Q&A with Erin Monahan: climber, feminist, Terra Incognita founder, and writer.
Affixing one label to Erin Monahan’s persona is nearly impossible. To begin, she is a woman and a writer, a climber and a critic, a feminist and a free spirit that will not accept the status quo. Her project embodies this all: Terra Incognita is a new media platform aiming to challenge, deconstruct and reshape climbing media’s current climate.
I was first introduced to Erin through a friend of a friend who thought I might be interested in contributing to Terra Incognita. After our first conversation over the phone, I stood up and jumped around my apartment. I was infected with her contagious energy. What impressed me most was not her obvious passion for Terra Incognita’s mission, it was the fearlessness with which she’d launched herself into the project’s fruition. She was doing everything she possibly could to manifest her dream within our reality.
Last fall Erin quit her job in Portland, packed her car with climbing gear and drove south with two destinations pulsing on her radar: Yosemite Valley and Indian Creek, Utah, the rock climbing meccas of the West. For two months she traveled the road, interacting with a host of different climbing and outdoor communities. When she awoke on her friend’s couch after returning to Portland, she had a thought. Soon that thought turned into a visionary’s itch that couldn’t be ignored: “I really want to start a climbing publication.”
So she did. She didn’t go back to work, instead, she launched a website. She didn’t find a house to live in. She crashed on her friends’ couches and pioneered a publication that could explore the unattended and overgrown intersections of climbing, feminism, and environmentalism. She didn’t allow her momentum to fade back to the comforts of her previous life. Instead, she solicited incisive contributors and garnered support for the project. Now ripe with writing, podcasts, and interviews, Terra Incognita’s mission is to invoke critical reflection on our climbing culture through a feminist and environmentalist lens.
After following Terra Incognita’s progress over the past couple months, I spoke with Erin again, probing her intentions, visions, and goals. This is what she shared with me.
Hometown: St. Louis, Missouri suburbs
College: University of Columbia - Missouri, Columbia, Missouri; studied English and philosophy
Current Location: Portland, Oregon
Favorite Camp Food: Oatmeal (with cinnamon, a must)
Favorite Climbing Area: Indian Creek, Utah
Do you have an elevator pitch?
[Laughs] I’ve actually been doing a lot of work with that. Terra Incognita is my response to media in general. I’m trying to provoke thought and encourage critical thinking in the climbing community in terms of our relationship with the outdoors and our relationship with each other. My goal for this whole thing is to inspire, excite and drive the climbing community to take action. There’s so much that we could do to promote sustainability and compassion and community as people who are always going outside. We’re such a rich community where a lot of social good can be done.
And that’s a very vague way of saying I’ve studied a lot of media and cultural criticism, and for me, looking at the world critically is extremely important. So I’m just trying to translate that into the climbing community and encourage more thought-provoking, critical thinking, and ideas.
What does Terra Incognita look like right now?
As it is right now, Terra Incognita is [an online platform] with a podcast, essays, and some interviews … I really want it to be a quarterly print publication as soon as possible because I love print. I think print is incredibly important to have in your hands because it’s such a different, better experience. And a film festival would be really awesome too.
I think that climbing challenges us in a lot of ways and exposes our vulnerabilities and there’s a lot of work that we can do to apply the kinds of mentality that we take towards climbing and putting it towards [the rest of life].
[Within Terra Incognita] I really want many voices. I want people from all different perspectives and all different communities … This world needs a lot of work in terms of making it safe for people to talk about their experiences and I’m just trying to encourage open discussion about those things.
What’s your long-term dream for Terra Incognita?
With the advent of gyms, more people have been exposed to climbing, so there [are going to be more] people climbing outside. A lot of Terra Incognita’s goal is to have [an outlet] that educates people about our impact, and questions anthropocentrism. I’m interested in exploring Ecofeminism with Terra Incognita. [And all of this can provide] a good foundation for a philosophy of entering outdoor space.
I want people to think twice about what it means to have an “outdoors,” because in some cultures there isn’t such a thing. We, [in the US], have kind of created “the outdoors” over time. It is a construct. It’s important to pay attention to the kind of thing that we call wilderness: how we’ve created it and how that affects our views on it.
What sets Terra Incognita apart from other climbing publications?
It’s all through the lens of feminism—that’s a huge part of this … I started [considering] the possibility of looking at our relationship with the outdoors and with each other from a feminist approach because, ultimately, feminism is an openness, as well as a questioning of what is known, and why it is known. It is about expanding reality, exploring the possibility, and pushing the limits that we have placed on ourselves. It’s [an act of] launching into the unknown.
Terra Incognita uses climbing as a vehicle because climbing has a rebellious spirit that [initially] drew me to it. Climbing takes you to where your body physically rebels: [at first, it’s] so unnatural to be so high. It’s a physical rebellion, and then it’s also a rebellion of the status quo. Climbers tend to want to live a no-frills, minimalist lifestyle. In this way, climbing has added to my questions of our societal structures. It gets complicated when we think about how privileged the climbing community tends to be. Terra Incognita, which takes its name from old European maps (another added intricacy), takes a closer look at ourselves and how we shape our lives. Because there are so many things about our society that have been around forever, and so many systems that have been in place for so long, to challenge those things is really scary to some people because they think, what would that look like? The unknown is scary.
In rock climbing, we always want to remind ourselves that there should be no ego. In the purest sense, rock climbing is just interacting with nature, interacting with the wilderness that we want to explore and these places that we love. But I think it can get really contrived and we can get really distracted by the achievements and the achievement ideology. By taking a feminist approach to it all, [it’s really just] taking a step back and remembering there shouldn’t be an ego wrapped up in our experience. I just see a lot of connections between feminism and how we can approach wilderness.
That really summarizes the beauty of climbing and how climbing can be translated to our everyday life. Who do you expect to read Terra Incognita?
This is still so new, I’m just trying to figure out, but in my intention, it’s definitely for everybody, all genders in the climbing community. The climbing community as a whole could benefit from reading it. But we’ll have to figure it out because it’s going to depend on who can contribute and who can produce content.
It seems right now I'm getting responses mostly from women who are in their 20s and 30s. I think it’s because that generation is just coming out of college and they are educated, they know what feminism means, and maybe they even studied it. Because this kind of project is kind of outside the norm, not in the box, I think that these people coming out and responding are progressive thinkers and can see and get excited about a new project.
Although there are definitely men too and I’m really getting support from everyone, I’m guessing the audience will probably be primarily women, and hopefully, people from the queer and transgender communities will want to jump on board. But I could speculate that when you put the word “feminism” in your headline, women are going to respond more excitedly, and it’s not like men don’t understand it or don’t want to be a part of the movement. Unfortunately, these days it’s just not something that men are exposed to enough, or in the right way. The media has demonized it a little bit in the past and now we are having a surge of empowertising, which is simultaneously hilarious and scary, like Donald Trump. So I’m also trying to reshape the meaning of, and our associations with, feminism.
Sure, by introducing feminism directly into your branding, you’re saying “We’re not afraid to identify in this way.” There’s the risk that labeling something as feminist can be alienating, but ultimately it can be powerful too.
Right, I used to get really angry and feisty when I was younger. Now I’m starting to [deal with controversy by] taking a step back and finding compassion. I’m trying to jump into any situation where I can have a conversation that’ll get down to the nitty-gritty truth of what we’re talking about and dig deeper than before. And find compassion for people who don’t always see the same side of things.
Controversy and feminism are things I’ve tried to reconcile a lot over the years. I constantly assess and try to better understand how I want to go into the world in terms of talking about feminism. I have come to a deeper understanding of the fact that people are coming from all different angles, backgrounds, experiences. Some people have never even been exposed to a lot of ideas and angles [that we’re familiar with], and so we must have patience and compassion for them. And lots of conversations.
If someone gave you two months of pure vacation, what would you do?
Well, I’d probably keep doing what I’m doing [laughs].
Well, that’s how you know you’re doing the right thing, huh?
Probably, yes. It would be amazing because this is a vacation for me, because this is exactly what I want to do: probing and art and writing and climbing. I mean I’d probably go to wherever there was good weather, Squamish? And then just work out of a coffee shop.
Posts Worth Reading:
Mackenzie Berg writes: “You may recall a small, but controversial piece of writing thatBackpacker published back in October 2015, introducing the ‘novel’ concept of encouraging more female leadership in the outdoors industry. Or, maybe you don’t remember it, which would be unsurprising since many of us rolled our eyes and immediately discounted it as the fluff that it was.”
Libby Sauter, intimately reflects on death's dual existence in her life: as a nurse in developing countries, and as a professional climber in the states.
“My perception of my life and the world I have created has been entirely upset and I am in a state of turmoil. I feel like I’ve created my own First World war zone with the all-too-real chance of death at every turn. I recognize that it is inappropriate to compare a country’s bloody fight for freedom to the hurt I feel at losing friends doing the voluntary activities to which we have dedicated our lives. But the last couple of years for me have been riddled with chaos sans security. The infrastructure of my existence is under attack by the very forces I once embraced.”
Erin writes: “The word “babe” in the title of this only women climb night reflects a widespread acceptance that women climbers are just objects of sexual beauty. There is an underlying violence. Violence lies in the word, ‘babe,’ because it threatens the integrity of women climbers. It threatens our competence.”