Working in a climbing center in London, Carmen McIlveen quickly noticed how hard it can be to get into this sport. With the recently launched Project One Climbing, she’s dedicated to change the face of it.

What sparked your passion for climbing? 

I engaged in different sports from a very early age. I started Irish dancing when I was only four years old and continued until I was sixteen. I played football, rugby and took up running. My whole family has always been very very active. My brother and dad are into football and my mum was a self defense teacher. During my late teenage years, sports took a backseat while I discovered eating out, pubs and live music instead, which led into a career in hospitality.

When I started working in hospitality, all exercise remained on the back burner. The long hours didn’t really match with athletic hobbies. But when I started to look for a way out of hospitality, I asked myself: what can I do to give back to others? I decided to pursue personal training and met a climbing instructor. He invited me to my very first climbing session. The day after, I bought myself a fresh pair of climbing shoes. I haven’t looked back since.


What do you love so much about it?

I was already 29 when I started climbing. That’s a very late entry for any sport, but climbing is just so accessible to all, regardless of age, height or fitness level. Unlike a group sport, you don’t have to live up to anyone else’s expectations. It allows you to focus on all the little achievements within climbing. You can tackle huge challenges in small steps. This growth is extremely beneficial for your mental health.

Although you don’t really rely on anybody but your climbing partner, it’s a very supportive sport. Some days, the whole gym can be cheering for a stranger struggling with a new route. It’s easy to identify with that person on the wall, because everyone who climbs, has started at some point. We’ve all gone through a process, starting with the 3+ routes, switching to the 4’s and struggling through the 5’s.

Carmen McIlveen

We all know that having the support of people around you makes you climb twice as well. It creates a great community vibe, where everyone wants the other to succeed.

Regardless of the supportive community, climbing is still a predominantly white sport. Did you ever feel out of place in the climbing industry?

I started climbing in a small gym in Oxford. And while Oxford is a very diverse city, that was not represented at the wall. Throughout my life, I’ve seemingly been into very ‘white’ activities; I was into Irish dancing and the punk rock scene: these aren’t considered to be diverse situations, so at that time, I didn’t notice anything different from what I was already used to, and while the lack of diversity did become obvious, I never had any negative experiences personally.


Why do you think BAME people are underrepresented on the climbing wall?

There are probably many barriers that keep people from climbing, but I believe that one of the main problems is financial accessibility. Climbing is known to be a very expensive sport and rightly so, because it’s dangerous and we need to protect ourselves. Climbers need safe gear and people need to be qualified to instruct. That becomes costly.

I work on the reception in a climbing center and I often see families come in to have a look. If the parents don’t have climbing experience, they can’t supervise their kids themselves. An instructed session usually costs at least 20 pounds per person, so a lot of the parents say “Not today” and leave the center with a disappointed child. What if they do cough up the money and the child wants to come back? They’d need shoes, helmets and harnesses. You’d have to train yourself or get them into a club, which can cost hundreds of pounds per term. And spaces are rare.

Multiply the barriers for indoor climbing and you’ll have an idea of how difficult it can be to get into outdoor climbing. Apart from your gear and skills, you’d need extra material, transport and a good support group.

Carmen McIlveen
photo: Beth Squire

The amount of BAME households living in poverty in the UK is up to 35.7% compared to 17.2% for white people. They are often living paycheck to paycheck and potentially have more family members to look after. They lack the disposable income that would be used for extracurricular activities and sports. How do children from low-income families get to do the fun stuff? They simply don’t. 


How does that shape a child’s physical and mental health?

I’m not an expert – but just think of how much a person benefits from sports and leisure time. Now remove these profits because your parents or caregivers can’t pay for it. How would you feel at the end of the day? How self-confident would you be? How healthy? Missing out on sports can have a devastating impact on physical and mental health. You may also feel left out, because you see other people participating while you can’t. Children might question why, or even ask what’s wrong with them. It can raise a lot of questions about self-worth. 


You recently launched Project One Climbing, in which you hope to remove that financial barrier.

I come from a low-income estate in Oxford, and I never heard about climbing when I was young. So my first idea was to take some kids from the estate and go climb together. But when I moved out of Oxford, the idea transformed. “Let’s take a couple of kids” became “let’s take loads”.

Carmen McIlveen Project One climbing
photo: Gabriel Saccol

When we think about diversity in the long term, kids are the way to start. With Project One, we’re building a nice foundation to grow. Keep the work up for 5 years or 10 years time and these children grow up to be young adults who are climbing – both indoors and outdoors.

Do you also hope to pass on some personal knowledge onto these kids?

Climbing has been incredibly helpful for me; It taught me how much I was actually capable of. Small achievements that mean absolutely nothing to the rest of the world, can make you feel good about yourself. It gives you the confidence to go and try something new next time. It teaches you perseverance and allows you to challenge your own limits. Climbing also teaches you about failure and not letting failure define you or your worth. 

I want to bring these lessons across when I teach. But most of all, I want to spark joy. Shy kids who keep to themselves at the beginning of a climbing session can be laughing and socializing at the end of the day. Seeing that happiness in others is what keeps me going. Project One is bringing passion to children and I get a really big kick out of that.