Sarah Fraza: Climbing Walls and Breaking Ceilings

Sarah Fraza is a local boulderer turned sport climber, a woman successful in a sport traditionally dominated by men. I spoke with her the day before she moved to California to join a wildland fire module to help put out wild fires and research their impact on the environment.

Emily Olson (Motif): I have to know about your California plans.

Sarah Fraza: I was going to school at URI, joined the volunteer firefighters, switched to PC and got a bachelor’s in fire science. I decided moving to California to join the wildland fire module would be a great way to incorporate firefighting into my field of study. It’s seasonal work. I’ll be going out for two to three weeks at a time, putting out fires and doing training and research. I’m really excited. Firefighting is not something I thought I would love, but I love the adrenaline rush and the excitement.

 EO: Will there be other women on your module?
SF: There will be two other women on our crew of 10, which is a lot. I’m hoping we have a good relationship because I love women supporting women. I had a friend who did the same thing, but rockclimbing1she was on an engine crew in wildland firefighting. She dealt with a lot of sexism, but I think these generations are just going to have to push for equality.  I’m hoping that this paves the way a little bit. There are a lot of women in leadership roles in the forestry service — one third — that’s big. I’m pretty sure the forestry service is leading in [equality in] firefighting.
EO: If you encounter sexism in your new career, how do you plan to deal with it?
SF: I worked really hard to get where I am and I’m really well qualified. I’m hoping that doing the work will speak for itself. And if it doesn’t, I think having open communication as opposed to arguments helps. My captain seems really positive about having women on the crew. Hopefully they won’t feel I’m attacking them for beliefs they’ve probably held their entire life. I don’t want to get on anyone’s shit list for being passionate.
EO: Rock climbing is also male dominated, isn’t it? What’s your experience been like?
SF: My experience has been incredible from the get-go. I learned with another woman in high school and that was empowering to learn with another positive and supportive female. We encountered some mansplaining. When you’re climbing, the intended route is called the beta; it’s the intended way you should execute the climb. A lot of times men would come up and try to give us beta on climbs that they knew. They assumed that because they were men they could climb stronger than us. And it might have been true at first. but rock climbing evens the playing field. You’re not strong for a woman, you’re just strong.
EO: Do men generally have greater upper body strength than women, though?
SF: If you work hard, it’s an even playing field. When you first start, it can be frustrating to look at the guy keeping up with you on their second day and it’s your first month. But the upper body strength plateaus in the first six months. As a result, beginning women climbers are forced to learn a good technique before they haul it up the wall. Men can haul it up the wall, and then they have to learn technique.
I think with climbing, you’ll hear people say, “This climb is for a tall person or shorter person, but that’s just not the case. If you watch any of the professional climbers, you’ll see that it really doesn’t matter. You just learn to adjust. So what? Women are shorter so we have to make a bigger move? You just find another way. Smaller moves can be hard for a tall man.
EO: You were fairly young when you started climbing.
SF: I started climbing at 19. That can be a volatile space for women. I was super insecure about my body — a lot of women in those years are — and it really shifted my focus from what my body looks like to what can my body do. I realized I could show my body respect and appreciate what it can do for me. Women often are taught we’re here to be desirable to men, to be appreciated by men, and it’s just not the case.
EO: What makes you a successful climber?
SF: My ego is my biggest factor in my success. As soon as I feel I’m super strong and am talking myself up in a boastful way, the rock climb will shut me down. It’s a great reset. It builds you up so that your confidence is pure. You realize very quickly in rock climbing that if you’re doing it for your ego and for other people, that you’re not going to enjoy rock climbing.
EO: What would you recommend to someone interested in climbing?
SF: There are two companies that own gyms in RI. Central Rock in Warwick and Rock Spot Climbing in Wakefield and Lincoln, which is such a welcoming spot. Take a class and learn how to top rope and learn how to lead. As an adult, it’s hard to start a sport because it’s embarrassing — you should already know how to do this. But you can learn this at any age and set your own pace. Go with someone who’s going to be supportive so you can laugh and have a good time. Talk to the people next to you. Rock climbers are one of the best communities. The group of friends I’ve made here are really supportive. If you enjoy it, go at least once a week and you’ll be surprised how quickly you jump grades.