Elisa Varlotta has climbed since she could walk. Not just climbing on chairs or up steps like most other children, but rock climbing thanks to her father, Mike. And she has spoken Spanish as long as she has spoken English, thanks to her mother, Vivian, a native of Costa Rica.
The 26-year-old is now combining both skills in producing a film about Latinx female climbers in Columbia. It’s a tall order for someone who knew nothing about filmmaking.
Varlotta, of Brookline, began climbing at a young age, tying into a rope at about the same time she learned to walk.
“When I was six, I was already doing climbs like Seneca Rock,” Varlotta said. Her love of climbing came naturally thanks to her dad—the two often climbing along with her younger siblings, GiGi and Michael. Since her parents were school teachers, the family would spend summers traveling, exploring new areas and finding places to climb.
“I could write a book about what climbing has meant for Elisa and I and my whole family. It has put us all on a unique trajectory and shaped us all as much as anything else in the world,” Mike Varlotta explained. “The fact that my wife is Costa Rican and that the kids were raised bilingually and biculturally is equally huge and very much a part of Elisa’s project.”
Varlotta’s climbing took a back seat to other sports when she attended Dickinson College. But while she didn’t climb at school, she continued climbing and working at Ascend, a local climbing gym throughout her college career.
After graduating in 2019, Varlotta decided to apply for a Fulbright scholarship, accepting an English teaching assistant position in Columbia. “I knew that I wanted to go to a Latin community, and I wanted to go somewhere new to form my own network and community,” she explained.
But the pandemic halted travel, so Varlotta began climbing more. In February of 2021, she took a dream trip to Red Rock Canyon, NV with her younger sister, GiGi. “Growing up, I often climbed with dad and his friends. They were great, but it was his activity and his friends. It was really special to be able to go there with just her on our own,” she said.
The two spent time with family friends and worked on their climbing skills. “We learned to climb on our own; to not have dad holding our hands,” she said.
When travel became safe again, Varlotta resumed her goal to teach and study in Columbia. “It’s ironic because when I was packing, I threw in my climbing shoes and thought ‘I probably won’t have much time for climbing,’” she said.
Soon after arriving in Columbia, Varlotta went to a local climbing gym in an effort to meet new people doing the sport she loved. “On the weekend, a group would go to a place about an hour away where there was the best climbing in the world and there, I met a female climber who lived nearby and took younger climbers under her wing,” said Varlotta.
She soon found a community of Latinx female climbers, a place where she felt at home and could develop her climbing skills. “It was a magical time,” she said.
Back in Pittsburgh after her assignment ended, Varlotta kept thinking of these women and the outdoor community as a whole. “I knew that I wanted to find a way to bring the Latinx community to light. We need to have the outdoor community be more inclusive, and I wanted to find a way to do something,” she said.
Varlotta began researching and contacting outdoor climbing brands and was accepted into a mentorship program through Scarpa, a shoe company. “There are 20 of us who will be working on projects throughout the year,” she said.
As Varlotta considered ideas for her mentorship project, she kept returning to her climbs and community in Columbia. Her ideas were further sparked by a film that she had seen at a climbing festival. “I was so deeply moved by the film and decided that I wanted to make a movie,” she said.
But Varlotta still wasn’t totally sold on her own idea—or her ability to accomplish such a feat. “I kept thinking, ‘How am I going to do this?’ and kept coming up with other things. Finally, I decided I wanted a project that intersects my identity in climbing and heritage,” she said.
Varlotta reached out to Alita Contreras, a climber in Columbia who immediately signed on to assist her, helping her identify a team to help produce and put the project together. Varlotta also began a fundraising campaign. In early March, she embarked on her trip to Columbia to make the film.
Lest it appear easy, there were still times when Varlotta wanted to quit. “It was frustrating and I would get pushback, but then I would say, ‘No, this is the exact reason we need this,’” she said.
The production is on the fast track with Varlotta hoping to have the film completed by early summer. “It is my vision to have it ready for climbing festivals throughout the U.S. for 2023,” she said.
The film, which features six female Latinx climbers including Varlotta, has many objectives, according to the filmmaker. In addition to increasing awareness and showing Columbia in a positive light, Varlotta also wants to increase representation of Latinx climbers who can serve as role models for younger female climbers.
“It will be a whole film on identity; I want to start conversations about identity and reflect on who the climbers are and what they can achieve,” Varlotta said.
For more information about Varlotta’ s film and fundraising efforts, visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/guerreras-film.