Strengthening Indigenous youth wellness through the sport of climbing, one step at a time

Wild & Climb is creating a safe space for Indigenous youth on ‘Vancouver Island’ to come together and learn the sport of climbing

Robyn Rice sits down in the rainforest and takes off her moccasins. From out of her bag comes a pair of climbing shoes, and she begins to lace up. It’s a warm morning on Mount Ts’uwxilum (Tzouhalem), a dense forested area in Quw’utsun homelands. A slight breeze is blowing, birds chirp high up in the forest canopy, and squirrels jump from tree to tree. She’s new to climbing outdoors, and she’s doing so with a group that’s helping introduce Indigenous youth on “Vancouver Island” to the sport. 

Robyn, from Snuneymuxw First Nation, pauses, watching the other climbers. She’s found that the group, Wild & Climb, is a good place for new Indigenous climbers to feel welcome. 

“I guess I haven’t really seen a lot of Indigenous people in gyms a lot. So it’s just nice to have that opportunity,” she said.

The shade of arbutus, fir and cedar trees are welcome on a hot, humid July morning. The group hike in for 40 minutes to get to this spot: a sloped hillside of giant boulders, begging to be climbed. From atop the rocks, ferns peer down on the group below.

Three people walk through lush, dense, rainforest carrying large climbing mats folded in half on their backs with backpack straps.
Jared Karul, Sarah Wild And Small, and Cole Verrall make their way through the forest of Mount Ts’uwxilum (Tzouhalem), towards the “Duncan” bouldering area, with climbing crash pads strapped on their backs, on July 2. Photo by Philip McLachlan.
A group of people, each carrying backpacks on their backs and fronts, and large climbing mats on their backs, are hiking through lush green rainforest, passing in front of a large boulder.
Victor, Cedric, Jared Karul, Sarah Wild And Small, and Robyn Rice hike up Mount Ts’uwxilum (Tzouhalem) towards their bouldering spot. Photo by Philip McLachlan.
An aerial image looking down a boulder as one person reaches the top. There are two people on the ground looking up the boulder with a climbing mat in front of them, standing ready to catch the climber if they fall.
Jared Karul successfully completes the “Everybody’s Roof”’ climb on Mount Ts’uwxilum (Tzouhalem), on July 2. Photo by Philip McLachlan.

Crash pads are thrown down on the mossy forest floor and hands dip into chalk bags before being placed in small grooves on the rock wall. The rocks, covered in white patches, tell a story of where people have climbed in the past. 

Sarah Wild And Small, who is Métis, with Cree and Blackfoot ancestry from Treaty 7 territory and also the founder of Wild & Climb, watches as coach Cole Verrall, who is Métis, helps climbers get started on different routes. For many, this is their first time in climbing shoes and the first time giving the sport a try.

An Indigenous woman is climbing a boulder in the middle of a green and shaded rainforest.
Sarah Wild And Small climbs the “Coke and Butterflies” route on Mount Ts’uwxilum (Tzouhalem) on July 2. Photo by Philip McLachlan.
A close of up a Metis man gripping a ledge sticking out of a boulder, using both his hands and hooking his left foot wearing a hiking boot.
(Above and below) Cole Verrall demonstrates how to start a route. Photo by Philip McLachlan.

Sarah and Cole started Wild & Climb after they noticed a lack of climbing programs for Indigenous youth on “Vancouver Island.” 

The accessibility of climbing both indoors and outdoors can be a barrier because of the cost, explained Sarah, with gear costing over $500 for outdoor climbing, and on average, upwards of $800 per year for gym memberships. 

“It does create that divide for those unable to pay those costs,” she said.

They were able to secure funding from several groups including the Canadian Roots Exchange (CRE) which helped get them off the ground. They hope to strengthen Indigenous youth wellness and cultural connection, through the sport of climbing.

“We know that being outside is super important, especially being on the land and having our teachings out here, it’s good to kind of get reconnected with the Earth,” said Sarah. 

A youth is wearing a chalk bag hanging from a small belt strapped around their waist, and they're dipping their right hand into the bag to chalk their hands, with the freshly-chalked left hand also behind the back next to the bag.
(Above and below) After observing Cole take on a boulder, Victor tries his hand at the same problem, and successfully clears it. Photo by Philip McLachlan.
From the side, a youth climbs a boulder. There is a climbing mat on the ground just beneath them, and two other climbers stand behind the mat, ready to catch the youth if they fall.
A close up of a hand gripping a handhold on a boulder.

With her background in mental health work, Sarah says she and Cole are focused on making the space a safe place for youth to come and feel proud of their culture, indoors and outdoors. 

Sarah and Cole make it their goal to support youth to incorporate their own cultural teachings in their climbing if they would like to; be it smudging, laying down tobacco, or other ceremony and activities. 

Two youth are climbing a colourful indoor bouldering wall.
Ryan Ta and Chasz Hodgson climb at RavenWood Boulders in Nanaimo on June 13. Photo by Philip McLachlan.
A youth is sitting in the foreground, wearing a black t-shirt and glasses, with white chalked hands, facing right. There is another youth in a striped shirt and ponytail, also facing right. They are standing in a colourful climbing gym, with mats on the floor and colourful hand and foot holds all over the climbing walls. Behind them in the background are more youth, also watching the climbers around them.
Ryan Ta and Jenny watch as others in their group climb at RavenWood Boulders in Nanaimo on June 13. Photo by Philip McLachlan.

Wild & Climb offers free climbing sessions to all Indigenous youth ages 15 to 29. Each week throughout the summer they meet at local climbing gyms, as well as outdoor locations. 

On June 13 the group met at RavenWood Boulders in Nanaimo, and moved together as they explored the many routes they could ascend, from beginners routes, to following the guidance of more experienced climbers as they attempted the difficult routes. 

Cheers, laughter and clapping filled the space.

Some routes got the best of the climbers, and onlookers groaned as climbers fell onto the mats below. Encouragement helped them back onto the wall, and after some guidance, they were able to make it to that final hold. 

Some routes remained unbeaten, leaving climbers a challenge for next time. 

Time flew, and the group realized they had surpassed their two-hour time frame for the meet. Despite that, no one was in a hurry to leave. Some met for the first time that night, but to onlookers, it would seem they had known each other for years. 
Throughout the winter, Wild & Climb hope to continue to meet once a week alternating ages 15 to 29, and ages 8 to 14. To learn more, visit their website.

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