November 16, 2021
Climbing 'Once Upon a time in the Southwest', overcoming fear and being a strong member of the climbing community.
With her recent sends of ‘Once Upon a Time in the Southwest’ (E9/6c) and an 8b+ sport route earlier this year, Anna Hazelnutt is making a name for herself as a strong athlete within the climbing community. But while she claims ‘it’s all play... and sometimes I accidentally get hooked on a climb and send something hard', her aims go far beyond performing well on rock. By documenting her story, her failures as well as her successes, Anna aims to carve out a space for queer Latina women within the climbing community. This interview looks at her journey with climbing so far, her experiences with fear of falling and it’s relationship to mental health, and how we can make the community a fun and safe space for everyone.
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Hey Anna! Great to meet you virtually! Could you start off by telling us a bit about your journey with climbing so far?
Sure! I started climbing 8 years ago, just bouldering in the gym like most other people. Soon after that, I went bouldering outdoors at some local crags in Southern California and just became obsessed. And that was it for about six years!
Around two years ago, I began to realise that there was much more to climbing than bouldering. It sort of dawned on me that I’d just spent 6 years stroking my ego by doing exclusively what I was good at: slabby or vertical boulders. So I decided to embrace being a beginner again and moved halfway across the world to Barcelona (for a job, but the plan was to learn to sport climb as a side-goal). There was a snowball effect, which led me to try more and more new things: overhangs, rooves, crack climbing, trad climbing, multipitch, ice climbing, ridge traverses… My goals have now completely changed - instead of constantly working hard projects I try to focus on having fun and trying new things. It’s all play, I guess, and sometimes I accidentally get hooked on a climb and send something hard.
Anna Hazelnutt © Austin Keith
Love it! You mentioned moving for a job - what led you to adopt your current freelancer lifestyle?
Well, to be honest, my job fell through along with all my career stability. I started doing freelance work out of necessity as I couldn’t get another job in Barcelona without speaking the language yet. I took up some freelance video editing work to keep me going throughout the pandemic, and it ended up becoming one of my passions. My YouTube channel was initially aimed to reassure my family I was still alive - I was homeless and living in a van at that point - and only now has started to take off.
Oh wow, that sounds like a really tough time.
It was! Everything that gave me a sense of self-worth just suddenly disappeared. I didn’t have bouldering, and for some time no climbing at all because of the pandemic. I’m super sociable so I really struggled with the language barrier. I didn’t have a house, or a job, or any stable life plan. It felt like I had dug myself into a deep hole.
Your YouTube video essay ‘The Pursuit’ talks a bit about your journey dealing with fear of falling during this time. You mention having to take a mental health break from sport climbing before being able to push through this fear ‘plateau’. Would you be open to talking about this a bit more?
It's been a wild ride! I learnt to sport climb at the start of the pandemic, at the beginning of a period of huge political instability globally. In addition to all the general instability I was experiencing in my life at the time, I had to deal with a lot of insecurities over who I should be representing in the climbing community. I’m half Latina and half white, and am at this crossroads where I feel connected to my Mexican heritage through my mother, but at the same time feel quite disconnected as I grew up in the US. It brought up a lot of hard - but necessary - questions over how I should present myself and what role I should play in the climbing community. At the same time, a lot was going on politically in the US which made me feel under threat: Trump was threatening to build a wall to stop Mexican immigrants entering the US (i.e. my family), women’s reproductive rights were being stripped away, as were the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.
As a result of all this, climbing went from being a form of escapism to this outlet for all my negative emotions. I’d go to the crag hoping to have some fun, but just end up petrified on the wall. Looking back, I was trying to bring all this joy and comedy into climbing while at the same time feeling so sad and scared. I just didn’t have the mental capacity to enjoy climbing: I mean, how can you push yourself at your limits in the sport when all your skills relating to embracing fear and uncertainty are being used in other areas of your life? I think a lot of marginalized people feel this way. It’s a tricky balance, and while there’s still a lot going on I’m now better at compartmentalising.
Thanks for sharing that. I’ve had some similar experiences, but don’t really see it talked about that much in the climbing community. There's this tendency to treat the climbing world like it's completely detached from the rest of life, but that's simply not the reality.
Anna Hazelnutt © Jenny Walters
You recently made it into the news for your send of ‘Once Upon a Time in the Southwest’, a sketchy E9 trad slab in Devon in the UK. Can you tell me a bit more about the process of projecting this route?
Before trying ‘Once Upon A Time in the Southwest’ I had only been trad climbing for about two weeks in total and had only led for a few days. The hardest climb I had led was a 5.9 - but that included some Yosemite 5.9s which felt more like 5.11s!
When I went out to try the climb for the first time, I felt quite a bit of imposter syndrome as there were some big names there: Hazel Findlay, Pete Whittaker, Tom Randall… At the same time, it was this really joyful experience: I was just playing on a slab (my speciality!) on a toprope, and didn’t attach much emotion to the process as I thought I’d never actually do the route before I left. After going back to try the climb with Tom a few times, it began to click that the moves were well within my strength range and I eventually sent it clean on a toprope. The next step was to figure out the gear placements and lead it.
Looking back, I think I went to lead it sooner than I should have. I hadn’t practiced the beginning bit, but the weather window was short and I had to leave the country soon. I took a small fall - my first on gear - and it held, so I began to trust my placements a bit more. On the send go, a lot of things went wrong: my gear fell out, I crossed my ropes, I was exhausted from my two burns earlier that day, it started to rain… but I just kept climbing and eventually mantled over the top. I immediately burst into tears: I just couldn’t believe it!
That’s super impressive, especially given that you had so little trad experience!
Anna Hazelnutt © Ezra Byrne
I’m interested in chatting about another aspect of your work: promoting diversity and inclusion in the climbing community. How do you use your platform to this end?
A lot of what I do is basically trying to get into those spaces that other women aren’t occupying. I want to get into the YouTube space, I want to figure out how, as an athlete, I can be part of a community that many of other brown and queer women haven’t been able to enter. At the moment I’m just trying to see how far I can go with YouTube collabs and meeting and climbing with people from all over the world. I try to share a lot of my personal story in my video essays and be vulnerable about my emotions as someone who doesn’t quite ‘belong’ in the community. In short, my plan has two parts: 1) get a bigger platform by doing things that are going to get me accolades in the climbing community while 2) expressing my whole experience and how difficult it is. I have to play the game, but if I play it enough I have the voice to speak out.
I also try to use my platform to share my failures as well as successes. For those of us who aren’t very represented in the community, there can be a lot of pressure to be good at things. So I try to show myself in situations where I’m a beginner, or where I'm bad at things, to show that it’s ok! I think it’s more powerful and relatable than just posting videos of me sending hard climbs.
Going back to something you mentioned earlier - do you think we should aspire to disconnect politics from climbing?
Sure, it would be great if climbing could be apolitical, but that’s not an utopia we all live in. We have to distinguish between what would be an ideal situation and the reality. When people say climbing shouldn’t be political, they are saying it doesn’t have to involve conversations about sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination. But in reality it has to, because these forms of discrimination continue to exist in society, and climbing is a facet of life and society. I experience these forms of discrimination every day of my life, often from within the climbing community itself. As long as discrimination exists, then politics has to be part of climbing. It’s a privilege to not see this or be able to turn a blind eye.
100 percent agree. What changes would you like to see within the climbing community in relation to inclusivity and diversity?
I’m really psyched to start working on a women’s workshop. I feel like women (and a lot of marginalised folk in general) can be held back by societal standards, and in my experience, may not be as willing to try things that make them look bad. I know a lot of people who are strong enough to try a certain climb or boulder, but shy away in case they fail. I think the community needs to cultivate an atmosphere that encourages embracing failure and not having it weigh on you because you’re someone who isn’t represented.
I’d also like to see the climbing community as a whole embrace the fact that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. In reality, many climbers are still struggling with step 1: acknowledging that there’s a problem.
When it comes to actions I’d like to see businesses within the climbing industry taking, I think hiring more diversely is top of the list. Employ more women, LGBTQ+ people and people of colour both within the company and for external projects AND PAY THEM! A lot of companies still don’t value the time of athletes and models: I can’t count the number of times a company has asked me to do something for them while offering nothing in exchange. There’s still a lot of tokenisation within the community, where companies will work with one ‘diverse’ athlete to tick that box, without compensating them for their time or actually pushing for a culture change. It’s not good enough.
Anna Hazelnutt © Austin Keith
And finally, to wrap things up, do you have any thoughts you’d like to leave our readers with?
First, have fun! People are getting so serious about climbing these days and have lost sight of why they started the sport in the first place. Have fun and make climbing a fun space for everyone.
Second, people are getting caught up in what it means to be a ‘strong climber’ without thinking about what it means to be a strong member of the climbing community. Be willing to do the work, be there for your fellow climbers and strive to make the community a more inclusive space. That, in my opinion, is what makes you a strong climber.
Cover and main image © Austin Keith.