By Peter Madsen • The Bulletin

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When Kelsey Bennett made it to the top of a 300-meter rock wall at Smith Rock State Park, that was one of her biggest accomplishments as a rock climber. She was on a route that required her to hoist herself up by her fingertips and toes on stubby half-inch holds.

Until recently, Bennett had hiked at the state park and marveled at rock climbers whose sport struck her as “intriguing but terrifying,” she said.

After she was diagnosed at age 26 with Type 1 diabetes — a chronic condition that requires daily insulin doses — Bennett’s notion of risk-taking drastically changed.

“I’m already dealing with one scary thing, so what’s to stop me from tackling another scary thing?” Bennett said.

The 28-year-old teacher at Obsidian Middle School in Redmond now climbs four to five times each week.

She is one of about 350 women who have learned to climb through clinics offered by She Moves Mountains, a women’s rock climbing guide company that Bend resident Lizzy VanPatten established in the summer of 2016.

She Moves Mountains employs five female guides who train women to rock climb in weekend and multiday clinics from March through September at Smith Rock, Mount Erie in Washington and in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Courses include an introduction to outdoor climbing and others dedicated to a variety of climbing skills and disciplines.

An upcoming rock climbing and yoga retreat is scheduled from April 25-28 at Smith Rock State Park.

The company also offers a mentorship program to help women acquire the advanced skills necessary to begin the certification process to become a climbing guide.

“With other women, you have less to prove,” said VanPatten, 29.

“Whenever I’m the only woman climber … if I want to back down from something because it’s probably dangerous and I’m afraid, I (think): ‘What are they going to think of not only me, but of women, if I back down? And by not doing this, am I showing that women can’t do it?’ When you’re not the only woman in a space, you don’t have that pressure.”

Women are increasingly finding a foothold in rock climbing, a niche sport that experienced a popularity boom in the early 2000s with the proliferation of indoor climbing gyms.

As in many male-dominated sports, there is a level of machismo in climbing that can make new female climbers feel uncomfortable, VanPatten said.

She strives for a female-specific space for women to learn to climb on their own terms and without judgment or condescension.

“Learning to rock climb is already scary,” VanPatten said. “But when you eliminate the outside pressures of having to prove yourself, you’re able to focus more on the task.”

VanPatten previously worked as an instructor for Chockstone Climbing Guides, which operates at Smith Rock. She noticed that she was one of two female guides among local guide companies.

With the support of Chockstone Climbing owner Jim Ablao, VanPatten organized eight women-specific clinics during the summer of 2016.

The clinics’ popularity was too much for Chockstone Climbing to sustain, so Ablao encouraged VanPatten to start her own female-specific company.

“Jim is incredible,” VanPatten said. “When I see him I like to give him a big hug. We wouldn’t have started She Moves Mountains without the push from him.”

Two of VanPatten’s employees were certified as guides by Chockstone Climbing, which is accredited by the American Mountain Guide Association, the sport’s national governing body.

She Moves Mountains also partners with Bend-based Timberline Mountain Guides, whose guides will volunteer in the She Moves Mountains’ mentorship program, which begins this year. Eleven applicants have recently signed up.

“Mentorship is a huge part of climbing,” VanPatten said. “There’s so much to learn; it’s almost impossible to do without a mentor. We don’t have many older female climbers, and there isn’t that mentorship availability. … Say you’re an older guy, 40 or 50 years old, who has been climbing for a long time and you want to be a mentor. … It’s going to feel a lot more comfortable to be the mentor to a 20-year-old guy than it is to a 20-year-old woman. There are other questions and conversations to have if you’re mentoring a younger woman.”

Being the only woman in a group of male climbers typifies VanPatten’s early climbing experiences.

She remembers an outdoor climbing clinic that lasted 10 days. Of 10 participants, she was the only woman.

VanPatten was glad to sleep by herself in her own tent, but such considerations for privacy are often overlooked in a sport still dominated by men.

“It would have been awkward for me, a (then) 25-year-old woman to share a tent with a guy I had never met and I don’t know what his intentions are,” VanPatten said.

“It’s uncomfortable. It’s also uncomfortable if you have to deal with women’s things that happen and there’s no one you can talk to, like, ‘Oh, s---. What do I do?’”

Bend resident Jenny Abegg is a professional climber and writer who has guided for five years.

Abegg, 34, has also directed one- or two-person programs dedicated to multipitch ascents — which involve re-anchoring the rope several times at good stopping points throughout a long climb — for She Moves Mountains at Smith Rock since the summer of 2017.

While Abegg credits several male mentors in her rise to the professional ranks, she said the sport’s growing popularity means safe and careful instruction has never been more important.

That’s especially true when a climber is transitioning from the controlled environment of an indoor climbing gym to the natural and unpredictable features like those at Smith Rock.

“Most of our clients learn to climb in climbing gyms, and they want to climb outdoors because they see all these photos on Instagram, and they don’t know where to get started,” Abegg said.

Learning to climb in an environment where no question is stupid and there is little pressure to prove oneself is key.

For many women, that environment is more naturally fostered by female instructors, Abegg said.

“It fosters a lot of honesty. We make a space where women can come and feel like it’s totally fine that they’re not hardcore or tough,” Abegg said.

“But it’s also totally fine that they want to lead and try hard. And I think both of those things are hard to do around male friends or boyfriends. It’s difficult to be vulnerable and honest about fear but also having space to work past that fear and not feel weird about it. There’s something special that happens when women climb together.”

Bennett said learning to climb through She Moves Mountains has been an empowering experience.

“(Climbing) has given me a lot of perspective on how I can manage my illness and maintain my life and composure every day,” Bennett said.

“It has been a really cool adventure to add to my life.”