anchor, Andréia Christenson let out a victory shout and pumped her fist in the air Wednesday.
She’d just completed her first climb as fellow members of the local Chicks Climbing group yelled encouragement from the forest floor below. For Christenson; who’d just returned to the South Shore from her hometown in Brazil where wannabe outdoor recreationists contend with dense, Atlantic jungle and sweltering temperatures; the climb was part of her new, Tahoe lifestyle.
“I want to be tougher,” she said. “You don’t have this much fun or freedom where I grew up. Brazil doesn’t have this many outdoor opportunities. I am now half mountain woman, half Barbie, but Monique is going to make me full mountain.”
Monique LeMay congratulated Christenson as she was lowered down the route. A veteran rock climber, LeMay said she started the Chicks Climbing group last year partly because of moments like this — when a novice climber gets hooked after reaching the top of their first route.
“I had taught rock climbing in Southern California for 16 years. When I came up here, I didn’t want to teach for pay anymore, but I still wanted to be able to take people out because I love to see their excitement when they climb,” she said.
Self-sufficiency comprises a big part of LeMay’s teaching philosophy. She wants the women who participate in the club to learn skills such as setting anchors and lead climbing that will allow them to tame a face without any help from husbands of boyfriends.
“They feel so accomplished with what they’re doing and it helps to get more partners for all of us,”LeMay said. “There’s a great sense of accomplishment when two girls get to the top of a climb together.”
Less than 10 percent of the 215 American Mountain Guides Association certified rock guides are women and there’s an even smaller percentage of women certified as AMGA rock instructors. Rock climbing is still a male-dominated sport, but LeMay said she hopes she can change that in the South Shore at least. The Clicks Climbing Facebook page boasts 68 members and LeMay said its the largest group of female climbers she’s ever seen.
“This is Monique’s brainchild,” Chicks Climbing group member Maria Mircheva said Wednesday. “You need someone with a lot of energy, passion and skill. It’s empowering to have a women’s group…I had done a little climbing, but I was dependent on other people. This gives me the independence to go out alone.”
Like Mircheva, Theresa Beelar began climbing with the Chicks Climbing group last year. After being diagnosed with scleroderma — a disease that involves abnormal growth of connective tissue and can lead to hardened skin — Beelar discovered rock climbing helped keep the disease at bay. Before she started climbing, her arms became so crippled it was hard to even cut tomatoes, she said.
“One year into it, I’d forgotten how much pain I’d been in. I believe I’ve been able to put it into remission through rock climbing,” she said. “We’re moms. This is our midlife crisis. Now our friends are into it, our men are into it, our children are into it and it’s because of us chicks.”