THOMASINA PIDGEON

“I don’t have to do a job I don’t like to pay brutally high rent.” Canada’s strongest female boulderer at one time describes more than two decades of life in a car. She also raised her daughter Cedar in it, with whom she travelled across Canada and Europe.

TEXT: TERKA ŠEVEČKOVÁ PHOTO: RENEE ROBYN, JOHN VALLEJO, THOMASINA PIDGEON ARCHIVE COPYEDIT: PEPA LITTLE
| JUNE 2024

A MOM ON THE ROAD

Canada’s strongest female boulderer from the turn of the millennium, representing Canada from 2012–2015. A petite woman with a resounding opinion. She’s written for climbing magazine The Gripped and is currently finishing her master’s degree. Together with the well-known Swiss crack climber Didier Berthod (interviewed here, ed.), they have a daughter, Cedar, but Thomasina has raised her alone for most of her life. In the car.

“When Cedar was born, I moved back in with my parents. I was faced with a difficult decision. I could have bought a smaller house and stayed in Newfoundland. Or go back to climbing and try to combine that with being a mom. When Cedar celebrated her first birthday, we went on our first roadtrip,” and there began their nomadic life of climbing and big challenges. Their main basecamp was in Squamish, British Columbia, but they spent a lot of time in Bishop and Hueco (bouldering areas in California and Texas, ed.) “Everywhere I went, I had a community to help raise her. Then we moved to Europe and lived in a van in Germany for a while. I needed a change, so I started with competition climbing.“

Before meeting Thomasina for the first time, I was nervous. We made arrangements through Jirka Hanzal, a mutual friend. Until the last moment, I wasn’t sure if anything would come of our meeting. I wanted to be well prepared – I read her blog and followed her Instagram posts. The night before our first meeting I wrote a note: “She is quite uncompromising and radical in her work. It’s a bit of a turn-off for me, and at the same time I can’t tear myself away from the lyrics. So I keep reading, finding out more.” The next morning, Jirka introduced us to the gym Thomasina runs in Squamish. She greeted him with a warm hug, and shook my hand a little reservedly. A few minutes later Jirka left us alone.

“Let’s go to my caravan. It’s too noisy here,” she smiled awkwardly. At that moment I didn’t know that we were about to spend two hours of enthusiastic talking and philosophizing about the world.

„Our home”. Thomasina Pidgeon (p: Tobias Leipnitz)


NEW DYNAMICS

Can you briefly describe your current lifestyle?
I’m just mid way through my Master’s degree in Geography. I just successfully defended my thesis proposal, so the next step is ethics and interviews. So right now it sort of feels like I am at the beginning, despite a year of courses!

Do you have any time for climbing right now?
There hasn’t been much time during the semester. Since the courses are done, I’m trying to find more life/work balance, with the goal to feel healthy and stronger.

Two years ago, Didier had returned to Squamish. How was your reunion?
Four years ago, I didn’t want to hear about him. When he first came back to Squamish to meet Cedar, I was so nervous and really ready to punch him. I’m mean, not really physically but that feeling was there. But as fate would have it, when we saw each other, it was like all the anger built up over the years melted away. The love was still there and it was a very profound experience. I never could have imagined that this situation could have happened. It really took us both by surprise. When Didier entered the picture, the beginning was very difficult. Having raised Cedar, we have obviously built a very strong family bond, her and I. But eventually we all found our place in the new family dynamic. We’ve grown as a family and as individuals, and I’m glad Didier is part of it.

Together again. Didier, Cedar and Thomasina (p: TP archive)


Do you live all together in your RV?
Half and half. We all live and sleep in the caravan, but Didier still has his own van, which helps gives us more space and privacy.

Are you two climbing together?
Didier came back to Canada when I was finishing my degree in political science, so there was no time for climbing at that time. And as life happens, a week after graduating, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. This was a real slap in the face and quite unexpected. Yet, all that trouble around my health gave me a new perspective. Now I’m trying to focus more on myself and finding a better balance between work at the gym, school and getting back into climbing. A big part of climbing for me though is the relationships that I’ve built over the years. And when these friends come to Squamish to visit, it is like a reunion and I find that my psych and inner flame for climbing returns with force. We just had some friends here for two weeks and it was a blast, going with them to areas that I’ve never been, despite having lived here for so long. Getting out with them really helps as new areas are inspiring. Sometimes I feel like I’ve dropped out of climbing too much — it’s hard to start again, especially when old projects seem so far off. I just have to believe in myself again.

Didier sent Cobra Crack this May. What did his return to this project like? What was your role in this project or did you experience it together in some way?
That’s mostly a question for Didier. Almost 20 years ago, he had a very specific relationship with Cobra that maybe wasn’t healthy, and for sure, it certainly had an impact on my life and on our daughter’s life. But from today’s perspective, I think the journey has taught him a lot. And I’m glad that he put it to rest. Unfortunately, we weren’t physically there with him for the send because Cedar was at a competition, but I was thinking about him the whole day as I knew he was going there.

Do you have any climbing goals right now?
I haven’t had a climbing project since I injured my shoulder eight years ago and I don’t have a specific project right now either. That said, I definitely want to get stronger. My ego is getting a beating — I’m struggling on boulders that were once easy for me. It doesn’t help that I’m impatient with myself, so I often have to remind myself that my life isn’t just climbing right now. I’m doing a lot of other things and finding the balance is hard. All the same, you want to climb the same things you did in the past, but you don’t have the spare time and energy needed to invest in being at the level that you’re used to. I’m also older and recover slower, so I have to train smarter every year and try to keep injuries at bay. And when I finally feel like I’ve figured out the right training, something changes and I have to re-learn how to train again. A changing body is very interesting!

PIECING TOGETHER THE PUZZLE

Talking about your climbing beginnings… You started to climb when you were 24 years old. In a few years you’ve climbed V10, V11, and V12 boulders… Others knew you as the strongest Canadian boulderer at that time. What did the reputation mean to you?
It evoked strange feelings in me. On the one hand, I was appreciative that people recognized and appreciated the hard work that I put into climbing. But on the other hand, I tend to not idolize other climbers so I didn’t understand the mentality. It also put a lot of pressure on me. Part of me felt that I had to constantly perform at a certain level, which is humanly unrealistic. And if I was having a bad day, or couldn’t do something, I felt that I was going to be judged or that I was a disappointment somehow. Also, some of the attention seemed very superficial. It was like people were more focused on the climbing performance than the person behind the climb. This became very obvious to me in later years when another climber who was as good or better than me showed up. It’s funny how fast people can act like your best friend and then flock towards the next hot-shot and you no longer exist.

What do you subjectively consider as your greatest climbing success?
Probably my tenacity and stubbornness, yet this is also a curse. I tend to not give up to the point where I injure myself from trying too much. Also, since I’m pretty short (155 centimeters), I usually don’t use the standard beta and often have to figure out my own way. I approach this like a puzzle and actually really enjoy this aspect of bouldering. It sometimes takes me days to figure out my particular beta, but when I do, there’s a huge sense of satisfaction. I find it interesting that nowadays, so many climbers go to YouTube for beta for whatever reason, be it to beta flash or to help speed up their send. I think that this is really too bad because figuring out your own beta is a process that can be both valuable and rewarding. When people go the fast consumption YouTube route, they miss out on that. Unfortunately, that’s an approach I’m seeing more and more often in the boulders today.

Can you name a boulder route that stand out in your mind?
Probably Encore Enfois (V11, Squamish, ed.). I’ve spent many hours sitting under that problem. The first crux move was very far for me and felt almost impossible, but not impossible.… Hence I invested myself in it. I loved trying that problem. The movement is so unique and it’s in such a beautiful part of the forest. Cedar would often nap and I would just hang out there working the problem and enjoying the solitude. Eventually I got strong enough for the lock off move and sent. I think it must have been over 3 years! 

„When people go the fast consumption YouTube route, they miss out on that.“

What happened after Cedar was born?
I wasn’t really sure what to do with my life when Cedar was born. I was on my own and ended up moving in with my dad for a few months. I had a huge inner dilemma. “I can stay in Newfoundland and buy a smaller house,” I told myself, “Or I can return to climbing and road trip and try to combine that with being a mom.“

What helped you in that time to make a decision and to choose between life in Newfoundland and climbing life?
Well, I was 31 at the time. I noticed that a lot of the people around me were inactive and had various health issues. Watching them struggle made me realize that I’d rather climb now while my body still works and leave the other things, like work and career, for the future,” So, while I didn’t rush this process, I decided. Cedar was still so young and we were both learning how to be in this world together and I wanted to strengthen that relationship first, and learn how to be a mom. The whole decision took me about a year and I didn’t put any pressure on myself. When Cedar celebrated her first birthday, we went on our first road trip together and spent the following winters on the road like that until she eventually decided that she wanted to hunker down and go to public school.

What did traveling and raising this little girl Cedar look like? 
There is a saying: “It takes a village to raise a child.” And funny enough, I had a village here in Squamish, one in Bishop and another in Hueco. Wherever I went, there was a community to help me raise Cedar. It wasn’t a typical family model and I wouldn’t even call it a climbing family because it went beyond climbing many times over. Even though most of the people were climbers, the relationships went beyond that. I eventually got a little burnt out of the same road tripping routine and needed a change, so I started competing. This introduced a whole different community into our lives!

How old was Cedar when you started to compete?
I was 35 or 36. So she was about five. Eventually, Cedar and I moved to Europe for a few years. We based ourselves out of Germany where I worked, and we continued the same van lifestyle and climbing outside, but this time, competing at the World Cups was blended into the mix. It was a bit too much to be honest.

Could you describe the change from rock climber to competition climber?
Up until then, I’d been climbing mostly outside. I not only had to learn how to climb on plastic, I had to learn how to compete, mentally and strategically. This was not easy. Artificial holds are definitely not my style, and competing wasn’t really my thing. It was quite challenging, but at the same time very challenging, like a new adventure. I enjoyed that. It was a love hate relationship to say the least.

Was it your very first experience with competition climbing?
No, it wasn’t. I usually registered in a local comp every year, just for fun. But this was the first time that I actually committed to training for World Cups.

World Cup in Colorado, 2015 (f: TP archive)


How was competition for you?
It was a completely new experience for me, something I had never experienced in rock climbing. It created a different sort of pressure for me — pressure from my own desires, being on a timer, pressure to flash and that pressure felt when you know people are watching you. Comps are very crowded and I’m pretty introverted. In Canada, I also felt that people expected good results from me because I was climbing hard boulders outside. But they are two different worlds and climbing plastic wasn’t natural for me. I didn’t grow up in a gym like most competitors. I often found the problems reachy and since I was not very dynamic, that didn’t help. The fear of failure bothered me too, and public failure even more. Simultaneously though, I was curious about competition and I thought that it was better to give it a go and see what this world was about, rather than just wonder. And now I know!

Who trained you at that time?
No one. I never had a coach. I had very little support actually. At the time, I had three main sponsors, Arcteryx, La Sportiva and Metolius. Interestingly, after a year or two of being into World Cups, Arcteryx and La Sportiva dropped me. Despite this, I was climbing half decent. I finished 29th among some 85 competitors at the Toronto Bouldering World Cup, which was a good result for me so I knew that I was improving. I was also climbing outside a lot and still bouldering V12 problems. But it seemed like dedicating myself to climbing, even while raising a kid solo wasn’t enough for them. They ended their contract with me with the reasoning that “Your social media skills are not up to par.“

Sponsors ended your contract? How did you feel about losing your sponsors?
I’m actually surprised at how much it affected me. I never talked about it much then, but I’ve definitely lost respect for the whole sponsorship scene. At the time, I was writing a lot but at a level that went beyond hard sends. I wrote about the processes of climbing, comps, life on the road, raising a child alone, and the inner battles that I went through. I wrote about the good and the bad, so it wasn’t superficial. It was emotional and real. But I sensed that the sponsors would rather I post more about hard sends and how many tries it took as well as sexy type photos (one of them asked for this actually!). Success in this light is ultimately very fleeting. One moment you shine and a minute later, it’s someone else. I see the whole thing as a kind of game. After that, I choose to live by my own truth rather than live under some image that the sponsors want to make of me.

I live according to my own truth. (f: archiv TP)


You eventually quit competition. What was the main reason?
Well, one reason could be that it wasn’t my passion. I didn’t grow up in a gym competing like most competitors did, I was older, and there was a bit of a vibe there that I never liked. I never quite fit in. Despite this, I stayed. I really wanted to experience a competition where I could just be myself. With more experience, I found ways to do this, but not like I could when outside. In the end, I felt that I never climbed to my potential. My mind held me back in so many ways. I think I would have kept going with this but ultimately, the real reason was injury. I tore a muscle in my shoulder pretty bad.

Did you hurt yourself during the comps? 
No, I overtrained. I was training for comps while also working as a routsetter in Munich, which was physically demanding in itself. I was also climbing outdoors quite a bit. I didn’t want to stop going outside just so I could improve in comps, even though I knew that was what I needed to do. Anyway, I was in my 40s at the time and it was just too much for my body. I was so focused on improving that I refused to listen to my body.

Cedar has also started with the comps. How is she doing?
Definitely better than me! She has a lot of fun and success with it. She grew up in that world so she learned how to compete at a young age and formed a really good community of friends. I also feel like she’s learned a lot from me as she doesn’t make a lot of the mistakes I used to. I really enjoy watching her. Her technique is so good and she is just getting stronger every year. She’s also young, 17 now, so she’s pretty malleable and luckily, I sense that the competition environment doesn’t have the same destructive effect on her as it did on me.

THE GOLDEN AGE

They say Squamish has changed in recent years. Did the climbing community change too?
The climbing community used to be much smaller. Nowadays, climbing is mainstream so a lot of people come from Vancouver or out of town, so the community is growing. It also seems that, in the boulders anyway, that it’s more common for climbers to arrive in large groups and climb together. Despite the crowds, it feels harder to meet and find fellow climbers. There’s still a lot of climbing here and new climbing areas are being created all the time. They’re just further away from town. All the same, we definitely had a golden era here around 2000.

Could you briefly describe Squamish at its “Golden Age”?
We had our own little campground where we’d stay each night — we called it The River. It was similar to the climbing pubs you talked about. People played guitars in the evenings over a fire, while sharing stories about their day. We’d arrange our climbing partners there or at breakfast the next day. Most of us worked during the day, but after work, we’d go climbing in the afternoon. It really was such a special family. Good times! We spent April to October there and in the winter, we’d all flock south like birds and often cross paths in the States.

What happened? Why is it different today?
The dramatic change came after the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Squamish was suddenly on the map as “the place to be” and it attracted a lot of people from different demographics. Wealthy people moved in, and rents skyrocketed. Squamish used to be mostly blue collar workers, loggers, the Squamish Nation, and a small community of climbers. Funnily, I always felt like the lumberjacks didn’t like us. Eventually, the once small town transformed into the tourist town it is today. The golden era is over, but this is just one of the effects of capitalism and its need for constant growth. For me, capitalism is not sustainable. I would need a different economic system and mindset.


„After the Olympics Squamish was suddenly on the map as “the place to be” and it attracted a lot of people from different demographics. Wealthy people moved in, and rents skyrocketed.“


Is the “Golden Age” sustainable? 
Not really because there were other things going on there besides the climbing world. I think we need to slow down overall as a humanity. The world is accelerating all the time. We’re so focused on constant growth and making money that we’re missing out on a lot of magical moments like The River. And I think it’s those magic moments and creating such communities that are sustainable. We can have them at any time, we just have to learn how to share land and space and slow down in all aspects — from how we approach climbing and to our pursuit of money. There’s a lot of greed all around us. Does the term “collective amnesia” mean anything to you?

What does the term “collective amnesia” mean?
It refers to the idea that life or land was once a particular way, but when it changes, these changes become normalized and eventually people forget what was before, except for maybe a handful of people. When new people come along, they learn to see society after the changes. For example, Squamish may feel like a free place for you, but I don’t feel as free here as before because I remember the time when I was able to sleep in my car without fear of the cops knocking on my window. I never used to have that fear. But now I do. And for you, this fear is normal. It’s like a collective forgetting that we were once much freer and that the land and society used to be different.

– „WE JUST HAVE TO LEARN HOW TO SHARE LAND AND SPACE AND SLOW DOWN IN ALL ASPECTS“ (photo: Renee Robyn) –

HOLDING YOUR OWN

You’ve been living in a van for more than 20 years. You even raised your daughter there. It sounds impossible to me. Have you lived in a RV like this one the whole time?
You know, we didn’t live in a big RV like this before. Cedar grew up in a much smaller van. We moved into this one about two years ago. This camper feels so huge to me! I’m not used to so much space. I even feel a little confused here sometimes. (laughs)

How could you handle living in such a tiny space like the minivan?It’s been fine. Winters can be tough. But at the same time, as Cedar was getting bigger, we grew out of that small space. One challenge was changing clothes. You put on a shirt and you have to be careful not to hit the other one with your arm as you put it through a sleeve. You’re in really close quarters in the van and perhaps, many people can’t handle that kind of closeness. I’m sure that I can’t live like that with everyone. Cedar is my daughter, so it’s easier. But the older she gets, the more difficult it can be. Of course, she needs a lot more space of her own than she used to. We’re still trying to balance that. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse.

It’s not easy to give up the luxury of living in your own apartment or house. What’s the hardest part of living in a car for you?
I sometimes miss the material side of it – like, I might see something really nice at the Thrift Store (a local thrift store where you can buy clothes and home furnishings for a song) and think, “I wish I had somewhere to put that.” At times like that, I wish I had a place to put something nice. But eventually you realize that accumulating stuff isn’t actually that important. And at the same time, material things simplify life and sometimes make you happy… I’m sorry, what were you asking?

Could you name the biggest disadvantages of life in a van?
Living in an RV is very different from the van. I’ve spent over 20 years in a minivan. In the van, the small daily tasks are really big — you wake up every morning and have to figure out where you’re going to go to the bathroom. You are also constantly affected by the weather. In the winter, you need to keep warm and rainy days bring their own challenges. When you get really wet, you have to figure out where to dry your clothes. We’ve also had a problem with the police in the past few years. They won’t let you sleep anywhere in Squamish like they used to. If you sleep where you’re not supposed to, they’ll come knocking on your window in the middle of the night. I also don’t leave the door to our camper open anymore. I used to, but now I feel like people judge me when they see me inside. I have to live a life of hiding but I don’t think we should be ashamed of living in a vehicle …

„This was my home for more than 20 years.“ (f: TP archive)


What is the cause of the animosity between the bylaw and the people in vans?
The problem is not just between vehicle residents and the police, it is much broader than that. I think a lot of it has to do with capitalism. The people of Squamish are changing — you see property investors in suits on the street looking at old houses or empty lots. And when an old Toyota RV is parked on the side of the road, it is a thorn in their side. Aesthetically, we lower property value basically. I don’t want to lump everyone together, but more and more I’m seeing the attitude, “I didn’t work hard to move here only to live surrounded by people in vans who leave garbage on the street and don’t pay property tax.” We run into a lot of stigma like that, NIMBYism basically. (Not in my backyard). But I think this is a facade that is driven by something more perverse. Sure there are a few irresponsible van campers but we didn’t bother anyone before these massive changes started happening due to Squamish gentrification. But in the past few years, living in a van has become a real problem for the District. I think it all comes down to money.

At the same time, there are people in vehicles who don’t pay attention to local politics. They don’t realize that their behavior affects the whole community of people living in cars. I drove by a climbing area a few years ago and saw a van of climbers with clotheslines stretched around their van, sitting in camping chairs.

I pulled up to them at the time and quickly explained the situation, “Hey, could you be a little more discreet while camping? Because situations like this cause us problems.”

“Yeah, we didn’t get it at all.“

They were fine and cleaned up but I’ve also met people who don’t care. I once saw a guy camping in a parking lot near my gym. He got up in the morning and went to pee on the grass. When I pointed out to him that there were apartment buildings all over the place, he said “but this is nature”. He didn’t get it. Behavior like this really gives us a bad name.

Is there a way to prevent conflicting situations from the climbing community?Surely by education. We need to talk about it and explain the situation to other climbers. As a community we could become more interested in the places we visit and respect the local customs. But some people in vans just don’t think — they leave stuff or food under their vehicles, for example. We really mustn’t do that here because of the bears. At the same time, I perceive a strong hypocrisy on the part of the government and investors. They blame us for littering, yet they destroy green spaces so they can build and make more money… They do a huge amount of environmental damage with their non-stop building and promotion of high consumption lifestyles, yet they claim that we are an environmental threat? Scale wise, it’s nonsense.

„As a community we could become more interested in the places we visit and respect the local customs.“



Talking about social media and public space, you are very outspoken. How can we (as climbers, or in general) improve the communication between van people and bylaw OR other locals? How can we find common ground?
We should be more involved and interested in our surroundings. If there’s one thing that really frustrates me, it’s human apathy. We passively accept what politicians dictate to us without question perhaps because we think that we are immune from real oppression. We have been so spoiled and comfortable for so long, but this shouldn’t be taken for granted. I fear that with this attitude we may one day face much bigger problems. We should be able to sacrifice a little of our own comfort and stand up for our own opinions, and what I see as justice. The government says that vehicle residents are the problem. If that is the case, then they should allow people living in vehicles to really be part of the solution. Also, it would help if people were more willing to sacrifice a day out on the rocks for the future of our community. This can look like talking to local politicians, going to a demonstration, or even being involved in some sort of Right to Remain movement that actively works to resist displacement.

Why have you chosen to live in a van? What do you like about it?
The physical freedom, for sure. I enjoy being on the move and falling asleep in a different place every night. I can take my home with me wherever I go. I have daily adventures, and I’m always surrounded by the elements. That’s something you can’t experience in the warmth of a house that’s fixed to the ground. I like to fall asleep with the windows open, and when it gets so cold you can see your own breath. It’s moments like that that make me feel really alive. And I like the financial freedom. For example, I don’t have to work tons of hours just to pay brutally high rent. I’d rather spend that money on good food and save for future trips. Being able to break free from a system that I find perverse is a huge reward for me.

Very last question, do you and Didier plan to move into the apartment once?
If that ever happens, it’ll be because we both want to. I won’t move just for fear of the authorities. We’ll see what’s next. Cedar will be graduating soon, and becoming an adult living on her own. It’s going to be a huge challenge and change for me. But hopefully she’ll come with us on a climbing road trip sometime…

„Hopefully she’ll come with us on a climbing road trip sometime…“ Cedar, Thomasina and Didier. (f: TP archive)


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Tereza Ševečková

Author

Cannot stay in one place and always has her head in the clouds. That’s why she loves writing about climbing and traveling. When she’s not in the vertical world, she’s at least talking to some interesting people or playing guitar – music makes world a better place.

Standa Mitáč

Editor in chief

“Climbing is not about the grades and life is not about the money.” He loves to write about inspiring people. Addicted to situations when he does not care about date and time – in the mountains or home Elbe Sandstones. Not being treated.

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