MOTHER'S DAY MEMBER SPOTLIGHT - Interview with SuAnne Loeb & Katrina Mancuso
If you come to ASCEND on the weekend, or any weekday morning, or the occasional weekday evening, basically, if you come to ASCEND there’s a good chance you’ve seen SuAnne Loeb and Katrina Mancuso.
More often than not they’re putting in work on the top-rope wall, though, occasionally you can find them bouldering, making sure everyone around them knows that climbing used to be easier when everything didn’t hurt. Then they send your project.
What you don’t know is that SuAnne and Katrina have shared a friendship, through and beyond climbing, that’s lasted close to 20 years.
SuAnne found climbing living in New Mexico, but didn’t meet Katrina until returned to her home town. “I moved back to Pittsburgh to go to grad school and even though I was from here, moving back, I felt like I didn’t have an adult life here. When we met at The Climbing Wall in the early 2000s, all of the women who climbed there were there with guys…” This, SuAnne said, was also her experience climbing in New Mexico.
“We were the only babes at the climbing wall,” Katrina says as an answer to how the pair met.
“It wasn’t a place where you would go and see a lot of women by themselves and so we gravitated toward each other.”
For both Katrina and SuAnne, most of their experience climbing had been with guys. “I felt like I was always tagging along on someone else’s projects, not like I was supported to have my own,” SuAnne says.
”I don’t think I knew what I was missing… it took me a while to realize that I needed to hang out with women who climb,” Katrina adds.
Describing some of their early trips out to the New Katrina says, “it was much more gratifying, we would go get on a 10- and spend the day on it, and some guys would be like ‘what are you doing?’” The pair exchange a chuckle. “We were doing whatever we wanted to do and we were trying to get it.”
Putting words to what was, in fact, missing, SuAnne describes the feeling she shared with Katrina on their days at the wall: “It was empowering, it made me take that next step in owning this, it made me feel like ‘I can do this.’ I came away from those days feeling capable in a way that I was afraid to admit to myself.”
Climbing, described in a few razor sharp words by Katrina, was a way to “use my body to solve problem.”
“It’s an amazing way to spend a day outside…” SuAnne says, “exercise was this thing you did to make your body look a certain way, it was all punitive, but I remember when I went out and I climbed, it was this activity that took me away from that and made me healthier physically, mentally, and emotionally--it made me a healthy strong person at a time that I didn’t even realize I needed it. It made me use my body in a way that I feel like we’re supposed to.”
For the first couple years after Y2K, this was the foundation of a lifelong sisterhood between SuAnne and Katrina, but, like any good climbing story, like any good climb, their friendship was not linear.
“We broke up.” Katrina says.
Katrina and SuAnne laugh and exchange glances and half-sentences across the table from me. Every little thing that goes into the dissolution of a friendship distilled into chuckles remembering and half-told inside jokes that this interviewer was happy to be on the outside of, just to witness the unique language of a true friendship.
“We knew where each other were through the community. We knew we were both climbing. We heard we both got married, we heard that each other were pregnant.” Even without Instagram or Facebook pushing life updates between former friends turned solo-acts, SuAnne and Katrina maintained a passive relationship through the activity of the climbing community.
Katrina and SuAnne each got married within a few months of each other and within a year of each other got pregnant.
“I got pregnant,” Katrina says, “and she had just had Jake, and she reached out.”
“I knew she was pregnant,” SuAnne says, “as a mom, and as a friend, I remember thinking, this is a really intense experience and she was my true friend, like a sister, and no matter what happened I felt like she’s gonna come into this and I needed to be there for her, I wanted to be part of it.”
This, from the same woman who described climbing as a selfish sport. Can something be selfish if it allows you to be more generous with yourself, to be generous in your friendships?
Meanwhile, Katrina says, “I was in the middle of Fayettville. I climbed to the end of the pregnancy and climbing kept me sane. I loved the pregnancy.”
Predictably, after Katrina’s son Gabe and SuAnne’s first son Jake arrived, life got a lot more interesting.
Katrina jumped right in with her son Gabe, “it was even cooler because I brought him everywhere, we would have all of these set-ups in the woods and did it together. It’s hard, but it’s totally worth it.”
SuAnne, who was in Pittsburgh and whose transition back to climbing was less immediate, recalls this time: “I remember when I first had my kids I had to fight a little bit harder to keep climbing… I knew of a lot of husbands who kept climbing but not so many wives…”
Together and apart, SuAnne and Katrina became mothers and remained climbers, working their way back to their sisterhood.
“The second time around,” SuAnne is quick to add, “I climbed until I was 7 months pregnant and I loved it… I put away the regret of why I didn’t do it the first time around. I remember feeling really excited and good and strong.”
Reunited, climbing and parenting in Pittsburgh, Katrina and SuAnne both became aware of ASCEND as “this brain-child of the guys.”
“I remember thinking in New Mexico,” SuAnne says, “what would my life be like if I had found this from a young age…not just a community of fitness health but social and emotional health. I was a big advocate for a place where new families could not have to stop climbing by making it a little more accessible.”
ASCEND has lived up to this humble but most critical goal.
After its opening, SuAnne says “I can remember coming in some evenings and seeing groups of women climbing and being super excited. When I think about child watch, knowing there’s a generation of people who will better be able to combine the love of climbing and the love of their child in a more accessible way,” before SuAnne can finish, Katrina jumps in.
“And now both of our kids love child watch more than climbing.”
The pair laugh.
The Sunday of this interview was the third visit of the week for both Katrina and SuAnne. Both women were unsure if their children will find a love of climbing like theirs, but regardless, SuAnne says, “the exposure to a great community is the most important thing.”
“I think the challenge with parenting,” Katrina adds, “is figuring out how to give them just enough so that they know about it and they get to choose.” Katrina remembers days at The New climbing as her son Gabe played with a quickdraw for hours.
Allowing their children a way to get outdoors, to learn to love playing in nature, to learn in a community of climbers that is fun and supportive and healthy are all reasons SuAnne and Katrina are committed to ASCEND and to climbing more broadly.
“And they’re such better kids for it,” Katrina says, “I think it’s a wonderful thing to give back to the next generation.” Katrina, a local teacher, continues, “I do a climbing club with my students, and that’s been so fun. When I first started I was going to make lists, make training plans, but then I said F-that. They need to climb what they want, they need to see the beauty of the community, and the sport, and the energy. They need to just come in and have fun.”
Speaking of fun, SuAnne says, “I would be simply tickled one day to go out and get to climb with my sons. It’d probably be one of my top five days to go back to New Mexico with my boys and have them rope gun for me…but only if they come to it on their own.”
Katrina and SuAnne still make time to go on climbing trips, to come climb in ASCEND, and to be active members of the vibrant and growing community here.
“Whenever we get back from climbing,” SuAnne, who describes climbing, especially climbing with Katrina, as a kind of therapy, says “there’s that question, ‘was it worth it?’ and the answer is always yes.”
“But I wouldn’t change it for a second,” Katrina says, “because I when I get time to myself I miss the chaos.”
With Katrina and SuAnne laughing and reminiscing together, the stories swirl and it’s hard to keep track of who went where when, who climbed what. It’s easy to imagine myself fading out of the moment and letting a 20 year friendship be reflected upon in the kitchenette.
“Over time there’s a level of trust that you develop that becomes an unspoken trust the you don’t even know until it’s there. You establish it in the belaying, the climbing, and that’s why climbing relationships can be so strong and long lasting. It’s a lifelong thing, a lifestyle…” SuAnne says, “I laugh, I don’t get to get out on real rocks as much as I’d like to, but in my heart I will always be a real climber…”