IWD 2023: Pass It On Series Celebrates Squamish’s Leading Women

 There is a scene in episode 2 of Pass It On where v9 boulderer Michelle Leblanc is at work at a long-term care facility in Squamish, talking the residents through a visualisation to help them maintain their physical mobility. They sit outside, in their wheelchairs, and follow her lead as she invites them to come climb the Stawamus Chief with her. Spoiler alert – it’s hard to watch without misting up.

“Lots of people cry at that scene,” says Jen Randall, the film’s director, a bright-energied documentary filmmaker and climber with a lilting Scottish brogue. “That’s honestly what she does. I really hope someone like her comes into my life when I can’t do these things anymore.”

Michelle LeBlanc, off the rocks and in the community.

One of the residents who volunteered to be in the scene started the Search and Rescue in Whistler. “He was an integral part of the outdoor community. But it won’t be long before he’s quite immobile and unable to actually enjoy those places anymore.”

The scene captures the through line that connects the three-part series, highlighting characters within the Squamish climbing community who “pass it on” – who take what inspires them, and grow it forward by creating access, be it by route-setting like pioneer climber Tami Knight did, hosting workshops and outings for Indigenous youth as Lil’wat7ul Sandy Ward is, instigating the first ever Pride Squamish bouldering festival or just taking people there in their imaginations, as Leblanc does.

Making magic in the woods with Jen Randall, Leo Hoorn, and Michelle LeBlanc.

“I’ve always been interested in what motivates people,” says Randall, whose recent filmography includes mountain festival favourites This is Beth, featuring Beth Rodden, Home, on adventurer Sarah Outen, and Pyscho Vertical on British mountaineer, Andy Kirkpatrick. “Adventure is a very grand backdrop for very human stories. But the adventure part has always been secondary for me. It’s the people I like to get to know.

Adds the series’ creative producer, co-founder of Well Travelled Collective, Sarah Lee Steele, “If you go deep into any community, there are people who hold the social glue and the fabric together. And they’re worth elevating.”

That desire, to tell the less told stories, powered Steele and her co-founders, Andrea Wing and Darcy Hennessey Turenne, to start Well Travelled three years ago. The three filmmakers found themselves at Mountainfilm in Colorado asking one another, “Do you feel like these films all look the same?” Wing and Hennessey had already collaborated to create Moonlighter, a technical filmmaking camp for women, and at first, it seemed that doing that again could be part of the solution. COVID-19 put pause on that idea, and instead, they started a production house, with the explicit intention of elevating female voices, sharing a wider range of perspectives, and ensuring there is better representation in front of and behind the camera, all the while telling awesome heartfelt entertaining and gripping stories – like recent award-winners and crowd-pleasers This is Beth, North Shore Betty, and The Trapline.

Well Travelled brings a refreshing, female-centric approach to the outdoor filmmaking space.

Pass It On started with “a pretty wide open brief,” says Randall – an ask to showcase the underbelly of Squamish’s climbing scene. Randall surveyed a ton of people in her community about who to feature, and a lot of names bubbled up, but emerging from the “frickin’ tough few years” of the pandemic, it felt important to offer something joyful and to surface the work of community building.

It’s easy to watch someone crushing in the slew of hard send videos that are being uploaded daily to youtube. Community weaving work is invisible, and it’s good to switch focus now and then from the perennial hero on his quest to solo another impossible mountain, to take note of some of the less visible stars.

Arc’teryx Ambassador Sandy Ward behind the scenes with the Indigenous Life Sports Academy (ILSA).

Echoes Steele, “Climbing is not about grades, actually. It’s much more about community and values and what you share. It’s nomadic. You run into people. If you move to a new town, you’re automatically absorbed into that community, and people like Michelle and Tami and Sandy play key functions. They’re not ones we always recognise through films and social media, but they’re very, very important.”

Omnipresent but not always appreciated, Tami Knight set the route for women in the Squamish Climbing Scene.

Mostly, they’re not doing what they do for recognition. As Knight, one of Squamish’s early climbers, said, “I never thought about legacy. I’m happy that people may be inspired by things I might have done, but in no way did I do them to be an inspiration. I just wanted to go climbing.”

Thousands of us every year follow in her footsteps, whether we realise it or not. It’s cool to give a nod of recognition to her and her ilk, the ones who have made room for the rest of us to live the love too.

Watch the full episodes here:

Episode 1, Tami Knight

Episode 2, Sandy Ward

Episode 3, Michelle LeBlanc