Girl Crush: An Interview with Mary Lüthy

Every so often, we’ll interview extraordinary girls doing extraordinary things: this is Girl Crush.  This week, we’re thrilled to feature Cambodia-based climbing entrepreneur Mary Lüthy, whose passion project is Phnom Climb, Phnom Penh’s first rock climbing gym.

Mary is super stoked about rock climbing because it builds community, a safe and supportive environment, trust, self-esteem, confidence and perseverance amongst locals and expats climbers.

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“Most people don’t immediately think that a low income country like Cambodia would need something like a climbing gym. Yet, after living here for over 5 years, we are convinced that our beloved city, Phnom Penh, would be better off if there were more fun, constructive, and healthy activities available. We have watched the rapid growth of the economy and consumer possibilities, but no parallel growth of sports or extracurricular activities for young people. Phnom Penh is hungry for a rock climbing gym!”

-Mary Lüthy | Co-Founder, Phnom Climb

BB: How did your love affair with climbing begin?  Was it love at first sight?.

ML: In my first year of teaching in NYC, my friend invited me to travel with her to Chiang Mai, Thailand over my summer break. She had some work meeting, so I looked for things to do and found that I could get out of town and go rock climbing with a guide. Besides the fact that my guide was super hot, I fell in love with climbing right away. It felt so natural getting to the top and I loved the views! Whenever I get to the top of a climb, I always take a few seconds to take in the view. One of my favorite places to climb is The Gunks during autumn.

BB: How has rock climbing changed and shaped your life?

ML: I’ve always been quite skinny and felt awkward for my small wrists and long arms. It wasn’t until I climbed that I felt strong and appreciated my body. I love the excitement of finishing a hard climb after working at it and I feel so accomplished! It’s made me more of a risk taker and to take life more lightly.

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BB: You and your husband recently took your own leap of faith to create the first climbing wall in Cambodia’s bustling capital Phnom Penh.  Tell us about your exciting journey.

ML: When I came to Cambodia, I brought 2 things with me – my pack with some clothes and my crashpad. I immediately found climbing friends and on the weekends, we explored every bouldering site we heard of. It was fantastic and so adventurous. But when we were back in the city for work, it was frustrating to not have a place to climb so my friends and I began dreaming of building a climbing gym.

It stayed a dream until two years ago, my friends from Colorado casted a vision for me of what this climbing gym could bring to Phnom Penh. So my husband and I jumped in. It took 1 year to explain to people our crazy idea and to raise the funds from the FFF – “Family, Friends, and Fools” as one investor told me.

Then it took another year to design the warehouse for the walls and then to build the actual climbing walls. We received so much help from friends and people who are just passionate about climbing. People from MPHC, The Cliffs, City Climb, the Climbing Wall Association, the german Alpenverein, Climb Asia from Singapore… the list goes on. We just opened our doors officially and it really blew my mind that we started with a plot of land and now we have a climbing gym!

BB: Do you see climbing as a metaphor for empowerment?  What are other areas in your life that have been impacted by your ability to be bold and push your limits?

ML: Yes definitely. That’s one of the core reasons why I wanted to build this climbing gym. Climbing is incredibly empowering, especially for those who have fears or who have lower self-esteem.

One of the first Cambodian climbers I made friends with is an older couple who has survived the Khmer Rouge. The first time the wife got on the walls outside, she was so scared and she could go up only a few feet before wanting to come down. I watched her climb higher and higher each time we went out together until one day she reached the top. I was so proud of her for her perseverance. Climbing has taught me to keep taking small steps forward even if I’m not quite sure if I could finish something.

BB: We love Phnom Penh Climbing Gym’s vision for the local community.  Tell us more about that.

ML: We have 2 visions for Phnom Climb. One is to build an inclusive community of Cambodian and expat climbers, and the other is to support organizations that work with vulnerable people to build up confidence, trust, and physical endurance through climbing.

In Phnom Penh, the expat and the Cambodians live very separate lives and there are few social places where they overlap. We see climbing as something that can transcends differences because climbing is fun regardless of your nationality, economics, education, etc. I met so many different kinds of people when I was climbing in NYC and I was envisioning a similar diversity at Phnom Climb.

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BB: How has climbing empowered, evolved and united the local community,  particularly the women and children in Phnom Penh?

ML: There is a small climbing NGO in Siem Reap – Angkor Climbers Net – that teaches public school kids how to climb. These kids often come from the countryside and are quite poor. The wall is simple, but it’s a place of refuge for many of them. It was such a privilege to be able to hire two of the boys who finished High School and wanted to study in Phnom Penh. We were able to give them their first jobs at Phnom Climb, doing something they love instead of the typical jobs their peers get – cleaners in hotels or workers in restaurants.

These boys are our teachers in climbing while we are teaching them English and other subjects. We’ve also been able to partner with small organizations working with young Cambodians and teach them how to climb. It was such a joy to watch them have lots of fun on the crashpads!

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BB: The outdoor trips you’ve led locally sound incredible.  What is involved in getting people new to climbing (and the outdoors) out to the local crags?

ML: We initially used Facebook to organize climbing events. We posted the dates of a trip and then did a headcount. If there were enough for a mini-van, we organized one. We would meet up at 6:00 am and drive 1.5 hours outside of town to a small climbing area off the main road. If we get there around 7:30, we could get a few hours of climbing before it gets incredibly hot – we’re talking about above 100 degrees and in the sun! The view at the top is of rice fields and village life – I think many of the new climbers loved that reward.

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BB: What inspires and ignites you?

ML: My faith inspires me to do more in life than pursue money, career, and reputation. I want to leave the world in a better place and I love spending time with people who also want the same thing. I’m generally a hopeful person and I want to believe that my actions can positively affect someone’s day.

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BB: What a beautiful vision – thank you for sharing that!  And finally, what advice would you give to female climbers just starting out?

ML: Get on the wall often and climb! That’s the only way to get stronger. Try the climbs you think you can’t do and slowly be amazed by how strong you really are! Work the overhangs too – they’re not only for the guys! 🙂 Women have really flexible bodies and we can use our grace to get to the top of overhangs too. Most importantly, have fun climbing!

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