Climbing’s first all-female production team plans to foster a creative community for women and use the sport they love to talk about broader social issues.
When I was the editor-in-chief at Climbing magazine, we conducted online reader surveys alongside every single print edition. I believed that, in addition to being a member of our target audience, knowing every last thing about a climber’s habits and opinions would help guide our decisions with the magazine in a meaningful way. The logic is solid, right? And c’mon, who doesn’t love pie charts?
What we learned (among many other things) was that the “average reader” was a 38- to 40-year-old male who climbed about three days a week (two in the gym and one outside, usually sport) and most likely lived in California, Colorado, Utah or Washington. He climbed in the 5.10 range and dreamed of 5.12. Yosemite was the #1 place he wanted to climb. His top gear concerns were shoes and ropes, and his favorite climber was most likely Tommy Caldwell or Alex Honnold. …See what happened with my pronouns there, though? This well-intentioned research created an unintentionally negative feedback loop: Most of our readers are dudes, so let’s speak mostly to dudes. It’s easy an easy thing to do, especially if you’re a man in a traditionally male-dominated space.
But rocks don’t know gender nor care who climbs them. Those are human concerns, and all humans have room to learn, grow and change.
Here to help influence this, by creating the type of content they’ve always wanted to see themselves, is Never Not Collective, a powerhouse crew who have come together to create the climbing community’s first all-women production team. Their initial feature-length project, Pretty Strong: “A climbing film about women, by women, for everyone,” recently launched on Kickstarter and is poised to debut in early 2019.
Never Not is Colette McInerney (35), a professional climber and photographer, Leslie Hittmeier (25), a van-living refugee from Skiing Magazine and Teton Gravity Research, Julie Ellison (31), former editor-in-chief of Climbing magazine (we worked together for 3.5 years, and she took over after I left), and Shelma Jun (34), founder of Flash Foxy and the Women’s Climbing Festival. They bring an unbelievable combination of talents to the table.
Here, in a roundtable discussion, the women of Never Not break down the goals and ideas behind their new production company.
How’d you pick your name? What’s the story behind Never Not?
LH: We have always joked about how we are “never not hungry” or “never not stressed.” It’s something we laugh about together a lot, so we came up with Never Not Collective. There are also a lot of fun things to do with that name, like silly hashtags and fun animations at the end of our films.
SJ: At first, we were inspired to pick a name that had to do with the outdoors but nothing felt right. Or sometimes a name would feel right for a couple weeks, and then we’d get tired of it. Never Not came up and just stuck.
CM: I feel like that was a pretty hazy time! We decided to test Never Not for a week or two, went back and forth, and finally we were all like ok, I guess we’re Never Not then!
JE: It’s this idea that you’re all of the things all of the time. We’re all complex beings, and sometimes I think people forget that. Like I can be terrified of leading a pitch but at the same time be ready to absolutely crush the rock into dust. Just because I’m scared doesn’t mean I’m not bold, and just because I’m out there being a boss doesn’t mean I also kinda have no idea what I’m doing.
How’d you pick each other?
LH: Shelma and Julie met and loved each other, then Julie picked me, and Shelma picked Colette. Now, we’re a happy family.
SJ: I really wanted to tell good stories from a woman’s perspective, and I knew it would be better as a collaborative process. I asked Colette, but she was hesitant at first because she had a lot on her plate already. Then, I was climbing in Eldorado Canyon with Julie last October, and she seemed ready for some new challenges so I brought up the idea with her, and Julie was stoked.
JE: After 6.5 years at Climbing magazine, I knew I was ready to move on, but going freelance fell a little flat for me. That’s when Shelma approached me in fall 2016 about this new project she had in mind for a women’s production team. I quit my job a few months later.
Most played track in your van/life right now?
LH: “Always on Time” by Ja Rule. I don’t care about what happened at the Fyre Festival, OK? We’re all human. We all make mistakes.
CM: Spotify’s Discover Weekly. But I was playing Big Sean’s “Bounce Back” a lot in the spring.
SJ: “Summertime” by Will Smith, my forever summer anthem.
JE: Mandolin Orange’s “Wildfire” on repeat, much to the chagrin of my van passengers.
What’s your mission? And what does success look like?
SJ: To create really good stories, first and foremost, through our lens as four women. The New York Times published an article several years ago that found that only one percent of Hollywood directors are women. One percent! I don’t know what the statistics are for the outdoor industry, but I imagine it can’t be significantly different. We’re not saying a female vision is inherently better, but considering the majority of outdoor media is created by men, what you’re going to get from a crew for four women, well, it’s going to be different.
We’re also hoping to foster a community and network of female creatives and to offer opportunities for women who want to get into the outdoor media industry to gain experience and have an avenue to work on their crafts.
JE: We want to use climbing to talk about broader social issues and hopefully to make the world a better place. My hope is that people are inspired by the work we create, whether that means getting outside more, trying harder, thinking deeper or just being nicer to others. We want future generations of all people to experience equality, love and acceptance. While you might ask how making silly little adventure films helps that blue-sky cause, my response is that it’s our responsibility to do whatever we can, however we can, to make that change. The outdoor world is the one we know and understand, and it’s the place where we have authority and power, so we’re gonna use it.
CM: This kind of work makes me equally as happy as climbing, but I know I can go overboard, so my goal is to find a balance.
LH: Success is us doing all of these things—and, perhaps someday, moving out of my van.
What types of stories will Never Not Collective pursue?
CM: I really like digging into people. All types. Of course, I like the story of someone doing something exceptional and pushing themselves, but I love the nuance of the mundane and the special things we sometimes look over, too.
SJ: The stories of awesome, amazing, inspiring, bold folks who haven’t been given the opportunity to tell the stories of the awesome, amazing, inspiring, bold things they are accomplishing or even just aspiring towards.
JE: We want to tell stories that the everyday person can connect to, not just the best athletes doing the biggest, baddest feats. It’s not about trying to make toproping 5.8 look cool, though, either; it’s about showing different sides of pro athletes, examining interpersonal relationships, and giving a voice to people who wouldn’t otherwise get one. We’re starting in the place we know, climbing and the outdoor industry, but we are hoping to branch out to tell bigger documentary stories that will have an impact far beyond our little piece of the outdoor world. I heard a quote recently: “You can’t hate someone if you know their story.” We want to create beautiful, engaging content that connects us to each other. It’s about realizing that every single person on this planet has a unique perspective, and each of them is equally valid and important.
Two parter: What should the average climber ask themselves more often, and what should we be hopeful about today?
LH: “Am I being a dick today?” Hah! That’s a joke, but never a bad thing to consider. The typical climber should try and be aware, polite, considerate and stoked for anyone and everyone who is getting out climbing. And I think there is a lot to be hopeful about! There are so many men and women out there who are being amazing humans! People who are leading by example. Eventually, it’s simply not going to be cool to be sexist anymore. I think we are heading in the right direction, and it’s just going to take time!
SJ: If you’re thinking, “Well, I’ve never experienced that,” I’d ask the average climber to remember that just because you haven’t experienced it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen to the other person. Be open to acknowledging discrimination, accepting privilege and being uncomfortable—because these topics are hard and uncomfortable but important! We should be hopeful because we’re talking about this stuff.
JE: I’d echo what Shelma says about being uncomfortable. The most satisfying and enlightening conversations I’ve ever had made me squirm in my seat because I had to question everything I thought I knew, and I had to accept that, “Hey guess what?! I might be… Wrong!” It’s really challenging for us as humans to stop talking so we can listen, but if you set aside your own ego and come at it with an open mind, your whole perspective can shift. If we continue down this path, future generations will be light years ahead of us on all these subjects.
All time favorite sport crag?
LH: Ten Sleep! Because I can climb 5.12 there.
CM: Ooooh! So tough! Even split between Rifle, Siurana and Ceuse. One for the sentimental home crag feel, the second for some of my favorite people and best memories in the world, and the third for the pure aesthetics and perfect rock climbing.
SJ: Tioga Cliffs and Siurana.
JE: I’d say Ten Sleep, where I’ve climbed all my hardest routes, and the Red, where I’ve punted off all my easiest routes.
Who’s inspiring to you from a creative standpoint?
LH: I’m always so inspired by Renan Ozturk’s work. There is so much knowledge there about everything from technical camera shit to editing, and his shots are always so spectacular. Based on his Insta-stories, his work ethic is insane.
CM: I probably don’t have my ear to the art world as much as I should. But in our industry, I’ve always been blown away by Renan Ozturk’s work from the beginning of his film days. Vanessa Compton is a close friend and amazing visual artist, who I’ve seen grow over the years and I’m consistently impressed with her work. I love Becca Skinner’s work, Tara Kerzhner is one of my favs, love Mary Mecklenberg as well… oh now the list is getting long!
SJ: A lot of my creative inspiration comes from music and art–Nam June Paik, FKA Twigs, Kingdomm, Swoon.
JE: Forest Woodward, Austin Siadak, Jon Glassberg and Drew Smith totally kill it. Brendan Leonard practically invented modern outdoor humor writing, and from his OG blogs about burritos to the graphics/memes he does now, he finds a way to make everything relatable and interesting. Andrew Burr always and forever. I’ve never seen a guy work so hard and have so much fun doing it. Krystle J. Wright, a true badass adventure photographer if there ever was one.
Who are your climbing heroes?
CM: Yikes! Again too many!! When I started, Lynn Hill, Steph Davis and Lisa Rands. Later, Emily Harrington Daila Ojeda, Dave Graham. These days I think Margo Hayes and Barbara Zangerl are crazy inspiring!
JE: Madaleine Sorkin—what an absolute badass—her big wall free climbing prowess is unmatched. Nina Williams, watching her climb is mesmerizing. She’s so graceful and so effing strong. The entire next gen: Margo, Ashima, Brooke Raboutou, Michaela Kiersch. Then there’s Megos, Honnold, Caldwell, Croft, and about 100 other people.
SJ: Katie Lambert and Peter Croft.
LH: Julie Ellison. Duh.
Preferred method of caffeination?
LH: Chemex, autodrip, moka pot, espresso, aeropress, frappe, latte, macchiato, cappuccino, anything but French press (gross).
CM: I travel with my Bialetti almost everywhere now, add whole milk and honey!
SJ: Coffee in the morning, brown rice green tea in the afternoon and Red Bulls for desperate times.
JE: Coffee IV drip.
Your perfect day?
LH: This is cliché but my perfect days happen in the mountains. They are never perfect on paper, and I’m never perfect either, but most of the time I walk away so happy. This winter I was able to ski the Grand Teton with a really amazing group of people. It was challenging in every way and put my skills to the test, and the next day when I woke up and drove to work and saw the mountain, I had this overwhelming sense of euphoria. It was stronger than anything I’ve ever felt before. I know that means something. …I also get a lot of satisfaction out of sleeping in until nine and then going out for breakfast with my husband.
CM: Sleeping in a little, going climbing with some friends, sending a project then having a little left over time to get on a rope and shoot some photos. Burritos and beer together after.
SJ: Ahhhh. Okay, I’d say perfect days can happen in a lot of different places but they always include good people, an awesome environment and a sense of contentment/accomplishment with the world as I’m standing in it right then.
JE: Climbing in perfect temps (sweatshirt weather but not so cold that I don’t even want to put my shoes on) with my favorite people. Probably bouldering because I’ve been sport and trad climbing a lot lately and I’m starting to swing toward pebblewrestling again. Plus, my favorite climbing/hang spots tend to be bouldering: Bishop, Chattanooga, Horse Pens 40, and it’s easy to climb and shoot when you’re bouldering! We all send a few things, then pass around the whiskey bottle before heading to someone’s house to cook an incredible meal and tell more stories while sitting outside on a deck or porch.
I’ll admit that some of the most entertaining climbing films for me are filled with lots of Sharma’s Tssssaaaaat! What will “Pretty Strong” have?
LH: This film will have some of the best female rock climbers in the world. It will also have a story that matters. And it will have a production team behind it that cares about women’s rights and equality. And it will have kick ass tunes (Ja Rule, remember?).
JE: This film will have try-hard, silliness, grunting, grrr-ing, sending, failing, falling, flailing, ups, downs, laughing, and probably some cursing. It will also have a combination of climbing porn and storyline like you haven’t seen in most major climbing films.
SJ: We’ll have Tssaaaaat too!
CM: Sharma’s not the only one who can do it, though he does it oh-so-well.
What do you hope climbing is like for the next generation of climbers?
LH: I hope climbing, and its community, stays just as fun! I hope it continues to be a thing for a community of like-minded weirdos who delight in grabbing rocks.
CM: More diverse, more attainable. I love the idea of someone who never thought they would find a sport like this finding it and getting joy, focus and sense of achievement from it. I plan so much of my life around climbing. I’m always thinking I’m so glad I found this sport.
JE: I hope it continues to be a tool that can be used to find health and happiness, a connection to others and to nature, and an excuse to travel and learn about the rest of the world.
SJ: I hope it brings new climbers the same kind of wonder that it has brought me. It’s changed my life.