Women on Lead: Interview with Hilary Harris, Founder of Evo Rock + Fitness

HH Evo Portland

Continuing our series celebrating Women on Lead, we have an interview with Hilary Harris, founder of Evo Rock + Fitness, which started in New Hampshire and has expanded to locations in Maine, Indiana, and soon, Colorado.  In today’s interview, she dishes on growing a business, the changing face of women in climbing over recent years, and more!

CXC:  Tell us a bit about your background as a climber.

HH: I started climbing in college, and have been climbing for almost 30 years.  I went to college at University of Colorado, and went with some friends and my little brother who was also getting into climbing at the time.  I had actually made the decision to go to University of Colorado because I loved skiing.  We used to joke that climbing was a good activity in the off season of skiing, but then it became a year-round activity and I got into climbing full-time. I graduated from college and went to Europe, where I honed my technique, trained with the German team, and climbed with some incredibly strong, inspirational climbers.  When I came back to the US, I was climbing hard routes and competing, but really preferred climbing hard routes so left the competition circuit.  At the time it was hard to make it as a professional climber, so I went back to school for architecture.

Hilary, before leaving the comp circuit, with Steve Schneider at Snowbird.

Hilary, before leaving the comp circuit, with Steve Schneider at Snowbird.

CXC: Did you get a degree in the architecture with the goal of opening a climbing gym?

HH: No, not at all!  I went into architecture to completely opt out of the climbing scene. Back then, I was a such a pure, idealistic ethicist.  I saw the crags being overrun and didn’t want to contribute to it, but regardless of what I did, the industry grew without me.  I ended up moving to England and getting a really great job.  I was getting Climbing magazine delivered to my door and saw my friends on the cover, and started regretting what I’d done and wanting to get back into the industry.  I had no plan to return, but ended up getting laid off during the recession in 2008.  The first thing I did was to go on a climbing trip to the Red, and it was like I found my soul again.  It was an opportunity to get back into the industry and use the skills I’d acquired.  New Hampshire was in dire need of a state of the art, commercial climbing gym, and everything just came together for me to design the first gym.

CXC: What have been your most inspirational climbs with women?

HH: I’ve climbed with a lot of awesome women in my life, and I always mention Bobbi Bensman.  She’s been an amazing inspiration and mentor, and has pushed me for years.  In Colorado, it paved the way for me having women around me who were stronger, who taught me that these things were possible.

Flagstaff - photo Beth Wald 1994

Climbing in Flagstaff in 1994. Photo by Beth Wald.

CXC: Have you achieved any first female ascents? 

HH: The hardest boulder problem I ever did, I was told by a man that a woman could never do it, and I got super annoyed and so did it. I’ve had a number of FFAs, but the most notable were probably the Undercling Traverse (V9) and Air Lupus (V8) in Morrison, CO. Ira Atomica (5.13b) in Kochel, Germany (my first 5.13) was a first female ascent. Back in the day, it was largely believed that women couldn’t be as good as men.  Now, finally, it’s being proven wrong.  Women like Ashima are proving that women can be as good, or better than men.  Lynn Hill did that when she did the Nose, but it is finally more common now.

CXC: What made your approach to building a gym different?

HH: From the beginning, I knew I wanted to build a national brand, not just a gym.  I wanted to brand, design, and create an image.  Right now, in the company we are discussing how to tailor each gym to fit the needs of each climbing community and retain local character, while having a unified brand.  Climbers and climbing communities can be very tribe-like, and the thought of franchising a gym is almost repulsive to me, so I don’t want a cookie cutter model.  The idea behind franchising a gym is to systemize the back end while allowing the front end to retain the “local flair” of the area.

Adult team at Evo Rock + Fitness

The adult team at Evo Rock + Fitness getting their climbing session started.

CXC: What are your feelings on female-specific climbing events?  Do you have a special place for female events as a gym owner?

HH: I saw a quote recently to the effect that women short change themselves by trying to be great females at something, instead of just being great, and I definitely agree with that.  However, I think climbing, and the gym scene in particular can be intimidating as a female.  It’s important when introducing women to climbing that the introduction can occur in a comfortable space.  It seems that this can be more common when there is a group of females, but also depends on the guys you’re with.  Ultimately, being in a comfortable space is not gender-specific.  However, that being said, I trained with some of the strongest women in Boulder, CO, and trust me, that was intimidating.

Evo Rock + Fitness Portland is hosting the Strong Women’s Summit this Friday! The event is from 5-10pm on June 24th at Evo Rock + Fitness Portland. Check out the schedule of clinics/classes posted on the Evo Rock + Fitness Facebook page under the Strong Women’s Summit event on our calendar. There is more information and pictures of some of our giveaway prizes on Instagram. Admission, classes, and gear are free to all ladies attending the event!

Climb on!
Emily

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One thought on “Women on Lead: Interview with Hilary Harris, Founder of Evo Rock + Fitness

  1. Meg says:

    Great interview!

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