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  • Writer's pictureNatalia Boltukhova

Shaping the Climbing Industry: A Brief History of Bouldering Unicorns of the Magic Woods

Interview with WBF co-founder, organizer extraordinaire, bouldering beast, and a supreme scientist - Sandra Jonsson.

Sandra Jonsson. Photo by Andy Day.

Q: Where in the world are you? I see that you’re in a van – same one I remember that you took to WBF 2019 all the way from Sweden to Fontainebleau.

A: In the middle of nowhere, somewhere in Sweden.

Q: Were you able to climb outdoors during the pandemic? I know that Sweden took a route different from most countries in managing the spread of the virus…

A: Kind of. According to our constitution, our government can’t limit our personal freedoms and force people to stay in lockdown, so all they can do is issue recommendations and it’s up to people to take them or not. Plus, most people in Sweden live in a single occupancy housing, by themselves. It would be really unbearable to be in a lockdown by yourself.

But yes, I try to climb outdoors at least once a week.

Q: What brought you into climbing?

A: A friend dragged me out on my birthday. I remember being so hungover, I was like: “I’m not going anywhere!”. He shoved climbing shoes in my hands, and there I was: at a climbing competition without having ever previously touched a climbing hold.

Q: How did it go?

A: Well, I barely touched any boulder problems in the qualifiers, but because there were just three female participants, we all made it into the finals. The final boulder was so out of our level that none of us entered the final round. But it was there and then that I was looking around me and seeing a ton of guys, and just the three of us, plus maybe a couple other female spectators. That felt really wrong.

Q: So here you are, some seven years and two WBFs later, making the change. I’m presuming that the idea of WBF took shape between you and Zof (Zofia Reych, co-founder of WBF) at some point. How did the two of you meet?

A: We met in Magic Woods, at a campground. I walked past this blond girl with a small adorable dog once, twice, then I decided to cuddle Stefan (the grumpy old curmudgeon of a rescue dog with some aggressive tendencies). At which moment Zof came running at me screaming: “Why are you touching my dog?!” (it was a protective measure). It’s worth noting that Stefan only bit me once, bruising my left butt cheek. It happened much later, and I’m convinced only because he wanted to leave a love mark on me.

Needless to say, Zof and I became fast friends, and I was excited to finally have a female climber friend.

Sandra (bottom) and Zof (top) doing the unicorn thing in Magic Woods.

Q: You’re saying “finally”. What was your climbing circle like?

A: There were just very few women who climbed, fewer who climbed outdoors, and at my level even fewer. I did have a great female climbing partner on ropes, but she only climbed indoors. I didn’t feel like I was pushed to climb better. So I found myself climbing outside with guys. There is also a thing with my gumby ankles, which I am very prone to tweaking. I rely heavily on spotting. Outside, I have to trust my spotters 100%, and for a while I was only comfortable giving this role to my boyfriend at the time, and his friend.

And here was Zof, who was my size, actually a little taller, absolutely fearless, and a power package. I was all about technique, and so we complimented each other very well. I would give her all this detailed techy beta, and she’d push me to try harder, because if she could do this move, so could I.

Q: Let’s talk about climbing with people not “at one’s level”. What do you think about it and do you have an opinion about climbing in mixed level groups?

A: I remember being a complete newbie and feeling like I was in the way of people who climbed harder, when we were going for the same boulder. But in fact I wasn’t, I wasn’t at all in the way. It was all in my head and perhaps a little in not knowing the ethics of taking turns. That actually applies not just to newbies, there are some harder climbers who are not well aware. So maybe if we keep talking and demonstrating, it will have a positive effect.

Another thing is that most women, and it’s not just women, people in general, but I see it mostly among female climbers, I think sometimes they are afraid to try harder grades.

Sandra on Albarracin in Fontainebleau.

Q: What lies in the way of trying harder?

A: I think it’s the fear of failing. Sadly, climbing is often approached as something very goal-oriented, result-oriented, where the result is to top out. So, if you didn’t top out, you failed. Actually [laughs], you literally, fall. You did not finish it. There is no way to hide it. In other areas of life, you can sometimes kind of smooth it out, but in climbing it’s right there: you fall equals you fail. And that affects the way you view yourself, and your mental well-being. However, at the same time, when one doesn’t reach the top, did they high-point? Did they do the hardest move to date? Where are they in their process? This is what I focus on and coach people to focus on: the process.

Q: Since you mentioned how one’s mental well-being may be affected by certain expectations in climbing, can you talk about how climbing has affected your mental health?

A: Zof and I are both quite anxious people, and perhaps that was another point of connection. I have had some pretty rough bouts of depression in my lifetime, and so did she. The very first time I was on a climb, my head finally went quiet. After that I was climbing to chase that feeling of quiet. Actually, I have heard it from many people who battle anxiety and depression, that climbing had a positive calming effect on them.

Q: And you said that your very first time climbing was at a comp, which very few people would describe at “quieting” and “peaceful”.

A: [laughs] yep, that’s true. But it was. It drew me in, like I said, first to chase the feeling of quiet, and then I started working hard on getting better.

Q: What was your motivation to work hard on getting better?

A: I was watching all those Youtube videos of people climbing in stunning, beautiful places all around the world, but all of those climbs looked so hard! My boyfriend and I took a climbing trip to Fontainebleau anyway, and I have decided to really put an effort into getting better at it!

Q: What are you working on now, in climbing?

A: I’ve had a pretty serious ankle injury (remember the wobbly ankles?) which has put me out of climbing for a few months. In order to maintain the little sanity I do have, I had to establish certain milestone goals for myself, and this strategy has now carried over to the post-injury period. So, unlike before, I am trying to be really goal-oriented in my climbing training. There are a few projects dangling in front of me, that I would love to tackle as soon as the travel restrictions lift and it makes sense to move around.

Two are in Spain: Atrium and a really cool wall I have forgotten the name of.

There is another one in Font, it’s called Supplément d'Armes: cool compression thingie which finishes with a tall easy slab.

Sandra doing the cool compression thingie on Supplément d'Armes.

Q: You mentioned how going through the injury rehab process has steered you toward goal-focused training. Would you say that it also affected your other areas of life, such as your job?

A: Yes and no. The decision to go back into science after taking some time off from it by being a full-time Head of Organization and Education at a climbing facility, has never been an unexpected one. I have never stopped being a scientist. Even in my role at the climbing gym my main interest was in the systemic running of this new thing, and figuring out the interconnectedness and logistics of a new system. I just needed time off from studies to sort my head out. So now I have decided to give science a full effort for the foreseeable future.

Q: What does your job as a scientist involve now?

A: I am a research assistant at a lab, and I work with bacteria that affects the immune system. Like many labs across the globe, ours does COVID-related research as well, but my line of work is specifically with this bacteria. Oh, and I still work occasional odd hours at the climbing gym. Naturally.


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