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Meet Sonya Wilson: Climbing Role Model, and Eddie Bauer’s First Deaf Climbing Guide

What does representation in climbing look like? It looks like climbers of all abilities getting inclusion, access, and working together to progress in the sport. Deaf climber and guide Sonya Wilson is facilitating that in a big way.

A profile of climber Sonya Wilson wearing a blue zip up hoodie and cap standing on a hillside overlooking a green neighborhood in L.A.(Photo/Spruce Tone Films)
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What does representation in climbing look like? It looks like climbers of all abilities getting inclusion, access, and working together to progress in the sport. Rock climbing guide Sonya Wilson is facilitating that in a big way.

Over Memorial Day weekend, Eddie Bauer released its film ‘Elevated,‘ featuring climber Sonya Wilson. Wilson is a climber, teacher, climbing guide, and the founder of the ASL Climbing Network based in Los Angeles. Wilson is Deaf and uses ASL (American Sign Language) to communicate. She’s been climbing on and off for more than 30 years.

Yesterday, Eddie Bauer named Wilson to its Guide Team, making Wilson the first Deaf climber and guide to be backed by the brand. She’s possibly one of the first Deaf climbers to be recognized by any brand, marking a huge step for Deaf representation in the sport. Wilson joins three others on the Eddie Bauer Climbing Guide Team.

According to the World Federation for the Deaf, there are more than 70 million people worldwide who identify as Deaf (versus hard-of-hearing (HoH), or late-deafened, which is someone who becomes deaf later in their adult life). It’s worth noting that there are many Deaf climbers and other Deaf athletes in the world, but hardly any are recognized by a brand in this way.

Undeniably, Sonya Wilson is paving the way for more Deaf and HoH climbers specifically to gain access, representation, and recognition in the sport. I chatted with Sonya Wilson and Eddie Bauer to learn more about the recent film, her climbing journey, and what Deaf representation in climbing looks like.

Q&A With Climber Sonya Wilson

Joshua Tree 2017
Sonya climbing in Joshua Tree in 2017; (photo/Sonya Wilson)

GearJunkie: How many years have you been climbing?

Sonya Wilson (SW): [I’ve been] climbing trees and scrambling rocks since 5 years old. Then climbing with a rope and harness since I was 19. In my 20s and 30s, I would go to climbing gyms (when they started in the ’90s), and climb outside at Stoney Point [in L.A.]. I’ve been teaching climbing since about 2013, after I established the ASL Climbing Network.

Rock climbing is a very hands-on team sport. Would you say people are more inclined to learn how to work together with Deaf climbers? What has been your experience?

Now yes, but it was definitely a challenge at times. In the past, people were less willing to communicate with Deaf people and climb with me. But that was before formal climbing gyms were set up.

Having gyms helped benefit a lot of people. That kind of environment encourages people to pair up, meet new people, socialize more, and connect with climbers in your local area. It helped build bridges, build community.

I think gyms are the reason we’ve had so many positive things happen in the rock climbing world. When I set up the ASL climbing days a few years ago, I wanted to provide a space to welcome everyone in my community — Deaf and hearing. Sometimes I’ll gesture, “Hey, do you want to come climb with us?”

And I’ve seen three types of responses from people: They’ll either say no, or be caught off guard. As a teacher, I can draw those people in, get them to join. Usually after that [first interaction], it’s no big deal; people will feel more comfortable. The third type of people I come across will be people who are naturally great at gesturing, people who are excited to get involved, and will say “yes!” That’s cool.

sonya wilson signing in ASL outside at sunset
(Photo/Spruce Tone Films)

I’ve noticed it’s getting better and better. We still have those negative experiences, but I try not to get offended. It’s always best to find strength in your community and keep moving forward.

Have you observed any barriers, if any, between gym climbing and climbing outside, in terms of access?

I think it would be helpful if rock climbing gyms would start collaborating more with their local Deaf communities to have an ASL interpreter there. They could teach different clinics, different skills. The best way for a Deaf person to learn is from another Deaf person.

One important note: it’s always important to ask a Deaf person their preferred mode of communication. The Deaf community is diverse and not all Deaf people are the same.

If that’s not an option, it’d be great if gyms or climbing locations could provide interpreters. It’d be nice to see more opportunities for the whole community to be involved (families with Deaf children, for example).

Yes, outdoor climbing can be way more of a challenge. If [Deaf] people want to take clinics outdoors, go through a guide company, or a training group, access is not always provided.

The organization won’t afford to pay for interpreters, and so on … a lot of times it’s just not considered when they make their budget. But that needs to change to be a priority all of the time. [Organizations] need to be prepared to provide access and understand what that looks like: whether for Deaf people, HoH, people who are DeafBlind.

Access is more than just captions. I would love to see grants, scholarships, or sponsors that focus on providing quality access to help fill that need for nonprofits or companies with smaller budgets.

In the outdoor industry, oftentimes if I want to take a class, I will look into that company first. Are they able to provide accommodations? Oftentimes, I am the one with all the resources, and I have to educate them on what to do.

sonya wilson climbing in Joshua Tree NP
(Photo/Spruce Tone Films)

There’s so much more that goes into access that people need to consider.

We need to have Deaf guides out there, Deaf climbing instructors. When I’m looking for a rock climbing partner for outdoor climbing, that’s also tough. You know, I’m a woman, and I’m a Deaf person — there’s more I need to be aware of in my environment. I want to feel safe.

You and other Deaf climbers don’t just need someone who is Deaf. You need a climbing partner at your skill level — someone who can climb 5.12, for example. How do you find those people?

For any sort of climbing, you are looking for skill level. But I think if [hearing] people were more open, they’d be more willing to communicate and figure it out. Communication is always there. You just have to find a creative way to access it. It’s not that hard. Communicating when you’re on a wall — that’s not a new thing.

A lot of people will ask me, “OK, you’re Deaf. How are we going to climb?” Just because I’m Deaf … don’t think I don’t know what I’m doing.

This is why I started my local ASL Climbing Network. It gives Deaf people an opportunity to join together and find climbing partners. I’ve organized ASL climbing clinics, climbing days outside. And anyone can join. I set up the ASL Climbing Network in 2012 … but there are ASL climbing groups all over now in D.C., Colorado, Minnesota, New York, the U.K. — everywhere. The community is growing.

I want people to understand that you don’t have to be able to hear or speak to enjoy rock climbing.

How can everyone help make the sport more inclusive?

sonya wilson belaying in the climbing gym
Sonya belaying a climber in a gym setting; (photo/Spruce Tone Films)

Oh, I could write a book!

Well, for climbing gyms: I feel like they should have a welcome video that introduces their gym, but these videos have captions and have a picture-in-picture on-screen with a person signing. That way, gyms can share all the information about who they are and what they do, and it would be accessible [to people who are Deaf/HoH]. It would also be wonderful if they could provide descriptions and transcripts.

For outdoor festivals: its important organizers are willing to collaborate with us. I’ve been to quite a few. For maybe 7 years [running], I’ve gotten a Deaf group together at the Red Rock Rendezvous Festival. And that’s an example of building connections, making friends with the team there — learning about the planning for these sorts of events. You can’t just reach out and make demands for access — you need to [build] it. I’ve learned that from my own experience.

For film festivals, they should require that all films submitted have captions. And an access team should be set up at festivals. They will continue assessing how it went by getting feedback and making improvements. I notice a lot of people talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion — these conversations are everywhere right now — but I never see the word “access” included. It’s left out.

But come on, it’s 2022. When are we going to see [people] take access more seriously?

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What more can outdoor brands and companies do in terms of inclusion and access?

For the outdoor industry, I would say that companies should get feedback from these communities; ask who it impacts. And it’s important to hire Deaf people to work in the outdoor industry.

If any outdoor companies are looking to come into our community, they need to know our history and culture, our lived experience, and the challenges we face if they want to better understand. They can take a class; they can hire a Deaf consultant.

It’s important [for companies] to learn the ADA laws, what that means. Ableism and audism, what that means. And cultural appropriation, what that means and how it applies.

A big importance in the Deaf community is “Nothing about us without us.” Meaning, don’t make decisions for a Deaf person without that Deaf person. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve experienced people disempowering me, thinking they can make a decision for me. That’s just wrong.

Sonya Wilson boulders in Joshua Tree
Sonya Wilson climbs in Joshua Tree; (Photo/Sonya Wilson)

For brands, it’s important for everyone to caption their online content. And if it’s a video, provide a description and transcript.

I feel like I’ve been saying this over and over. If I had access to all the content out there, my skills would’ve been so much higher. I feel like I would’ve been a better rock climber. And it’s not just for me; you don’t know who’s in your audience. It has to be accessible to everyone.

I want to be able to spend my energy in the outdoors, not using up my energy always fighting for my basic right. I hope that access becomes the norm and we don’t have to do this work. Because I’m 50 years old. I should be out there climbing El Cap … I’m tired of doing [this work]. I’ve spent so many years advocating and just pushing, because I want the outdoors to be better.

We need Deaf representation. We don’t have enough right now.

Can you talk about a recent positive experience you had in the climbing/outdoor industry?

I recently went to Bishop, Calif., for the Flash Foxy Film Festival. They asked me what they can do to provide access, they were communicative … just asking me got them instant respect. The organizers showed their willingness.

And they made me feel seen. Oftentimes my community … we are the last to be seen, to be included. No more of that.

When I went to Flash Foxy, they shocked me. They captioned all their other films, not just [“Elevated”]. I wasn’t expecting captions for everything. That was my first experience where everything had captions, after how many years later. I told them thank you; I felt valued.

Up next, watch Eddie Bauer’s ‘Elevated’ Film. Our Q&A with Sonya Wilson continues below.

Can you talk about your experience on location for the film “Elevated”? Where did you climb, and who with?

We climbed in Joshua Tree. Once a year, I host an ASL camping and climbing weekend retreat, and this was our third. It was magical. I think there were about 14 Deaf people, three CDIs [Certified Deaf Interpreters], nine ASL interpreters, and six hearing members.

And we collaborated with two organizations called the Southern California Mountaineers Association and Friends of Joshua Tree. The film crew, Spruce Tone Films, partnered with Eddie Bauer and a ton of wonderful sponsors to support our event and the film.

Where are some of your favorite places to climb? 

I love climbing at Joshua Tree, it will always be a special place. And I love climbing at Stoney Point, Malibu Creek. My home gym is Stronghold in L.A., and they have always been very supportive. Out of state, I’ll always love Red Rocks; I grew up in Nevada, so Red Rock was my backyard. I would love to go climbing in Yosemite one day.

ASL Climb Clinic Malibu Creek
A group of Deaf climbers gather for a clinic in Malibu Creek; (photo/Sonya Wilson)

When you were younger, and also now, who are your role models?

When I was younger … it’s kind of hard to say. I wasn’t given access or communication. So, role models? I didn’t even understand what that meant. I was probably 7 years old when I saw a woman on Sesame Street, and after seeing her body language, I realized she was Deaf. Every week I would watch and learn from her. That was Linda Bove on Sesame Street.

Who else … Heidi Zimmer, she’s a Deaf mountaineer, and the first Deaf woman to summit Denali and Mt. Kilimanjaro. Miriam Richards, she’s a Deaf alpinist. She has finished 49 of the 50 highest points in the U.S., and has summited some of the high points in Europe (completed 43 so far).

Another is Jeanette Scheppach, a Deaf woman who loves adventures. I saw a film about her and I just loved her energy. She’s climbed a bunch of peaks. And Juliette Gordon Low: she’s Deaf and she founded the Girl Scouts.

For other role models, Lynn Hill. I did an experience weekend through the Cliffhanger Guides company in Joshua Tree, and wow! I got to climb with her; it was great. She had already been my role model, and then she belayed me!

Another person is the climber Jeff Lowe. I had met him in Colorado actually [before he passed]. He was a good spirit, very wise. And Erik Weihenmayer — the first Blind person to climb Mt. Everest. And one more person: Mark Gobble, a Deaf teacher from Texas who was part of the Team Everest Expedition to EBC (Everest Basecamp) in 2003.

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You mentioned earlier there’s not enough Deaf representation in the outdoors. Where are all the Deaf sponsored athletes, Deaf brand ambassadors — do you hope to see more representation in the future?

I mean, I’ve never heard of a Deaf brand ambassador. I try to avoid saying I’m the first because I don’t know if there was someone before me. But I am Eddie Bauer’s first Deaf ambassador.

Being able to collaborate with Eddie Bauer means a lot to me. I felt very honored that they would recognize the need and importance. We need more like them. I hope to see more Deaf ambassadors and see DeafBlind people represented too.

And I hope this is just the start of something much bigger.

Editor’s note: We conducted this interview in both English and ASL, and have edited it for readability and clarity.

If you are interested in learning more, you can connect with Sonya Wilson @deafclimber on Instagram.

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