At 4-foot-11, Jess Brown finds that she rock climbs differently than most. She can't reach the same holds in the same pattern as those who stand a foot or more above her. Her climbing style focuses on her strengths, which, like most women, lie not in her upper body, but in her feet and legs, where most of her weight is centered.
It's facts like this that Brown, 24, hopes to share with women participating in the Rock Dump's newest climbing class targeted specifically for females. It's a class that Brown, who works as the instructor, said isn't completely new to the local climbing gym, but is one that takes a new twist on traditional methods of instruction.
Because for Brown, being a woman climber goes beyond where to put your feet.
"Rock climbing, for me, comes back to exploring my own body's strengths and movements in different ways," she said. "It's important for women to solve these problems on their own, instead of having someone tell them the 'best' way to solve the problems (when) working through difficult climbs."
Tyler Gress, business manager for the Rock Dump, said a class specifically geared toward women at Juneau's only climbing gym is a necessity.
"Comments always came in inquiring about a women's class," he said. "If we're going to have a sustained climbing population, then we need to continue to reach out to our other demographics."
"And Jess is definitely spearheading that effort, and she's definitely extremely well-qualified for the job."
But Brown is not a professional climber or instructor. When it comes to teaching, she draws from the personal climbing experiences she's accumulated since taking up the sport about five years ago after a memorable Outward Bound wilderness experience.
Her goal for the women's class?
"To provide women with that basic foundation, and offer areas for improvement; to let them explore their own bodies and their individual strengths," she said. "For me, it's more about sharing tips from woman to woman."
Brown said she likes to let the students choose the pace and structure of the class.
"I just assess the individuals when they show up. What do they want to get out of the class? I try to give them direction, drills and as much information as they want."
But in a gym environment where men often outnumber women, Brown, who also is teaching climbing at the Zach Gordon Youth Center, said the local rock climbing scene can be intimidating. It's a feeling she knows and one she understands how to overcome.
"I like to acknowledge that there are some challenges and differences in gender climbing," she said. "Women will use their feet and legs, whereas men will naturally muscle up a wall using their arms without putting much thought into it."
Women, because of their smaller stature, will often solve a climbing problem much differently than a man climbing the same wall. And in a culture defined by a fast-paced work ethic, Brown said the sport offers an opportunity to slow down, and, like yoga, focus energy where it's needed most.
"It's a cool sport in that your mind is very active," she said. "It's physically based and also technique based, but it is also a mental sport."
Gress said when it comes to technique, women often have a slight advantage.
"Women naturally have more finesse and balance," he said. "And these components are extremely important to all who climb."
The class, which is part of women's night at the Rock Dump, is held every Wednesday night from 7:30 to 9 p.m. and is open to all abilities. Participants need only to wear comfortable clothes and bring a water bottle. Otherwise, Brown said, the gym has everything else a climber might need.
"The idea is to get a group of women seeing each other climb and getting psyched on each other's accomplishments," Gress said.
"It's a great opportunity to try something new in a totally supportive environment," Brown said. "(Participants) can gear the classes toward what they want. It's a great way to alter your social scene while getting physically fit and learning a new skill."
• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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