In honor of Celebrate Diversity Month, BACC is spotlighting inspiring Bay Area community members dedicated to fostering safe and inclusive climbing environments.
Last week we spoke with Nanda Guruswamy, BACC’s Community Director, about their involvement with Girl Ventures and the value of supporting youth through their climbing journeys.
“I started climbing about 10 years ago,” Nanda said in an interview. A friend of Nanda’s at the time suggested they go to Yosemite. On the trip, the two took several climbing classes just to learn the ropes. “I’d never really been an outdoorsy person—my family never took me camping or anything like that,” Nanda explained. On the second day of the class, the instructor took Nanda and their friend on a multi-pitch climb. Nanda recalls being terrified until reaching the second pitch. “I turned around, and I had never seen anything like that in my life,” Nanda said. “When we got back to the Bay Area I joined a gym and it’s just been a part of my life since.”
Now as an avid climber and Bay Area Climbers Coalition’s Community Director, Nanda reserves a special place in their heart for the sport. “I just love the community that climbing brings together,” they said. “And also how it’s helped me from a mental health aspect.” But Nanda feels the way many climbers do: they wish they had gotten into the sport at a younger age. “I feel like climbing would have made my experience of growing up so much better. Having role models and this healthy activity that’s also very community-based.”
Because Nanda did not have that opportunity at a young age, the Bay Area-based non-profit Girl Ventures struck a chord. Girl Ventures is an adventure program that aims to inspire girls to lead through outdoor adventure, inner discovery, and collective action. Girl Ventures practices radical inclusivity, with the word “girls” referring to gender-expansive youth—cis girls, trans girls, non-binary youth, gender non-conforming youth, gender queer youth, and any girl-identified youth alike. For Nanda, this focus on inclusivity was another thing that drew them to volunteer. As a South Asian, non-binary climber, they felt their identity could help impart something to young climbers. “I wanted to become a mentor in case my identity can help somebody realize it’s okay to be you.”
Nanda volunteered as a mentor for Girl Ventures’ Girls Climb On Program—a climbing program designed for youth from 6th to 9th grade. Mentors are paired with a youth one-to-one and taught climbing skills such as tying knots, proper belay technique, and technical climbing skills. But as they explained, the mentors are there for more than just climbing-related skills: “The mentors not only support the youth at the gym through climbing and belaying—It’s a lot more than that. We do a lot of social and emotional learning as well.”
For example, Nanda explained that mentors are taught how to encourage youth to effectively communicate their climbing journeys’ positive and growth areas through mindfulness practices such as the “Rose, bud, thorn” exercise. The mindful thinking activity prompts participants to describe and reflect upon their emotions. The youth are asked to describe their “rose”—something positive that happened, their “thorn”—a challenge faced, and their “bud”—something they are looking forward to learning more about.
These experiences help teach impactful lessons to the youth participating, but as Nanda explained, mentors also have a lot to gain from experience.
“Being a mentor taught me a lot in ways that I wasn’t expecting,” Nanda said. “The youth were really patient with themselves. If they wanted to come down off a climb, they weren’t upset or frustrated. That mentality was really refreshing for me. I think I’ve been more in a space of climbing for myself, and taking on what other people are putting out there of, ‘I just need to get to the next grade’— which is totally fine—but mentoring helped me realize that I don’t have to be in that mindset if I’m uncomfortable with it. I am really grateful for the lessons that I learned through climbing and with some of the mentees and students in the program.”
On top of mentoring with Girls Climb On, Nanda also leads the Bay Area Climber Coalition’s Community Ambassador team, helping educate the local climbing community on best stewardship practices. “I make sure that we put on events with the community and get visibility about the organization out into our climbing community,” they explained. “BACC’s mission statement around preserving access to climbing through respecting the land drew me in. I just wanted to be a part of that.”