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Cassie Ayoungman is Connecting Indigenous Communities with Climbing

Cassie Ayoungman and the DirtBabe Collective hosted Alberta's first Cultural Climbing Program: a three day event for Indigenous women

“Anything is possible in our lives. I reached for the sky that day and was met with incredible beauty.” – Marilyn Little Chief

Cassie Ayoungman teaches tying in – photo by Eva Capozzola

She wanted to explore something new. Just over four years ago, Cassie Ayoungman began her journey into the Rockies. Finding climbing shortly after, Ayoungman entered a sport unlike any other.

Upon integrating further into climbing, Ayoungman found the skills required to bring her community into a sport she loved. For her, climbing provided an opportunity to connect with the land. “It has gotten me a little bit closer to my culture as well.” Reflecting on the pictographs and petroglyphs of the Bow Valley, Ayoungman considered her ancestors and the way they moved through the places she now frequents.

Her experiences ultimately led her to a realization. “Having a mentor is important when you are getting into the sport. I wanted to be that person for the Indigenous community. I noticed that there was a lack of Indigenous people in the mountains and exploring the outdoors in general. I decided I wanted to run intro-to-climbing programs. I had someone reach out to me in terms of getting something going”.

It began with single day events where participants would come to learn the ropes as a community. As the summer waned, Ayoungman teamed up with the DirtBabe Collective for a multi-day event. “The DirtBabe Collective is a group of three ladies that started their own organization in the Bow Valley. They wanted to target women and get them in the outdoors. We collaborated. They applied for the Outer Peace Grant through Arcteryx Alberta for the event and they wanted to use the grant money towards a program for the Indigenous women. I am beyond grateful for all their help. This event would not have been possible without them and all the donations we received!”

Participants from the Cultural Climbing Program sit together – photo by Eva Capozzola

“It was probably one of the best events yet. I find that one day is not enough to really feel progression for the group.” The Cultural Climbing Program taught participants how to independently access their gear. Skills established, the women approached climbing.  Elder Alvine Wolf Leg joined the climbers and shared traditional teachings, prayers and guidance.  Upon reflection, Ayoungman noted that the programs were about more than just climbing. “It’s about finding out what they are able to feel that translates into everyday life.”

One woman, Marilyn Little Chief exemplified this point. Graciously agreeing to share her story, Little Chief described what became a significant climb. “I experienced a life changing event during the weekend of September 23-25, 2021,” said Little Chief. “I was able to achieve a lifetime goal. I am 50 years old, overweight, limited strength, with numerous health issues, but I always wanted to try rock climbing.

“With the challenges that I faced I knew I had to make changes in my life to reach my goals. I set several goals for myself, over a course of six months, with each goal being achieved. My main goal was to go hiking in the mountains for my 50 birthday.  In June I was able to achieve that goal by hiking Tunnel Mountain.  I was so proud of myself and couldn’t believe that I had the power to achieve this feat. I quickly set my next goal and that was to try mountain climbing. I figured I would give myself a year to lose more weight, increase my strength and figure out how I would do this. 2022 was going to my year to climb a mountain.

Ascending – photo by Eva Capozzola

“Well, the Creator had other plans for me.  I saw a post for a “Ladies Only” weekend of cultural rock climbing, no experience necessary. After going back and forth in my mind, I finally had the courage to reach out to the organizers and get information. I still wasn’t convinced that I could do this. I still had my challenges and didn’t think I was ready for it. After speaking with Cassie, she encouraged me to move out of my comfort zone and try something new. I was assured that I’m not too old to try and I’ll be safe. I eventually signed up and every week I wanted to cancel. I was scared to be with people that I didn’t know, to go camping and most of all to try rock climbing.

“From the moment I got there, I was welcomed and felt safe. The ladies were amazing and encouraging. They answered all my questions and helped me overcome my fears. I learned a lot about myself over that weekend. I placed a lot of trust in strangers, who became my friends and lifelong sisters. I shared my fears and struggles and never once was judged. They opened their arms to me, embraced me and helped me achieve my goals. On day two of rock climbing, Sarah told me ‘today is your day, you’re going to make it to the top. I know you will.’ She helped me overcome the barriers that I faced, both physically and mentally. She helped me take my next steps, figure out which way to turn, where I needed to adjust and push myself to the next level.

“Sarah was the only voice I heard as I was scaling that mountain side. Her words of encouragement and trust in me helped me to reach the top. I finally trusted myself to move forward and take the next step. I could never have done this without the support of Sarah, Cassie, and the ladies from DirtBabe Collective. My weekend was about growth, both mentally and physically. Our lives are full of challenges and sometimes we need to trust ourselves and the people around us.”

Sarah Huen and Marilyn Little Chief stand at the base of a wall – photo by Eva Capozzola

The conclusion of the trip saw the beginning of cooler weather. With winter on the way, Ayoungman began to consider future events for her community. Partnering with OnwardUp, Ayungmen led a coed, single-day intro-to-climbing that saw her events’ total reach just over 40 participants. This winter, the snow will prevent much in the way of outdoor climbing, but Ayoungman has a plan.

“Right now,” Ayoungman said, “I am in the process of getting an indoor program going. I’m working with my nation, one of the departments from Siksika.”

Ayoungman continued that transportation, cost, access, and comfort appear to be the greatest barriers to getting her community into climbing. As both Calgary and Canmore are around two hours from Siksika, it takes time to get to these locations. Furthermore, there is not any climbing, indoor or otherwise, in Siksika which provides another barrier.

While Ayoungman acknowledges that other intro-to-climbing programs exist, she explained that they have costs that can prevent some people from her community from accessing a sport they have no familiarity with. By establishing and running the program, it is easier for participants to see themselves doing the sport. “It creates a more welcoming space for Indigenous people. “I feel like since I am Indigenous, they see someone they can relate to and hope that it helps motivate them to join.”

As Ayoungman prepares for winter, she has already begun to expand her thoughts on her programming. While it is unclear whether an ice climbing program could be possible, it is clear that Ayoungman has begun an exciting new chapter in climbing.

Ready to climb – photo by Eva Capozzola

Featured image by Rebecca Ferri