Montana Profile: Climbing High with Evelyn Wall
Updated: 2 days ago
Evelyn Wall first discovered the sport of climbing in 2005 while doing Tai Chi in a park in her hometown of Billings. She noticed a group of people bouldering, an intense subset of climbing that requires the climber to summit a boulder free of a rope or harness. Wall asked to join the group and they happened to have an extra pair of shoes in her size. Her first time climbing she says she found an unrivaled gratification in the puzzle and rigor of the sport.
Wall is now a successful climber and adventure guide and an up-and-coming activist in Missoula. As one of nearly 25,000 LGBTQ+ identifying adults in Montana, Wall made the transition as a transgender woman about a year ago.
She says she was initially scared of losing the support she gained in the outdoor community over the years but, although it was a decision she’d been waffling over for more than a decade, she confesses that she needed to do it for herself.
The majority of people she came out to about her decision were supportive.
“They were just like ‘Oh! This is beautiful. This is wonderful. I’m so glad that we get to meet who you are,’” Wall says. “I was really enriched by that and supported by and affirmed by this community.”
Not everyone has supported her, though. Wall explains she lost some friends and most of her family due to her transition. Yet she still had a strong second family in the outdoor community and says she thought that social connection was something that could benefit other LGBTQ folks. This experience led her to want to share the sense of community with others in similar situations.
Wall founded “Out There Missoula,” a University of Montana outdoor activity club, to provide outdoor mentorship for people of LGBTQ identity. Since launching Out There in the summer of 2019, the club has gained more than 300 members.
Wall says Out There Missoula was created to give a free, healthy wellness option to the LGBTQ community, noting that everybody, no matter their financial situation, should be able to experience the outdoors.
Wall is active across Missoula serving on boards for a number of different activist organizations including Kaleidoscope, an organization where LGBTQ people of all religions can safely explore their spirituality. She’s also given talks on the UM campus, including at the annual DiverseU event, and has even started a bathroom equity group that is working to craft gender-neutral bathroom signs to install around Missoula.
A Personal Story
Evelyn Wall was born in Massachusetts but says she moved a lot as a young child due to her father being a Green Beret in the U.S. Army Special Forces. She moved to Billings, Montana when she was in third grade and her father retired from the military to become a psychiatrist.
In Billings, Wall recalls hearing a lot of derogatory things about LGBTQ people. At age 12, she started to recognize her effeminate nature and also started becoming uncomfortable anytime someone referred to her as a “handsome man.” In high school, she had secret boyfriends and felt ashamed for not being able to be with them openly but also feared retaliation if she acted on her feelings. When she was just 16 years old, Wall was the one to discover her father after he had committed suicide and the event only added grief to her personal turmoil.
In 2007, just after graduating from Skyview High School, Wall moved to Missoula. She was in and out of the University of Montana for about nine years, mostly due to financial struggles, but she graduated in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in genetics and evolution. Now, in 2020, Wall has started in the Master in Public Administration program at the University of Montana
She was planning to get her master’s degree in computer science and then her Ph.D in evolutionary ecology. Her work with Out There, however, made her realize that advocacy could be the right career path.
“I had no intention when I started Out There to become an activist,” Wall says. “I fell in love with the work and the people that I was working with and the satisfaction of making a project and seeing it through and seeing it actually help people.”
Cas Kendley, a fellow LGBTQ advocate who has worked with Out There Missoula says he looks up to Wall’s capability as an activist and her boots-on-the-ground approach.
“Evelyn is so tenacious really, and she comes to activism with such determination and in public with such a smile and such charisma,” Cas says.
Wall has now spent a lot of time in Montana’s great outdoors, mastering traditional and ice climbing, white water rafting and kayaking and even has led many trips as both a river guide and a climbing guide. Wall’s love for the outdoors has inspired her to mentor a number of people who also have gone on to become guides.
Right now, Wall says her favorite thing to do is snorkel the Clark Fork river, which runs through Missoula. She straps on flippers and a snorkel and makes a game of snagging trash before the current sweeps her downriver. Although Wall says she used to enjoy daring adventures, she has taken a step back from her risk-taking tendencies since her transition.
“I did a lot of that stuff to sort of prove myself in a gender I thought I really needed to be because I was worried people were gonna find out that I was really effeminate,” Wall says. “I still have a huge passion for those areas, but what I love more is teaching people and giving them the tools to go out and explore.”
One of Evelyn’s last serious climbing mentees was Bryson Allen, a careful, thoughtful climber and one of the best students Evelyn admittedly ever had. When Allen graduated from UM in 2018, Evelyn helped him get a job in Juneau, Alaska as a climbing guide. She suggeted that he should climb the Mendenhall Towers, a ridge of seven huge granite spires that jut out of the glacier above Juneau.
Tragically, however, Bryson died in an accident on the Mendenhall Towers in June 2019.
“We don’t have Bryson anymore,” Wall says. “How willing do I want to be to teach people the kind of stuff that got him killed?”
She says she almost stopped Out There Missoula in its tracks when Allen died, devastated that someone she taught perished in such a horrible way. She sought out his family and several of her climbing mentors and listened to their perspectives.
“He was just such a wonderful human being. He was really enriched and in love with that space and there’s lots of people like him,” Wall says. “I don’t want those people to be in dangerous positions because they don’t have the resources to learn this stuff or because they don’t feel comfortable learning it from another place. So, I felt a lot more at ease with continuing to do this work, but it definitely made me pause for thought.”
Now, she says she is even more wary of risky situations and refuses to accept laziness when it comes to safety.
Uphill All The Way
Wall admits she has struggled with a lot, from finding her father after his death to losing close friends and grappling with her own gender identity for over a decade. She says that coming out as a transgender woman was among the most difficult things she has ever done.
She compares it to climbing remote, towering cliffs when she is up so high her partner’s voice is lost in the distance; she is losing her grip and her hands are so cold her fingers are too numb to feel the holds. The wind whips her face and the rope flaps like a flag and she’s not even sure she’s on the route anymore.
“You could be off-route and doing something that maybe isn’t even doable, and you just have to take your gear and your skill set and move carefully,” she says. “And that’s sort of what transition feels like for me. You take what you learned before and you move very carefully into, hopefully, a place with a better perspective.”
She says she was lucky to have transgender friends in the climbing community to stand by her through the transition. They were there to support her, just as they would on a rock wall.
“That’s sort of what climbing relationships are: I’m holding the rope for you, I can’t protect you from what you’re going to hit on the way down before that rope comes tight, but I’ll be damned if that rope’s gonna fly through my hands. I got you on this end, as much as I can get you. Go do the thing, you’ve got this,” Wall says.
In the wake of her gender transition, Wall says she is often on the receiving end of a lot of discrimination. She gets shocked stares in public places like hardware stores and she has even heard coworkers say it’s okay to murder LGBTQ people. She says many people have come to her fearful or upset, asking for help.
“If you really want to help this community, give them a shot. Give them a job,” Wall says.
She readily admits that not all of her experiences have been bad. A lot of people she interacts with are kind and supportive.
One way Wall combats discrimination is by training Out There Missoula members to be competent guides themselves. She works to secure funding for guide training and has lined up jobs for people in Parks and Recreation and the GUTS and GRITS programs at the YWCA.
Wall says she was proud to have found the funds to buy 60 pairs of climbing shoes from La Sportiva for members of Out There Missoula to use. She wrote a letter to the company and received a 20 percent discount before procuring the rest of the funding from the Associated Students of the University of Montana. She also helped more than 30 people get their climbing certifications.
Wall says her primary goal is to encourage people to be supportive in any way they can.
“There are lots of simple things people can do to support each other,” she says. Helping people learn how to put on makeup, get their hair cut or access new clothes are only some examples supporters might consider.
Wall explains that encouraging acceptance is the biggest thing that people can do to be supportive, “Maybe you don’t run a business; you can’t help someone get a job or you’re not a landlord. That’s understandable. Lots of us are not those people, but there are other little things that you can maybe do too, but that follow through really helps.”