At the Sydney event, Esther holds a handmade chatterbox and reveals some of the questions inside.
I had the privilege of chatting to Esther before another ClimbingQTs event, a celebration of World Pride in the Patagonia Sydney Store, featuring Patagonia climbing film They/Them and a panel of climbers who are leaders in their LGBTQ+ communities. Esther was one of the speakers and arranged a table of chatterbox origami that, when opened, revealed a series of questions, inviting the audience to expand and explore their own edges:“Is fear something to be pushed away or am I letting it in and exploring it?”, “What kind of movements and sensations in my body feel interesting and nourishing to me?” Esther is the kind of person who will answer all the un-ask-able questions.
We tucked ourselves in the stairs between trail gear and the Worn Wear station (featuring a divine rainbow-mended green puffer on the rail) and Esther shared their journey from art student to climbing guide.
The first time Esther saw rock climbing was something special. “It was around 2000. I was going to art school and was doing a lot of work based on landscape and memory. I started doing this thing where I’d go off and do walking on my own in Gariwerd (the Grampians). It was part of my art practice but it was also about discovering my own independence. I’d go from one place to the next and carry everything on my back. Then there was this one trip where I was following some maps, seeking out caves in the middle of the Grampians. I was hoping to see some Indigenous art and I stumbled across a bunch of people climbing in this cave. I’d never actually seen rock climbing before. There were three people, one female. The way in which she moved… I was just mesmerised by it.”
We’ve all got a memory like that. It seems to have hazy edges as the cinema of your mind is filled with this person in motion. Captivated by their elegance or power as they move with landscape and yet the gap between what you’ve just witnessed and your own capability feels like an impossible reach. Esther did not let that feeling linger. “I returned home to Fitzroy, living in a warehouse on Brunswick Street. Just off Smith Street there was a climbing gym. I went down with one of my housemates who climbed there – the gym was hosting a women's night. Turns out, the climber in the cave who I was completely mesmerised by was one of the coaches. That’s how I found climbing.”
Esther shares the awkward and uncomfortable reality of stepping into a sport that you don’t immediately feel at home in. “It was a big shift for me. I think I probably felt that I was always a little bit weird because I came from that art background. At first I really felt intimidated by the fact that I didn't have what I considered to be a sporty physique. I didn’t really do anything physical apart from hiking and yoga. It’s definitely male dominated, the bolts can be out of reach for a smaller person and the grading is usually designed for average male proportions.”
"Where are my boundaries and needs with safety and trust in my climbing relationships?"
“But soon I got obsessed. The communities I was in believed that we all do what we can with what we've got – we have different strengths. I ended up working for the gym and soon after got invited to climb outdoors by people I worked with. I moved to part-time Melbourne, part-time Mount Arapiles and was guiding outside as soon as I had a consistent practice. At this time, I had my own art practice in printmaking and etching, I had a studio space, but I wasn't really sure how I felt about making objects for art. There was something about climbing being an ephemeral art piece. This performance for nobody.”
I asked Esther about how they discovered this idea of their queer lens on the sport. “It wasn't until I went into [outdoor] rock climbing that I realised there's a big conservative world out there. I had to kind of relearn how other people did things.”
“When I was in art school, in the share house, most of the people around me were queer, very politically active and very sex positive. I discovered all sorts of things about myself; part of that was coming out as queer and experiencing my first polyamorous relationship. The beginning of my adult life felt like there was this freedom – I presumed that the lifestyle I was leading was normal. And even though the history of rock climbing in Australia is really alternative and open, pretty left politically and probably quite queer in concept, to come into rock climbing later in the early two thousands felt like a conservative space – it was a bit of a shock for me.”
"Do the people in my climbing community allow me to feel safe to show all of myself? And do I provide that for others?"
Esther lived in Europe on and off for eight years. Being in Germany was the pinnacle of this conservative sport/culture experience. “In Germany it felt like more of a sport. I noticed it in the way people talked about what they were doing. It wasn't quite as philosophical or metaphorical as what I can sometimes find in my climbing relationships, especially with trad climbers. Trad climbing, it attracts a pretty weird group of people.”
When Esther came back to Australia the local rock-climbing scene had really changed. “I joined ClimbingQTs as it started. There were a lot of gyms opening up and that invited a more eclectic range of people that were not just the ‘outdoorsy people’, but people came through other means. Instantly I was around a whole range of people with different ideas and ages and backgrounds, and we're all doing this thing together.”
"How do I feel supported to be adventurous in my life?"
Esther has been mentored by some pretty radical people and attributes a lot of their success to the one-on-one time they had with some of Australia’s leading climbers. They also acknowledge how hard it is now, having so many people getting into climbing, with only so many people able to mentor. It’s led to Esther’s own experiences as a mentor. “Offering my perspective have been deeply rewarding. To see the ‘a ha’ moment of people recognising that you're not learning the rules of how to do something, you're learning how to find your creative way of doing something. There's no right way.”
“I really think trad climbing is about learning a craft, not learning ‘the way’ to do it. How much gear you place, which gear you place where and what your assessments are – they’re all deeply personal things. When I am in the role now of mentoring others and I get to see them going, ‘Oh, this is my choice.’ My aim is having an experience that's me finding my edge, which will be different to your edge. There isn't this linear idea of what brave looks like or doesn't, and we can all reinforce that for each other.”
"If I want to be an adventurous climber, do I need to be more brave? What does being more brave look like, feel like for me?"
Esther has a lot of experience at Dyuritte (Mount Arapiles). There's even pictures of them in the guidebook. “When people know that I have climbed some harder grades at Dyuritte, I get to undo ideas about what a hard climber looks like or what a hard climber thinks like or how they perform. It’s a power and a privilege that I get to experience and then I get to choose what to do with it. It feels like a really political act because what I say has impact.”
Mentoring ClimbingQTs has brought a whole other level of joy to Esther’s experience. “It was the first QTs camp that I guided and we had some 18-year-olds in the group and one of the first things they asked was, ‘Yeah, so how do we poop in in the bush?’ They just know how to have dialogue, how to ask questions and how to bring uncomfortable things into the space. They’re also just so supportive of each other, and that is noteworthy.”
As a climbing guide on QTs camps, Esther has seen it all. “There can be someone having a really overwhelming time, maybe even getting teary and then the experience afterwards of seeing them say, ‘That was the best thing ever.’ It’s deeply satisfying when you get the level of challenge right for them. You're curating a potential experience, but you never know how that's going to go, and then to witness safely bring someone to their edge or observing someone realised they’re allowed to bring themselves to that edge. It becomes a group experience afterwards: other people in the group say, ‘Watching you do that was really inspiring for me’ or, ‘Watching you fall apart really enabled me to feel okay about the experience I have.’ When you see the terror and the joy all in one big day, that's most satisfying feeling.”
Learn more about ClimbingQTs here.
Esther exploring the literal edge on “Procol harum” a grade 26 climb, Mount Arapiles/Djuritte, 2017. Photo Simon Madden