Climbing, Growing, and Eating Ice Cream with Tylie Mills

Tylie first saw climbers in the Skaha Bluffs on a family trip to the Okanagan when she was seven. On the drive home to the Lower Mainland her Mom, Skye, recalls that Tylie pointed to every mountain face along the way to inform her that she would soon be climbing them all. Skye and Tylie’s Dad, Brandon, looked at each other with eyebrows raised. On their return Tylie wouldn’t stop talking about climbing mountains so that fall she was signed up for a lesson at the North Shore Hive, an indoor bouldering gym near where they live.

“You’re dripping!” Tylie points at my ice cream cone where twin streams of chocolate mint have run down the waffle cone onto my fingers. I thank her and clumsily remedy the situation as we return to our chat. Now Tylie is telling me about how she climbs trees. I ask her if she ever gets stuck and she explains with a giggle and a mischievous twinkle in her eye, “When I climb trees and I can’t get out of them I just jump, or fall out.” Skye gives a stern look but can’t hide her own amusement. Tylie giggles louder, in a way that only preteens can muster, and reminds her parents “it’s dirt! It’s the softest.” Then she reflects back on an incident a few years back, “Except when there’s big roots and you smack your head, I did that once…we weren’t allowed to climb trees (at school) for like three months!”

During the pandemic, Tylie also wasn’t allowed to climb, something both her and her parents struggled with. “Don’t they know climbing is who I am?” she had asked as she grappled with the closures. Skye’s phone started ringing more often during the pandemic, concerned teachers informing Skye that Tylie wouldn’t stop climbing trees. Proudly, Tylie explains to me that she’s climbed (or fallen out of) every tree in the forest at siʔáḿθɘt(“si-om-thet”) School.

Her teachers and family have mixed perspectives of course. But to her benefit, the community that surrounds her is incredibly supportive. At the siʔáḿθɘt School, a land based education platform created by and for Tsleil-Waututh Nation members (and others who chose to learn with the nation), the students play a big role in how they learn. When Tylie first showed an interest in climbing one of her teachers decided to start a climbing club and with the North Shore Hive Bouldering gym near where her school is located on Burrard Inlet Indian Reserve #3 it’s even possible to go climbing during school hours sometimes.

In the fall of 2021 Skye signed Tylie up to try out for the Hive’s youth climbing team, the Hornets. At first the coaches were hesitant to bring on someone so young. It was made clear at the beginning that if Tylie wanted to be on the team she was going to have to show a commitment. She didn’t hesitate. In her first competition she finished 2nd in her age group. The Hornets range in age from 10 to 16 and Tylie being the youngest was also the smallest. Despite climbing being such a personal activity the support that the team gives each other has been huge for Tylie, opening up a space for her to push her abilities and learn how to move a little better every-time. When she takes her friends and classmates climbing she carries that over, pushing them to try a little harder than they think they can, even her Dad. Brandon chuckles about how Tylie’s up on the wall with her feet above her head, “I can’t even get my leg past my hip!” Tylie finds it quite amusing that she climbs harder than he does.

Still, seeing your daughter climb comes with mixed emotions. A fine balance between safety, and letting her follow her interest. Climbing can seem really extreme to those who don’t have a relationship with heights. When Tylie’s Grandma takes her to visit family on the island Skye gets sent videos of Tylie climbing, in the background she can hear Grandma’s commentary, “I can’t watch. Oh no, what is she doing up there?!” and then the camera points to the ground.

“I scared her so much” Tylie laughs as she blushes. Grandpa shares a similar nervousness. When Tylie tells them she’s going to climb Siyám Smánit, the massive granite mountain in Stawamus Chief provincial park, Grandpa will exclaim “not in my lifetime!” to which Tylie replies, “I’m gonna do it but I’ll tell you after.” To her it’s a little funny that so many people think climbing is scary and dangerous. “All my friends are in soccer and they’re terrified of climbing up a wall or a tree.” And yes, climbing is not without its hazards. But in Tylie’s experience she’s been hurt more often playing other sports. She points at her wrist where she fractured it one game “Everyone says climbing is dangerous, but this is from soccer.”

These days Tylie spends most of her time climbing inside with the Hornets but over the last two years— through a collaborative program between siʔáḿθɘt School,Indigenous Life Sports Academy and Arc’teryx—she has also had opportunities to get outside. Tsleil-Waututh youth hop on their school bus and head north travelling into the heart of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Temixw, home of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Stelmexw, a neighbouring community of Coast Salish peoples. While from the north, Lil̓wat7úl youth come down. And there in the middle during the last weekend of August, a gathering of youth are unleashed on the granite cliffs.

In 2021, Tylie was introduced to the basics of outdoor climbing but this year Tylie wanted to do something a little bigger, she signed up to climb her first multipitch which she loved even though it was a bit hard to trust the new equipment. And even more than the excitement of being on the rock Tylie’s favourite moment this year was getting to connect with Shelma Jun, an Arc’teryx athlete who was climbing with the youth. It was affirming to be acknowledged as a climber by an older and more experienced person. On top of that Shelma offered to try and get her friend and fellow Arc’teryx team member Alannah Yip out to climb with Tylie. As she tells me this her eyes grow wide with the thought. Alannah is one of the worlds top climbers. An elite Olympian. “She is sooo strong!” Tylie exclaims. One of Tylie’s favourite climbing films is The Wall: Climb for Gold, an expose on four women preparing for the 2020 Summer Games and the first ever Olympic climbing competition. Another is The Alpinist, about Marc-Andre Leclerc’s journey in the high mountains. If Tylie’s not doing her homework she’s watching a climbing video Skye says. “I’ll be in the kitchen and Tylie will call me into the living room to watch a clip or a specific move. She’s rewinding and rewatching all these little details, like ‘that move is sick!” Skye laughs.

Tylie interrupts the chat to remind me to deal with my ice cream cone again and we all start laughing. I can tell Tylie’s growing a little bored. We’ve been talking for almost an hour. As Skye and I keep chatting Tylie bounces around on the pavement, jumping from the nearby benches, then prepares as if to do a cartwheel but changes her mind and bounds over to her Dad and climbs him using his shoulders like branches. He picks her up and twirls her before gently putting her back on the ground and I think of family and community and how there’s at least one tree Tylie doesn’t have to worry about falling out of.