Rebecca is an African American mountaineer, backpacker, and photographer, based in the Pacific Northwest. Her current interests include wolverine survey tracking for Cascadia Wild and volunteering with her local search and rescue! She’s also planning to lead a 2018 climbing expedition in Mexico.
Name: Rebecca Ross
Hometown: Portland, Oregon
Occupation: Graduated from Oregon Health and Science University with a Masters in Public Health, specializing in epidemiology
Triple threat: Mountaineering, backpacking, photography
Did you grow up in the Pacific Northwest? If not, how long have you lived there: I grew up in California but I’ve lived in Oregon since 2001.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED
What got you into climbing? The idea of mountaineering entered my life in 2016, shortly after reading the book Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life by Arlene Blum. I remember reading about her first climb of Mount Adams here in the PNW and all the challenges she faced and the adversity she overcame throughout her climbing career. It got me excited to enter the world of mountaineering. Shortly afterwards, in January 2017, I was introduced to an organization called the Mazamas, a nonprofit mountaineering education organization based in Portland. They offer an eight-week Basic Climbing Education Program (BCEP) in addition to other climbing programs. They gave me the basic technical skills for mountaineering and rock climbing, along with the resources and the knowledge to go out and safely climb mountains within my abilities. I’m looking forward to gaining more technical skills and summiting more mountains in the years to come. I’m already applying for a grant to lead a group on a climbing expedition to El Pico del Orizaba (third highest peak in North America) in Mexico in December 2018!
How did you get started in photography? I was gifted a camera but I didn’t even think I was skilled or creative enough to enjoy it. After witnessing incredible views while mountaineer, it didn’t really matter if I was good at it or not, I just truly love capturing those moments while either backpacking our mountaineering. You’ll rarely catch me without the extra weight of my camera and tripod while on a mountain.
Where have you climbed in Washington/Oregon? I’ve done technical and non-technical climbs including Old Snowy Mountain (7,800ft), Mount St. Helens (8,366ft), and Mount Adams (12,281ft) in Washington State and Three Fingered Jack (7,844ft) and South Sister (10,363ft) in Oregon. I’ve also attempted Mount Hood (11,249ft), the highest peak in Oregon.
My favorite climb was Mt. Hood, even though I came close to the top, but didn’t summit, it was surreal getting that alpine start, watching the triangular shadow of Mt. Hood come alive. Next year, I have plans to summit a few more technical climbs in preparation of climbing some mountains abroad.
How much gear do you climb with? A lot! I’ve done enough climbs to know what I can get away with and what I absolutely need, of course I’m still learning. If it’s technical I need rock climbing gear (harness, rope, helmet, etc.). Alpine climbs usually require crampons, mountaineering boots, and ice axes, depending on the mountain and time of year. Regulating my heat is always important so having appropriate layers of clothing is vital—never cotton! If it’s a multi-day trip I have a lot more gear: a seasonal tent, stove, extra food and water, sleeping bag, etc. Even the small items like snacks, multiple pairs of gloves, hand and toe warmers, my 10-essentials and more all add up. My overall load is anywhere from 45-60lbs.
How do you plan an alpine climb? Single vs multi day trip? There’s a lot of planning when doing an alpine climb, especially if the climb is technical. Things to take into consideration is weather, appropriate gear, skill levels, avalanche dangers, conditions of the mountain itself, and any other beta from fellow climbers that have recently completed the summit.
Deciding on a single or multi-day trip depends on a few factors. For me, I take into account elevation and distance. Some high elevation climbs I may want to take an extra day to get acclimated to the elevation in order to avoid altitude sickness, something I’m prone to getting. Other times, if it’s a lengthy climb, sometimes it’s best to camp half-way and complete the summit that next morning.
Fear and Adrenaline on the Mountain
I hated heights when I first started, I still don’t love heights, but I can cope with it. I really had never been in a situation where I had to deal with my fear of heights full on. In climbing and mountaineering I’ve had to push myself quite a bit and go out of my comfort zone. Continuing to take classes to build my confidence and participate on climbs with people I know and trust has helped melt away some of my fears. There’s always a risk in doing these sorts of activities, but the more experience I gain, the more I can trust my judgement and have an active voice in my safety.
How was your recent trip to Iceland? It was a great experience, especially ice climbing on one of Iceland’s glaciers and enjoying a soak in a geothermal river! If I had to do it over, I would have backpacked through Iceland because it would have given me more opportunities to explore vast beautiful landscapes in remote areas.
While my overall experience in Iceland was amazing, however one of the mishaps I encountered during my trip was witnessing peoples disregard for wildlife, despite marked signage. I counted a number of tourist wandering off trails, despite warnings, to take photos and selfies, thus creating additional paths that stomp on fragile vegetation. Despite my avoidance in confrontation, I felt the need to hold people accountable and explain the importance of staying on marked guided trails—after all, we all love the beautiful sceneries nature has to offer us. We all need to be cognizant in doing our part to avoid degrading wildlife areas so that we may enjoy them for years to come. While I’m not sure if my attempt to discourage people from creating a bigger impact on nature than is necessary, I believe it’s very important to be an advocate for conservation no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel
I read that you hiked a section of the Pacific Crest Trail. How was that experience? That was challenging! My friend completed most of the PCT and I joined her for a small part of it. We were putting in 17 to 22-mile days! It was rough and challenged me in so many ways. As soon as I overcame the physical pain, and allowed my mind to remove the nonstop chatter in my head I was able to really enjoy the process. Even though I was the only women of color that I noticed on the trail and was only on the trial for a short period, I immediately noticed the comradery and respect amongst thru-hikers. My friend told me she witnessed quite a bit of machoism on the trail in the beginning, but that mentality faded away after putting in some serious miles. While I have no doubt that that is true, I felt very welcomed and supported regardless of my color, gender, clean gear, and extremely heavy pack suggesting that I’m definitely a newbie. Experiencing thru-hiking from Timberline Lodge to the Cascade Locks has opened my mind to the possibility of doing thru-hiking, maybe one day the Sunshine Coast Trail.
DIVERSITY IN THE OUTDOORS
What has your experience been as a Black woman participating in sports which are predominantly White and male? Usually, I’m the only one. I see it as a great opportunity to break the mental barrier (stereotype) that Black woman don’t get involved in outdoor activities. I see myself as a role model for people who are like me but also for people who may be judging me. I also see it as a huge challenge because I’m usually the only Black woman involved in recreational activities, especially in mountaineering, I feel a lot of pressure. I feel the need to excel at what I do because I have a lot of eyes on me, a lot of judgement on whether I’m capable of doing these sorts of activities. But I must admit, regardless of usually being the only Black women, I don’t let it get to me. I focus on the task at hand and allow people to judge me based purely on my abilities, not on what I look like. And overall, my experiences have been extremely positive.
Outdoor industry brands have recently been tackling issues of access and creating space for POC and LGBTQ participation in the outdoors. Have you noticed any changes in your sports? Do you think diversity is currently trending or do you see opportunities for long term change? I would like to say that I actually see it but it could just be I have limited vantage point from where I am in the Northwest. I’m in a complete bubble. I really don’t see opportunities as far as people of color getting increasingly involved in outdoor recreations, although I do see a lot more women involved! Not saying that it isn’t happening or that it isn’t there but it’s a slow process.
What could brands be doing differently? I think continuing to have access and creating space for minority groups to be actively involved in is still needed and will always be an ongoing process. In addition to creating access and a space, I think it’s important for brands to include novice outdoor enthusiasts in their advertising and branding. I know for me, when I head to my rock climbing gym, I still get nervous, especially seeing others who are bouldering V8s and I’m stuck on my V4 problem. I get pretty intimidated, but then I realize we all have to start somewhere—a message that I think gets lost in the branding community.