Episode 159: The Promise of Climbing – Sabrina Chapman

Episode 159: The Promise of Climbing

Interview with Sabrina Chapman

Sponsored by Sierra Designs, BetterHelp, and Peak Scents

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Sabrina Chapman’s climbing story helps redefine what it means to be an elite climber. That said, you don’t need to be a climber for it to resonate with you. Sabrina is wildly thoughtful, a woman who chooses her words as carefully as she places her hands and feet on a rock wall. Her thoughts on working through fear, finding Black role models, contextualizing achievements, and the vulnerability of accepting your story echo through every activity we do outside.

Sabrina’s the subject of Titan Project, a new film by Melanin Base Camp. As one of a handful of Black women climbing “elite” routes worldwide, she hopes to inspire more girls from the BIPOC community to feel welcome in the climbing world.

Full transcript available after the photos and resources.

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Featured in this episode: Sabrina Chapman

Hosted by Gale Straub

Ad music in this episode is by Swelling & Lee Rosevere using a Creative Commons attribution license.

Music is also by Effee and Long Lake via MusicBed.

Resources

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Sabrina Chapman

Learn more at MelaninBaseCamp.com/Titan.

Sabrina Chapman

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TRANSCRIPT

Gale Straub – Narration:

Hi everyone – I want to share a last call for an opportunity for you to submit your Appalachian Trail memories for a special upcoming episode in collaboration with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Whether you’re a day-hiker, section-hiker, or thru-hiker, the A.T. holds a special place in the hearts of many and has ongoing effects on our lives. Learn more and share a voice submission by heading to She-Explores.com/podcast. Deadline is Sunday night, August 16th. We won’t be able to include all the submissions but we’ll listen to each and every one.

Ok, on with the show.

I’m Gale Straub and you’re listening to She Explores.

Gale Straub:

What are your hopes that those, those folks that do watch, those Black and brown girls, what do you hope that they step away with? After watching the film?

Sabrina Chapman:

I hope they step away feeling empowered to, to really own what their dreams and goals are to own them a hundred percent and unapologetically. I hope they, they step away knowing that there are others out there like them, and that we’re rooting for each other, that we’re, we’re standing up for each other, that we might not all know each other, but there’s a support system that’s in place for you. And that’s present for you and you can lean on at any time and you’re not alone.

Gale Straub – Narration:

This is Sabrina Chapman, and she’s talking about Titan Project, a new film from Melanin Base Camp out Sunday August 16th. Sabrina’s climbing story is the focus of the film. She’s a climber who lives in Toronto, Ontario. There are a lot of things that make Sabrina unique in terms of stories that have been told about the climbing world. She’s Black. She’s a woman. Her family is from Mauritius, an African island in the Indian Ocean. But as you’ll hear in the interview, the climbing world has been changing for a while now. And sharing stories like Sabrina’s helps reshape the predominant narrative of what it means to be a climber. That said, you don’t need to be a climber for either Titan Project or this episode to resonate with you. Sabrina is wildly thoughtful, a woman who chooses her words as carefully as she places her hands and feet on a rock wall. Her thoughts on working through fear, finding Black role models, contextualizing achievements, and the vulnerability of sharing your story echo through every activity we do outside.

We’ll hear more from Sabrina, after this.

PREROLL AD BREAK

Sierra Designs: Learn more about their Reach Out initiative here. Learn more about NatureBridge.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Sabrina got what might be considered a late start in 2006 to the kind of climbing she pursues. She was 26, and hooked.

Sabrina Chapman:

When I sent my first route, not even when I sent it, just like doing a move that feels impossible for your body and then being in the space and the moment of quiet to hear where your body needs to move, and then just make these subtle adjustments to get a little bit further. It was, it was really empowering, I think, as a woman too, to feel your body, the strength that you have just physically, that you don’t really get to access in any other way than climbing for me to feel every part, you know, from your fingertips to your toes, to like your right hip, feel, everything, just moving in this beautiful rhythm and, and being in sync. You get this sort of like quietness in your mind and you’re just moving. It’s, it’s hard to describe, but it’s, I dunno, it’s intoxicating. And like, every time I go out, that’s what I’m looking for. And it’s, um, it’s just a feeling to chase constantly, but at the same time, you’re always, I mean, you can do all of this outside, so you can be connected to the, to the rock. You can feel the wind, like on the back of your neck, moving your hair around, you can hear birds and the trees. And it’s just like this all encompassing experience. That’s just so magical.

Gale Straub:

Wow. Oh, that does sound magical. When you said that you kind of chase that feeling of, you know, this synchronicity with your body, like everything in motion and movement, and it feeling right. Is that hard to find sometimes?

Sabrina Chapman:

Definitely. Yeah, but the promise of it keeps me coming back. I find it’s most difficult when I’m, you know, my father passed away a couple years ago and that was the first time that I had had something like he was sick for a while. And while he was sick, I was still trying to climb. And that was the first time that nothing was coordinating my brain, my body, even though I wasn’t consciously thinking of what was going on with him, it just, things were not competing. My body was telling me, no, this is not what you need to be doing right now. And I find if I’m really tired, you know, if I’ve had a fight with my husband, things just like, things can just fall apart. But at the same time, there are times when I feel so disconnected and disjointed from work or whatever. And then I go climb and everything just quiets down and I can move. So it’s always worth it to try for me, regardless of what the outcomes are.

Gale Straub:

Hmm. How would you describe your personal style of climbing?

Sabrina Chapman:

So I think for up until the last couple years, my personal style has been pretty static and controlled when I was little, I wanted to be a ballerina so badly. And so I think I’ve, I’ve translated what I love about watching ballet dancers, the kind of athleticism and artistic expression that ballet encompasses. I feel like I, I subconsciously, but when I watch videos of myself, I think I’m trying to express that on the wall as well. Uh, but lately I’ve been trying to be a little more scrappy, I guess, a little more, a little less control and just kind of going for it without it being perfect or without perfect execution. And just seeing what that feels like.

Gale Straub:

Does, um, does fear ever play a part when you’re climbing?

Sabrina Chapman:

Yeah, I would say 80% of the time. I’m scared.

Gale Straub:

Wow.

Sabrina Chapman:

Yeah. It doesn’t look like it. I really am scared of falling in like hitting the wall really hard. I have a big fear of that. So, which is also why I climb very controlled, even though I know, I understand the systems, the safety systems in place, and my belayer is a good belayer. It’s just something I have. And honestly, lately it’s been just like listening to my body of when it’s ready to go for a move. And when it’s time to just like back down and, and just sit on the rope and take a breath. And there’s a lot of self talks that goes into climbing when I’m on the wall. If I feel scared assessing if it’s rational, fear, if it’s a primal fear, if it’s, you know, if I need to take it easy or just go for it, there’s a lot of that going on in climbing that I guess no one can see because they’re not in your head, but it’s there. Yeah. I feel for me, climbing is like feeling scared and moving anyways. That’s a lot of it.

Gale Straub:

Yeah. And then also, probably it’s this interesting interplay of how an outsider would see you moving and not knowing what’s going on inside. You know, there’s also that aspect of it.

Sabrina Chapman:

For sure. I mean, and I can see like sometimes I, I record my climbing a lot just to look at my movement patterns and see what I need to change or improve on. Um, and what I’m doing well. And when I watch, when I watch watch it back, I can, I’m watching myself like, Oh, wow. I look really good. I look strong. I’m like, you know, I’m tight to the wall and I’m moving assertively. But I know in my head it was like, there’s a lot of like internal c’mon Sabrina. Just go do it, go, go. But you would never see it. You would never know it to watch it. So I think that’s something, especially beginner climbers, or like even people who struggle with, with fear and with believing in themselves should be aware of at least with myself, even if you’re looking at me and it looks like I have everything under control, there’s a lot of self-talk going on and I’m trying to push past things. So you’re not alone. If that’s what you’re feeling too, don’t worry. You’re not alone. It’s totally normal. And it means you’re a, it just just means you’re a climber.

Gale Straub:

And a human being.

Sabrina Chapman:

Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Gale Straub:

How do you feel actually about the fact that like starting climbing at 26 has become part of your story?

Sabrina Chapman:

I feel good about it. I think, you know, I, when I first started climbing, I did wish that I had started sooner just because I could have achieved more, but I’m not sure that those achievements would have come without a lot of, I mean, I just feel like I’m in a bed. I was in a better place at 26 to understanding my body, understanding that there isn’t one way to go about things. I always thought if I had started sooner than I could have gotten these grades, like certain grades of rock climbing done already. And if that’s all it, if that’s all that was important to me, then I’d still be like lamenting the fact that I didn’t start till I was 26, but I think I have a better perspective on myself and what I want to be important in climbing for me. Then I maybe wouldn’t have had if I had started sooner. Like the things that I prioritize in climbing now are probably different than what I would have. If I had started younger.

Gale Straub – Narration:

When I talked to Sabrina, it was a couple of weeks out from the Titan Project film release. I could tell before our interview that she’s a private person, someone who takes to writing to express herself.

Sabrina Chapman:

I love books. I love language. I love the ability to express, express myself through writing that I don’t get with speaking. And also I’m very like I really in my head a lot. So it’s a way for me to like get out. What’s always like turning around in my head.

Gale Straub:

So I was curious about how she was feeling.

Sabrina Chapman:

I feel, I feel excited. I feel nervous. I think because of everything that’s happened between when we wrapped up filming till now, uh, with COVID and racial unrest and upheaval, it’s been easy to sort of put it aside and just be a little more consumed with other things. And also like put my nervousness about it aside. And so just in the last couple of weeks, I guess, since you got in touch with me and then a couple other things have come up with regards to the film. And so now I’m just remembering how nervous I am about it, but, but also just, you know, excited to have it out and see what the finished product is and hear people’s thoughts on it. Hmm.

Gale Straub:

Where does that nervousness stem from? Is it, you know, the vulnerability of sharing your story? Is it the, the fact that you, you know, you want to climb, but you also want to share it? Like how, where does that nervousness stem from?

Sabrina Chapman:

I think, yeah, you, you really nailed it on the head. It’s just feeling vulnerable all over again. There is vulnerability and agreeing to do it and then fear in that. But then there’s also, I think it’s been tempered by also this need to sort of put into words what my story is and, and things that I’ve been through and I’ve done that. And so it felt like that was a bit of relief. It’s like sort of feels like taking two steps forward and then one step back and then three steps back and two steps forward. Every time I talk about the film and talk about what I’ve been through. And so the film itself actually now coming to fruition and having a release state and knowing that it’s actually going to be out there in the world that is very terrifying to me. But, um, I think what’s helped me through this entire process has been just the potential for it to reach people who can relate to some of the difficult things that I talk about that maybe they’ve not been able to express to themselves and just feeling a sense that they’re not alone, that they, there is a shared experience with others, even though we don’t talk about it.

Sabrina Chapman:

So yeah, it’s just, it’s all of those things. It’s a lot of things. Yeah. That’s, that’s contributing to nervousness,

Gale Straub – Narration:

We’ll hear from Sabrina about Titan Project, what was special about working with Black led media platform, Melanin Base Camp, how she feels about the title of an elite climber, and more… After this.

AD BREAK

Sabrina Chapman:

I would say it’s for Black and Brown girls who feel a drive to step out of their comfort zone, but are not sure how, or feel alone in that desire who feel like they haven’t seen themselves represented in outdoor media. Yeah. It’s for anyone who, who feels like their story has already been written by things that have happened to them in their past or from, you know, the outside world. And I feel like it’s it’s for anyone who wants to write their own story, who wants to take ownership of what their narrative is going to be. I mean, that’s how I looked at it for myself. Like I don’t want other things to define who I am. I don’t want, I don’t want mainstream media to tell me what achievement looks like or what, what elite looks like. I want to define it for myself. And I think that’s what this film is trying to do. And I hope people will get that from it.

Gale Straub – Narration:

We’re back. Before the break, Sabrina talked about the vulnerability of putting Titan Project out into the world. There’s a whole lot of self-reflection that comes up when the camera is turned and focused on you.

Gale Straub:

Is there anything that kind of comes to mind for you that you learned about yourself through the filming process?

Sabrina Chapman:

I think one realization that I had that was sort of life changing for me in the process of the film and expressing, expressing what I’ve had be difficult in my life is that there, it’s not a sign of weakness to identify those and name those things. I think for my entire life, I I’ve sort of had this view that acknowledging difficult things does not mean that you’re making excuses for, you know, where you are in your life and, and how you ended up there. It’s, it’s just a piece.

Sabrina Chapman:

And at the same time, it also doesn’t define you. And I think I was afraid of that for a long time, that in naming these things and naming emotional and physical abuse, that those would be all that people saw of me. And that’s all that I would see of myself that that was the sum total of who I am throughout this entire process. It’s more and more I’ve realized and really believed it firmly within myself, which is a whole other thing than knowing it intellectually, but actually feeling it that I know. And I feel that I’m not the worst things that have happened to me and owning that and, and really embracing that has, has been a huge benefit to going through this process that I didn’t anticipate. I don’t think it’s explicitly said in the film, I just talk about things that I’ve been unlearning and that’s, that’s part of it. I mean, certainly within climbing, I found that racial discrimination, racism, sexism, uh, elitism, like all these isms combined with childhood trauma has, has all been a part of my climbing journey. And so they’re all sort of intertwined and, and intermixed.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Titan Project is a production of Melanin Base Camp, which was founded by Danielle Williams in February 2016 to increase representation in media. We’ve had Danielle on the show back in, I believe February 2019 a lifetime ago, definitely recommend going back and listening to that one, too.

Gale Straub:

What was special about working with Melanin Base Camp? You know, a Black-led, Black founded, Female Black founded media company,

Sabrina Chapman:

Just as you described, it’s Black-led it’s female-founded. I mean, to be a woman of color in climbing that in itself is a very isolating place to be. Although climbing is always referred to as being a community. So there’s very little room to talk about racism, sexism in an environment that is open to hearing what you have to say without there being defenses and excuses being put up. So when Danielle reached out to me and I looked into a what Melanin Base Camp is, I knew that none of those concerns could be applied there. I knew that there wouldn’t be any defensiveness, there’d be more of an open, willing to listen and a basic understanding that would inform all of our interactions. And, uh, so that was a huge relief for me. And really, I don’t think I appreciated how much, how much of those things go into feeling able to fully express yourself until, um, I worked with them.

Gale Straub:

Hmm. It sounds like there was a lot of trust there.

Sabrina Chapman:

Yes, definitely. Definitely.

Gale Straub:

That must be really frustrating. The, so I’m, I’m also not someone who knows a lot about climbing. I’ve I’ve I read about it. You know, I, um, have gone to couple of climbing gyms, but I’ve never climbed outside. I, and I’ve talked with a few climbers, but not, not too many. It feels like this world that whenever I talk with people, it always feels intimidating. And it feels just outside of something that I don’t know outside of myself in a certain way. So for there to be this like language around community and belonging, but have that be artificial, that must be really frustrating.

Sabrina Chapman:

Yeah. It’s frustrating. And it’s also very isolating. You feel like you’re missing something like there’s, there’s this, all this talk of community that you, you sort of feel like you’re on the outside looking in. And I think it’s changing now, especially with social media and the demographic of climbing is changing at a rapid rate. It’s getting, becoming more accessible with the opening of gyms, more gyms and cities. And, and so I think the sense of community for me has changed significantly since social media has blown up as in the way that it has. And to be honest, I do feel more of a sense of community with people climbers online than I do with people I interact with face to face on a, on a regular basis, just because the climbing community where I am is it can be, well, I would say the history of climbing in Ontario, where I am is very white and male. And those views and beliefs are upheld to a certain extent of ownership of a right to an entitlement to access land. And I’ve never related to that at all. And I’ve never felt a part of that to see the community now changing online. It’s I feel much more motivated to be a part of it than I did when I first started.

Gale Straub:

Hmm. And that’s a big part of this film too, right. Is like helping more, especially more women of color, more Black women feel included in, in the climbing world.

Sabrina Chapman:

Yeah, definitely. And I think that’s, what’s been lacking for so long in mainstream media and in print and online, the images that have been upheld as the peak of athleticism and achievement has been very narrow and one dimensional it’s, it’s not a level that can be accessed by Black women, just the way our world is set up. And for that narrow idea of achievement to be held as the standard puts everyone else, who’s not had the privilege to come from that kind a background at a disadvantage. So I think, I think with this film, it’s showing that what can be viewed as achievement and held in high esteem, that the meaning of that is changing and we deserve our own place in it. And it looks different for us because we move differently through the world.

Gale Straub:

Hmm. So one of the things that you mentioned earlier, you know, you listed off a bunch of isms and, and one of those isms was elite ism. How, how do you feel about entering into, into that stage or being considered potentially an elite climber?

Sabrina Chapman:

Um, I’ve never had a good relationship with the word elite, just because for myself to me elite implies privilege. And so I can acknowledge that I got into climbing when I was 26 years old with a full time job that allowed me to pay, you know, for all the climbing gear that I needed and I don’t have children. So I have the privilege and the time to put the work in to achieve a five 14, I feel like if you’re going to, if you’re going to own the word elite, or if you’re going to consider yourself an elite person at anything at the same time, you need to acknowledge all of the things that got you there. And you can’t have one without the other,

Gale Straub:

Because there can be this like mythic status that comes with it.

Sabrina Chapman:

Exactly. I feel like there’s no context when people talk about their achievements. And you know, when they’re talking about, like, for example, in climbing, if they’re talking about sending a really hard route or going out into the mountains and getting a first ascent, there’s no context that gives people an understanding of why they were able to get there. I think when I started climbing, I, you know, I looked at professional climbers and the things that they were doing, and I couldn’t understand, you know, I was training training training, and I could not get to where these people were. There’s no shame. And there’s no embarrassment to say that I, my life was not set up in the same way that theirs were to finish high school, hop in a van and tour around the world for five years, just climbing. Of course, you’re more able to achieve things and, and to hone your skill and Excel in your sport, if that’s all you’re able to do, but Black women, we don’t have that luxury or that privilege.

Sabrina Chapman:

So yeah, I think elite climbers and elite, anyone in an elite sport needs to qualify their accomplishments with things that they have access to that others don’t.

Gale Straub:

Hmm. Yeah. And one of the ironic things, and I do, I mean, I feel like maybe it’s one of, it’s just the bubble that I’m in. I’ll think that like the conversation is changing and it’s probably, I’m probably totally wrong. So I have to acknowledge that too, but just the irony of, of, um, that quote unquote dirt bag climber, you know, like the person who probably would bristle at the word privilege potentially, you know, thinking about, Oh, well, I get, you know, gave things up to be able to do this, or, I mean, that doesn’t take away from the work, but you also, like you said, have to take that time to just think through how did you get here? Like, and how is what I’m doing potentially precluding someone else from feeling like they should be here too.

Sabrina Chapman:

Absolutely. Yeah. And I think all climbers work hard to get to where they are. There’s no denying that it’s incredibly, it can be an incredibly frustrating endeavor to fail. 99% of the times in the hopes that that 1% will be the time that you succeed. And it’s hard no matter who you are, but there are more difficulties, systemic difficulties that some of us face more than others. And there’s nothing I’m not taking away any of my achievements, like I’ve sent a 13d I was the first woman Ontario to do that. And I can fully admit that I was able to train. And I, I had the time to train and the money and the resources to invest into achieving that goal. That still doesn’t mean I didn’t work hard, but I just feel like there needs to be more of a balance in that.

Gale Straub:

Yeah, no, I agree. There’s not, we don’t have enough room for balance in too many aspects of our lives.

Sabrina Chapman:

Definitely not. No.

Gale Straub – Narration:

I asked Sabrina if she has advice for women who get a late start in climbing. I really appreciate that Sabrina took this advice one step further.

Sabrina Chapman:

I would say, first of all, just start climbing, just climb. Don’t worry about training, but if you are interested in training, I think the things to look at that have really helped me are, um, shoulders, stability, workouts, upper body, like strength, training workouts. So anything with kettlebells, anything that will help stabilize your shoulder and your core just in your mental approach to it, especially now, there are so many groups and organizations online and through Instagram that can offer you support and guidance that maybe wasn’t around when I first started. And I think it’s really important to access those they’re there for you. Um, and so you might feel shy or nervous about it, but about accessing them, but that’s what they’re there for. And, and it’s a resource that you deserve. And, uh, and then also, I guess, look out for other Black women who you relate to and, you know, whose style of climbing or whose outlook on climbing resonates with you and connect with that because it can feel, it can feel isolating being in the climbing community. If what’s typically upheld as, you know, the way to approach climbing, which is send, send, send, and like get the big grades and get the hard grades. Like not everybody wants that. And that’s fine too. And there are plenty of other women who are like that, who just want to go out and move across the rock and hang out with friends and that’s fine. And yeah, reach them, reach out to them and connect with them.

Gale Straub:

Who are some of those Black women that you look to who are climbers?

Sabrina Chapman:

I would say the first climber on Instagram that I really connected with, out there crushing as a climber named, Mélise, um, I’m not sure of her last name. I only know people by their Instagram handles,

Gale Straub – Narration:

Just jumping in to say that Mélise’s handle is @meliseymo. I’ll include it in the show notes.

Sabrina Chapman:

She’s amazing. She’s, she’s super strong, very vocal in speaking about race and justice and, and also a super strong climber. She does neuroscience now, so she’s not climbing very much. Um, but I do remember when I first started climbing like 2006, it was a couple of years in, and I found this, uh, mixed woman who was competing on an international level. And I can’t remember her name because it was so hard to find information on her, but I remember just like scouring the internet for her and just watching her videos over and over. And that, that in and of itself gave me huge motivation to keep, to like push myself. So I guess having any kind of like visual of what you admire is helpful.

Gale Straub:

Yeah, no, I mean, just thinking about how it was even hard to find more information about her, you know, like, but it’s still such a powerful driver for you and a powerful memory.

Sabrina Chapman:

Yeah. Yeah. Definitely. It’s like, Oh, I remember being so psyched when I saw her, I was like, who is this girl? And, and then I got to the gym and I was so amped. I was just like, I want to be like her.

Gale Straub – Narration:

I often ask women who come on this show at the end of the conversation whether there’s anything we missed, or anything they’d like to expand upon that we’ve talked about. Here are Sabrina’s final thoughts:

Sabrina Chapman:

The thing that I’ve been feeling the most lately has been gratitude. I’m so thankful that you reached out to me, I’m thankful to Melanin Base Camp. And I’m so thankful to everyone who contributed to the film and just showed support online. It’s, it’s quite overwhelming and humbling to have felt quite alone in the world for so long. And then to realize that you’re actually connecting with so many people and so many people care, and I just overwhelmingly, I’m so grateful to everyone for their support. And, um, that’s the only thing I really want to say.

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