Switchbackr Spotlight: Irene Yee (@ladylockoff)
Updated: Apr 19
We are so excited to share our interview with Irene Yee, an amazing climber and photographer based in Las Vegas. Irene has worked with the Honnold Foundation, The Access Fund, and American Alpine Club, just to name a few. She sat down with us to share her journey into climbing and photography!
How did you get into climbing?
When I moved to Las Vegas I was living with two friends from college who gave me their guest room for free while I got on my feet. Since I didn't really know anyone here, I figured I should start making some friends. I had used meetup.com before, so I tried it here in Vegas. I went to a random meet up group at a rock climbing gym where they were incredibly kind, welcoming, and so supportive. The second time I went they were like, "do you want to go outside?" and I was super stoked. I’d climbed outside before but only a few times when I was younger, so this was my first time as an adult. I had no idea there was climbing in Las Vegas and after that first top rope route I was like, "Great! I’m going to do this".
Is there a climb you are most proud of?
Not really, it's mostly climbs I’ve really enjoyed–Crimson Chrysalis is a trad route in Vegas. It’s an incredibly aesthetic climb and it takes the whole day. We started at 5am to bust our butts to be the first ones there, so that we wouldn’t be stuck behind others. I had attempted it twice previously, and I finally sent it. I have great memories from that day.
How did you get into photography?
It was a few months after I started climbing. I started with a Sony lens that attaches via wifi to my phone, back when phone cameras weren’t that good. I won it at a Christmas party and really didn't know what it was. But I started taking photos with it kind of randomly because it worked on a timer. As I started to get more into it and played around with this small piece of tech, I realized it was pretty cool. After I switched jobs and began to have expendable income, an opportunity came along from a coworker who was selling a bunch of camera bodies.
It started from there–I just started bringing my camera to the crag and photoing people. It was super casual to start, as I had no idea how to use the cameras. Whenever you get a new camera people love to tell you how to use it. They were telling me about features like aperture priority, and in my head I was like "I don't even know what aperture is". So I googled the manual to make logical sense of the things the camera does. I mostly figured it out just by doing, it's my favorite way to learn. I think people underestimate their own intelligence when it comes to these sorts of things. There is a gumby innocence of not knowing that’s actually really beautiful.
If you could change something about climbing culture what would it be?
The elitism. We hate things that change which is weird because we are ever changing people. The sport will keep growing and evolving whether we want it to or not. Elitism about how things were back then doesn’t functionally sustain change in a positive way. We hold onto the norms–how few people there used to be, how something should be climbed, the way gear should be placed on your harness.
Instead, we should be looking to educate. The barrier to entry now is way lower than it used to be, but the amount of education hasn’t gone up. Either because people haven’t shared info or because they don’t want more people there. We should all educate people to be better climbers, better stewards of the land.
Your instagram (@ladylockoff) has really taken off. What is your goal for it?
Though it’s a lofty goal, my thought process is that if I can convince you that you can climb, what else can you be convinced of, once you have that confidence and self-worth? We forget how much that flows through the other parts in our lives. You don’t have to do the highest hardest coolest thing–that's not everybody’s goal of climbing, or the end goal of climbing. For me, the goal of climbing is to be outdoors, to have fun, and to be a part of the community. That has nothing to do with climbing hard. You could climb 5.6 and achieve all of those things.
One of my passion projects is to photograph women who are over 40 climbing. Of course we are inspired by the younger generation that are pushing the bounds, but it's something that really isn't achievable for me personally. I want to see women who have made climbing a part of their life and how they achieve that. I want to see the potential options of what my life could be. I’ll never have tendons of steel, let's be honest, 5.12 is just not for me. But I want to know that women can have kids, careers, and make their life about climbing at every age and every stage.
One photo can change your life–I saw a picture of a woman climbing with painted nails. I was like, I guess I don’t have to be a dirtbag dude to do it, I can be exactly who I am.
My Instagram is a place where nobody gets to dictate my work except for me. Editorially, it can be easy to get stuck in someone else’s parameters. My page is just my own little magazine and there’s a lot of freedom, experimentation, and creativity that would never be in a magazine. That’s the whole thing–climbing is a medium to produce creative works. It's fun to portray climbing in a completely artistic way. Sometimes that works and other times it doesn’t work at all.
Who are your role models?
My role models have always been my friends–people I met along my climbing journey. It's different when you know the person. You know the hard work, training and motivation that it took them to get to this point. So it's extra special for both of you to experience their send. Those are the people that I look up to the most.
All photos courtesy of Irene Yee.