Shelma Jun is, by most metrics, an unlikely face for the sport of climbing. A late arrival to the scene — she didn’t begin until her mid-twenties — she lives in New York City, about as far-removed a place from Yosemite and Joshua Tree as they come. Which is kind of the point. A Korean-American born in Seoul, the Brooklyn-based climber is leading the way as an advocate for changing the way we view the outdoors: making sure, among other things, women and people of colour are given a greater voice.
The creator of Flash Foxy — an online platform to “celebrate women climbing with women” — Jun co-founded the Women’s Climbing Festival in 2016 and was listed by Outside magazine as one of the 40 women who have made the biggest impact in the outdoor industry.
A remarkable feat, given climbing was a backup plan.
A longtime Californian, Jun’s family arrived in Fullerton when she was five. A middle child, she grew up involved in competitive swimming and water polo.
“My family was always really into the outdoors, and if you’ve ever seen photos of Korea, it’s an incredibly lush, mountainous region … so that was kind of already seeded into my childhood,” she says.
As she grew older, she learned surfing, skateboarding, and snowboarding — the latter of which led to her switch into climbing. At UCLA, she arranged her class schedules to run Tuesday through Thursday so she could make trips to Mammoth Mountain.
“The climbing community in New York City is incredibly special … I think you get a diversity that you might not find in other places.” – Shelma Jun
“The very first day of snowboarding season, I broke my arm in half … and I was told not to do anything where I could fall onto my shoulder for at least two years,” Jun says. “A girlfriend of mine invited me to go to the climbing gym. She was like, ‘Hey, if you want to do top-rope at the climbing gym, if you do fall, you only fall one or two inches of rope stretch.’”
When Jun made the move to New York in 2011, she decided to get into the sport.
“It seemed like a perfect time to explore something,” she says. “The climbing community in New York City is incredibly special … I think you get a diversity that you might not find in other places.”
In time, Jun made a group of women climbing friends and began planning weekend trips to The Gunks (short for Shawangunk Ridge), or afternoon sessions at Brooklyn Boulders. She started documenting the trips on Instagram, and the attention grew. Flash Foxy was born.
“Women kept writing us and asking if I knew ways for them to meet other women … wanting to connect, wanting to get out, wanting to learn a new way of climbing … and I kind of looked around and tried to see if there was anything I could direct them to, and there wasn’t really anything like that at that time,” she says.
“I think we can change [the sport] to be a better reflection of all of us that now exist in climbing.” – Shelma Jun
Two years after creating Flash Foxy, Jun planned the first Women’s Climbing Festival in Bishop, California.
“I thought it was going to be maybe 20 or 30 of us hanging out in the desert, and we got a huge response from it,” she says. “And it became really clear that it was going to be something much larger than I had anticipated.”
The event sold out. The following year, tickets sold out in less than a minute — a response that speaks to what Jun continues to advocate for.
“The demographic of climbing is changing rapidly, and I don’t think we as women, or as people of colour, or as queer folks… if we want to be climbers but don’t feel like that identity that exists now fits us, that we have to just make it fit,” she says. “I think we can change that to be a better reflection of all of us that now exist in climbing.”
Header photo of Shelma Jun by Irene Yee. Photo provided by Shelma Jun.