This Female Climber Quit Her Job to Start Her Own Rock Climbing Business

Climber Stefani Dawn
Photo credit: Lady Lockoff Photography

My name is Stefani Dawn and I quit my job to follow my passion – climbing. Although, I have climbed regularly for about 10 years now, I do not climb at elite levels – far, far from it! In fact, I am totally a 5.fun/5.easy climber. But, my love of climbing is what drives me: It drives me to write; It’s what drove me to start a business and a website; And, it determines where I travel.

I am the co-founder and co-owner of Climb-On Maps with my husband Rick Momsen. I also created the website www.commonclimber.com. Both of these endeavors were born from personal experience and frustration.

Climb-On Maps was born from the frustration of losing precious vacation time trying to find a climb instead of climbing (many of the largest, most popular rock climbing areas are very large and difficult to navigate). So, with my husband’s mapping expertise, we started making very detailed climber’s approach and walk-off trail maps.
Common Climber was born after continuously reading about the best-of-the-best climbers and extreme epic climbing adventures. Very little voice was given to the “regular Joe and Josephine” climber. In fact, many times, in these publications, newer climbers and non-elite climbers were referred to with derogatory terms such as “noob” and “gumby.” Those messages can make you feel like you have to be climbing difficult climbs to be a “real climber.” That is simply not true. There are so many ways to be a real climber – including gym climbing. I wanted to convey a different message.

Tell us about your background and your personality.

I grew up in Austin, TX but, even though I appreciated the “hip-ness” of Austin, I never felt at home there. I needed vistas, mountains, and access to large areas of public land. Central Texas is mostly privately owned, so you have to drive pretty far to escape into wilderness. I have lived in many amazing places in the western U.S. and currently live in Utah, a public land and mountain-lover’s paradise, where we can rock climb year round and easily access awesome snow in the winter.

I am and have always been a curious explorer, but my personality has evolved greatly over time, mostly as a result of growing and healing from past traumas that affected me wholly and deeply.

At an early age, I committed to personal growth, determined to do what ever it took to find myself and to find happiness, but many paths did not lead to those goals. It is very difficult to overcome traumas and messages that were ingrained in your brain during childhood. It has been a long, bumpy, difficult, and experimental road, one that I almost chose to end on several occasions.

Now, I can say, with perseverance, persistence, and out-of-the box exploration, that, finally, I am happy. Finally, I know myself. Finally I am healing and not just putting on psychological band-aids or living in what I call “survival suppression.”

Personality wise, I am naturally an introvert, which simply means I turn inward and need to be alone to regain energy. But, I still really love people and connecting with people. I believe in people and have faith in them. The majority of people in this world are wonderful, caring, and amazing. My healing has allowed me to recognize this – people actually used to scare me a lot.

I also love laughing and playing, loving fully, feeling feelings, and experiencing life. That is also a big change from when I was younger. I used to be very closed and shut down.

I have learned to enjoy that life is unpredictable and unfolds before our eyes. I like change and movement. Perhaps that’s one reason why I connect so well with rock climbing and what drives the kind of climbing I prefer. For example, I rarely climb the same climb twice. I am an explorer, I want a new-to-me climb, which is a mystery, a puzzle, a voyage into the unknown, where the terrain unfolds before me. It makes me feel alive.

Climber Stefani Dawn
Photo credit: Adam McKibben

How and why did you get into climbing?

I first became curious about climbing at around 1990. I took a weekend course at Enchanted Rock in Texas and it was a terrible experience. I didn’t feel mentored at all. I felt thrown onto the rock. I flailed, bled from cracks, and, what felt like to me at the time, I failed.

It wasn’t until around 2007, after the end of my first marriage, that I decided to try again. This time I took a class in a gym. It was a far better experience.

There were many wonderful things about my first marriage, including the birth of my one and only child. But, one of the things that ultimately lead to the marriage’s demise is that I cut off a critical personal need to explore the great outdoors and the world. For example, before I got married, I was an assist scuba diving instructor. I dove in caves in Mexico, I took a sailboat/diving trip to the Bahamas, I was ready to cross the ocean to who knows where. Then, after getting married I didn’t dive again for 15 years – until after my divorce. I got wrapped up in full-time college, full-time work, and what I thought married life and a normal life was supposed to be. I oriented my world around my husband and the “American Dream” – whatever that was – the house, the car, the stuff, the supposed-tos. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that life, it just does not fit my nature.

After my divorce, I made a commitment to myself to follow any outdoor curiosity I had, even if it scared me. I needed to try it. I would see these bad-ass, strong, beautiful women out there and I wanted to be one of them. They were my spark, my inspiration.

Then I entered into a long-term relationship with a man who owned his own guiding business. He was a rock climber, paddler, skier, backpacker, all of the things I desired for myself but hadn’t yet fully immersed in. He took me to the next level of outdoors. He mentored me in all of the outdoor activities he knew like the back of his hand.

Climber Stefani Dawn
Photo credit: Adam McKibben

Why is climbing important for you?

Climbing is important to me simply because I love it. It fulfills me. I can talk about all of the wonderful aspects of climbing – the focus, the physical-ness, the contact with the rock, the challenge, the beauty of the surroundings – but those things are true for many outdoor sports. The only explanation I can give is the desire and connection to climbing comes from somewhere inside that is inexplicable. When you find that, embrace it, whatever the sport or hobby.

Climbing also provides a unique connection to outdoors. The outdoors is a conduit for the soul. The outdoors allows us to connect to that which is greater than ourselves. But, to genuinely make that connection, to derive the full benefit of what wilderness (and climbing) has to offer, we must release fear.

I say “release” fear because we are never really “absent” of fear. Fear can be consciously managed and, thereby, released. Training, risk assessment, risk management, experience, trust, and logic can all help us with managing fear.

But we have a lot working against us because our society is fear-based. What about getting attacked by bears, or bees, or murdering psychos? These are real but they are not likely. Seeing a bear in the wild is beautiful. Knowing what to do in certain situations helps. Training and getting out there eventually relinquishes fear.

Honestly, fear keeps us from ourselves. Fear prevents the full and amazing connection with the pulse of ourselves and the pulse of the outdoors. Acknowledge then choose to actively release fear.

Climber Stefani Dawn
Photo credit: Lady Lockoff Photography

What are the hardest parts of climbing?

The most difficult part of climbing for me was to get past the stereotypes I bought into it. I used to believe that to be a real climber, I had to climb the hard stuff and I had to keep getting better. It took time, exploration, and acceptance, to find who I was as a climber. I get better not by getting stronger but by being knowledgeable about climbing – such as building anchors, placing protection, and then sharing that with others.

Addressing fear is also a challenge in climbing. When you are leading a climb and think you may have gotten off-course or you hit an unexpected difficult section, fear often kicks in. Fear in those moments does not help, it can cause panic or confusion. Learning to manage fear in your own way takes time and practice.

Sometimes I just put in a piece of protection and sit down to think things through and calm down. I am not a “purist” climber. I don’t care about getting a climb “clean” without stopping or pulling on gear. If there are no holds and I have to pull on a piece of gear to get past a spot, I will do it. The goal for me is to complete the climb, not complete it with perfection.

How do you train and become better at climbing?

I do not train for climbing. I simply climb. Sometimes I will go to the climbing gym to keep the muscles, moves, and lead-head fresh, but, as mentioned above, I do not project (i.e. do a hard climb over and over until I get it). I climb outside as much as possible because of the connection to the outdoors and the unpredictable nature of it.

My favorite type of climbing is easy trad multi-pitch, which are long climbs that require you to place your own protection. I love to travel to experience these types of climbs. It makes me feel like I have truly experienced an area. As mentioned previously, because I like adventure, I rarely do the same climb twice (and I rarely remember the names of the climbs I’ve done). The climbs are just there to experience and move on.

Climber Stefani Dawn
Photo credit: Adam McKibben

How do you eat and sleep?

I used to be on a very, very restricted diet – not by choice but by necessity. I have an intestinal autoimmune disorder that also spread to my pancreas. My intestines were so damaged that I reacted to almost everything I ate. I eliminated food after food to prevent the severe diarrhea and flare-ups. Then I would begin reacting to foods I previously had no problems with. I was malnourished because everything caused severe diarrhea – 10 times a day kind of diarrhea. My climbing was significantly impacted, but I never stopped. I just got weaker and weaker. I had to basically wear panty-liners or adult diapers when climbing on long multi-pitch climbs.

I was taking expensive cortico-steroids to help control the diarrhea and flare-ups, but you can’t really be on those long term – people do, but you really shouldn’t. So, I did a significant amount of research and learned about supplements to help my intestines repair – bone broth, collagen, MSM, among others. Those, along with a grain-free allergy-free (foods I was reacting too) paleo diet, helped and reduced my diarrhea to about 1-2 times per day. But the action I took that helped me the most was a fecal microbial transplant – an FMT.

I have a science background and make evidence-based decisions, and I learned that FMTs have a significantly high success rate for people with autoimmune disorders, especially intestinal disorders. But, here in the U.S., they only allow FMTs if you are on your death bed with an infection called, C-dificil. One year ago, I left the country to get a medically-supervised FMT. I now only have diarrhea about 1-2 times per month! I have gained weight and muscle. My climbing strength has returned. I could not do our business if I never got the FMT – this past year we have walked over 1200 miles in tough terrain to make these rock climbing maps! I am healthy again thanks to the FMT.

How do you handle injuries and recovery?

I got injured when I was pushing myself too hard to “get better” at climbing – get stronger, climb the hard stuff. With an injury, you have to stop and rest and do counter-muscle balance exercises. I still do the counter muscle balance exercises because it is good for injury prevention, but since I stopped pushing too hard, I don’t get injured!

I also try to make wise decisions in dangerous terrain. When doing a muti-pitch climb and there is an unexpectedly difficult or scary section, I have no hesitation pulling on gear to get me past the moves. I’m not a purist climber. Like I said earlier, I climb for fun, if I have to pull on gear to make it fun, so be it. When you are injured, you aren’t climbing, which is no fun.

Resting when your mind and body tell you to is also important. If you are tired, frustrated, getting impatient or short tempered, feeling overwhelmed, those are all signs it’s time to rest. I stop, turn off all social media (I don’t watch TV anyway – I quit that after my divorce – TV is an anti-motivator! A time-sucker!). I sleep all day if I need to, cry if I need to, sit outside and do nothing if that is what my heart is asking me to do. The path and the world look clearer when I honor my needs and take a break. Resting is important.

Climber Stefani Dawn
Photo credit: Adam McKibben

What is your best advice people new to climbing?

My best advice is to have fun and climb safely. Find out the best practices, take them seriously, learn how to do them, and always implement them. I know several people who broke their backs from climbing mistakes that were totally preventable.

My next advice, not just for climbers, but anyone seeking to make change and grow, is to find your motivation.

There are two sources for motivation (1) energy that comes from a need to be yourself – i.e. you HAVE to do something because it feels absolutely necessary to do it. In this circumstance the energy flows, it even explodes. Or, (2) taking action because you see a vision for who you want to become. This is about overcoming inertia, overcoming the excuses and negative messages we repeat to ourselves or believe when other people say it. Any vision we create and desire is possible, but it has to be fed. That vision has to be fed more than the no’s and the excuses and the negative messages. Feeding a vision is taking one small step at a time, even if it is scary or tiring. You will get past that with persistence, which builds momentum.

After my divorce and I saw those beautiful bad-ass women rock climbing and paddling white water, at first I envied them. I was even jealous of them. Here they were in their 20s and living what I thought was the ideal life. There I was approaching 40 and my body and life was falling apart (prior to getting an autoimmune disorder I had breast cancer and I also had to get a hysterectomy – my son jokes that when I turned 40 my body fell apart – it totally did.). I felt pathetic. But I WANTED to be those women. My jealousy and envy of those women was a sign that my spirit was telling me that I AM THEM, I just have not fulfilled the desire yet. I had to make a choice, live to be myself or suffer.

Ultimately, all motivation stems from the desire to express and be yourself. The difference is that once you have found it, the energy flows. But, until you get there you have to overcome the inertia by creating a vision and then taking one small step at a time, and acknowledging that you’ve taken that step. But the two forms of motivation are always working together – the flowing and the envisioning/overcoming inertia.

Best advice for people who have been climbing for years?

I have observed that people who have been climbing for a while tend to move beyond the seriousness and intensity of the sport that often occurs early on. They begin to have real fun!

Although, this is certainly not true for all “old school” climbers, perhaps one change I’d suggest is to be open to the new ways of climbing in. If you are a pure trad climber, allow yourself to see the benefits of bolted sport climbs. If you have always belayed a certain way, analyze why the newer PBUS (pull, brake, under/up, slide) belay is actually much safer. Also, we need positive, experienced mentors in rock climbing to help new climbers transition to the outdoors in a positive, respectful, care-for-your-crag manner. Let’s not moan and groan about the next generation of climbers, let’s welcome them with open arms and mentor them. They really are interested and they care!

Climber Stefani Dawn
Photo credit: Adam McKibben

How do you balance family life with climbing?

My 17-year old son is a senior in high school and began living with his dad when he started high school. His leaving was a difficult transition for me, but, because we live in two different cities, his dad and I needed a loving solution for our son. We decided that a boy needs his mom, so he lived with me through middle school, and a young man needs his dad, so he has been living with his dad through high school. This arrangement has freed me up to be able to quit my job and start a business that requires a lot of travel. I also get to be the fun parent now, instead of nagging about doing homework we get to play – ski, backpack, climb, paddle. I get to have a different relationship with him.

What kind of climbing shoes and clothes do you use?

I have six pairs of the same climbing shoes – the Evolv Rock Star. They are my all-time favorite shoe and I own so many pairs because they stopped making them. When I learned they were being discontinued, I bought several. I am now cycling them through multiple re-soles to try to extend their life.

Shoes are very personal. I don’t buy into shoe reviews, because what works for one person definitely won’t work for another. You have to keep trying shoes until you find the right pair. I have a bin full of climbing shoes I don’t care for – at least eight pairs, some very expensive. Then when you do find the right pair, stock up.

Clothing – durable, stretchy, and quick-dry are my primary criteria for clothes. I do not wear cotton when doing anything outdoors. I also like pockets but for some reason, women’s clothes get short-changed on the pockets! There is a newer movement to appeal to outdoor women, I say add more usable pockets – not this tiny thing that barely fits lip balm. I want a big side pocket in my pants that will securely hold my iPhone 7 Plus!

Climber Stefani Dawn
Photo credit: Lady Lockoff Photography

What has been your best sport purchase below $100?

My best purchase was the $35 Megajul belay device. In fact, I own two of them – one for my gym harness and one for my outdoor harness (and my husband owns one). It is a brake-assisted belay device that can do everything – rappel, lead belay, top rope belay, and belay in guide mode for multi-pitch climbs. The Megajul is super light and durable, made out of stainless steel. I will not belay without a brake-assisted device anymore. Too many close calls with rocks that can knock you unconscious or a dog that can bump into you while belaying or even just rope management when climbing a multi-pitch. It is safety at its best.

What other favorite gear do you have?

Oh my, that is a dangerous question for a rock climber. We LOVE our gear. I would go as far to say that it is almost to the level of love affair, desire, passion. Have you ever seen the Instagram post called Weight My Rack? There are almost 30K followers and all the photos look the same! The photos are of climbers showing off their gear!

Trad (traditional) climbers (who place their own removable protection using nuts and cams) particularly love their gear. I’m no different. I have a full double rack of a mixture of Black Diamond and Metolious cams, from micro-cams to a #6. I also have a set of the Omega Pacific Link Cams, which have an incredible range. My husband and I call Link Cams our “oh shit” cams. I use those in very specific circumstances, such as a back-up for run out sport (bolted) climbs and when doing a trad climb I save them for anchor building because they provide me with more options after I have placed most of my other gear. My husband and I also bring the Linn Cams as part of our ultra-light protection set-up for exposure (I wrote a blog on the ultra-light equipment we use specifically for mapping).

I LOVE my Misty Mountain Threadworks Cadillac Harness – it’s beefy and has six gear loops. Many harnesses are going minimalist, I’m the opposite – I want big, comfy, and something can hold lots of gear. (I wrote a review on Common Climber for this harness.

I LOVE my 70 meter-bi-pattern Blue Water rope. Not too stretchy. My last rope was too elastic, I didn’t care for it.

I LOVE my Megajul (mentioned above – I wrote a review about that too).

I LOVE my Evolv Rockstar discontinued shoes.

What books that you read and can recommend?

As for books, I enjoy adventure non—fiction, such as “The Emerald Mile” – such an amazing, beautifully written book, and incredible story! I also read self-help books that help remind me of my goals. Deepak Chopra is an author I turn to regularly for reminders.

Climber Stefani Dawn
Stefani with husband Rick. Photo credit: Lady Lockoff Photography

What will the future bring?

We will be attending numerous outdoor rock climbing events – as much as time and budget allows. In September, we will go to the Smith Rock Craggin’ Classic, and we hope to attend the Friends of Joshua Tree Climb Smart. We will also be attending the Red Rock Rendevous in Las Vegas too. There are some women-specific events I’d love to attend, including the Flash Foxy Climbing Festival in March. As a female climber and business owner, I really support women-focused initiatives. Only 36% of outdoor climbers are women, and about 45% of gym climbers are women.

As for the future of Climb-On Maps, we have a few new areas we will be exploring for possible maps. Not every climbing area needs a map like ours, so we have to scope it out first.

In addition to expanding to other rock climbing areas, we are working on a “Choose Your Adventure” hiking map product for some of the areas where we currently have rock climbing maps (exact areas to be determined, but Red Rocks and Joshua Tree are likely). The adventures will be “The Discovery,” “The Vista,” “The Extreme,” and “Through a Child’s Eyes.” Our high detail, boots-on-the-ground (i.e. we’ve been there), 1:1,200 scale maps lend themselves to this approach we are taking (most trail maps are 1:24,000 scale and use public trail data – so all their information is the same). Not only will we have unique hikes, our maps will include trail difficulty, labeled exposure points, and labeled orientation photos as part of the maps; similar to our climbing maps, but tailored to hikers.

The rock climbing trail maps are not really appropriate for non-climbers, as the trails are usually poor quality and can be dangerous. But we have found some amazing off-the-beaten-path gems that are worthy of sharing. We will be carefully selecting those hikes, along with some other worthy existing trails that may be overlooked or confusing (and in need of a good map), to help people explore. The hike selection criteria will consider the user experience, the uniqueness of the hike, and maintaining the protection/integrity of the area.

We will be releasing more information on the “Choose Your Adventure” hiking maps soon, so please stay informed at our website www.climbonmaps.com.


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3 Comments

  1. Hi Stefani,
    I enjoyed finding this article on you. I am pleased for you that life is going so well. You deserve that. Also, you look great so your management of your activities is obviously is right for you.

    Please take care and I wish the best for you and Gregor.

    Kind regards,
    Ken

  2. Hi Stefani,
    I enjoyed finding this article on you. I am pleased for you that life is going so well. You deserve that. Also, you look great so your management of your activities is obviously is right for you.

    Please take care and I wish the best for you and Gregor.

    Kind regards,
    Ken

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