The Improbable Rise of Maiza Lima

Photo: Jules Jimreivat

From Amazon village to celebrity star of ‘The Climb,’ the Brazilian immigrant, athlete and guide fought hard to build a new life in the U.S., and gain a foothold in the climbing world.

If you’ve been watching the new HBO Max series, The Climb, you already know Maiza Lima by name. She’s a featured contestant in the reality competition show, produced and co-hosted by acting star Jason Momoa alongside climbing legend Chris Sharma. If you haven’t watched (or binged) the series yet, each of the eight episodes pit the contestants in elimination climbing challenges for a chance $100,000 and a brand endorsement deal. But given the show’s highly produced nature, viewers might overlook the truly unique and inspiring journey that led Lima to professional rock climbing—and now out to over 70 million streaming screens across the world.

Lima (she/her) grew up in a tiny village on the eastern edge of the Amazon basin and fled from northern Brazil to the U.S. with her mother when she was 17. At that time, she had zero knowledge of English and had never heard of climbing. Sure, she used to walk miles to the river to do laundry, but that definitely was not for fun. When she discovered the sport at age 26, she fell in love with it. Lima spent the next few years teaching herself to climb and getting her guiding credentials—all while cleaning houses full-time in Seattle. 

Now based in Montana, Lima is a full-time guide and sponsored climber—and a little bit of a celebrity after her film debut on The Climb. Throughout it all, she’s maintained a rock-solid sense of self and perspective on the world. It’s easy to draw motivation from this climbing pro who’s equal parts humble and driven. And the uplifting story of how she’s charted such an improbable rise is one that’s best told by Lima herself. 

PUBLIC LANDS: At first, you didn’t want to apply for The Climb. What changed your mind?

MAIZA LIMA: Honestly, I was going through a hard time in my life then. I had a lot of work going on, and climbing wasn’t a priority. When the casting person reached out and sent me the link, I was laughing—like, this is not for me. But I’m a believer that you just have to go for things, and if the answer is yes, then you’re meant to be in that space.

Have you always been like that? 

I have, and it’s been true in many situations in my life: Moving from Brazil to the U.S. and leaving behind everything I knew, even my language and family. Transitioning from cleaning houses to climbing and making that my source of income. If an opportunity arises, I take it. I think that if people invite me to do something, then they’re confident in me, and I just have to trust that. That said, I’ve never been that confident in myself.

Photo: William Woodward

Why did you struggle with confidence in the past?

I never knew if my lack of confidence was or is because I’m a female climber. 

I remember when I came into [my guiding] courses, I was overwhelmingly outnumbered, but I didn’t pay too much attention. What was hard was that I had to learn to fit in, and to match the pace [of the guys] when I was in the mountaineering world. I worked so damn hard because I was scared of failing my conditioning tests and not being good enough to be accepted into climbing trips. That said, I also think women are overall more shy and more intimated. We think a lot before we act and, although it’s great, that’s when overthinking happens.

What advice do you have for women climbers getting into the sport?

I’d say keep your head up high. I know the representation out there isn’t overwhelming yet, but there is some. Plus, you could be the new representation and motivate more people to also belong.

In the show, you say you feel guilty about choosing a climbing career instead of something more lucrative to support your family. How do you feel about that now? How does your family feel about your climbing?  

It’s funny—I was doing weighted pull-ups the other day, and my mom called me and she said ‘What does that mean? Why are you doing that? Your shoulders are already so wide, and you’re just making them wider.’ I was really pissed off, but at the same time laughing. It’s been a struggle—my mom really wanted me to go to school, but I was never able to.

We came illegally to the U.S., so we didn’t have a visa. Then, there was no hope of getting a green card for fear of getting deported. I didn’t get one until after I got married. It took me 14 years to be finally accepted as a person in this country. By then, I already had a career. It didn’t make sense to go back to school. So, I think my mom is really proud of me, but at the same time, there’s this side of her that wishes I had a degree. 

So how did you get into climbing after immigrating to the U.S.? 

My mom and I moved to Seattle in 2004 when I was 17, and we moved because we were extremely poor. I lived in a very small village in Brazil, and there was no education for me. My parents couldn’t afford to send me anywhere else. We were stuck. We barely had clothes to wear. So then there was this opportunity that someone gave us to come to the U.S. for a few years, and we took it. It wasn’t easy. Crossing the Mexican border is never easy, especially when you’re 17 years old and have no idea what you’re doing.

I started rock climbing out of necessity, I think. I was 26. I think I was going through a lot of depression. I was feeling so lost, and my friend took me hiking, and I got obsessed. That’s all I did for weeks on end. Then, I wanted to do something more extreme, but I didn’t know rock climbing existed or gyms existed. 

Then I joined The Mountaineers in Seattle, and I thought, ‘Oh, OK, this looks like a hiking or snowshoeing club or whatever.’ I signed up for something called a ‘sport-climbing course’ and just took the gear list to an outdoor retailer and they gave me all the things I needed. I had no idea what I’d signed up for. I was terrified of heights. I only went halfway up the wall. But the next year I learned how to start trad climbing and ice climbing. It was awesome, but I spent that whole time exhausted because I was doing all this climbing, but I was also cleaning houses every day.” 

What did you love about it?  

I found strength in me I didn’t know I had—both mental and physical. In the beginning, though, it was more physical. I’d never done sports. I got upper-body strong really fast and it was like woah—I couldn’t even do a push-up before. That’s a really cool feeling. 

Were you naturally good at climbing? 

No—I would cry every time I ever led a route, and I didn’t finish anything. I had to top-rope for two years. I was scared of leading. I thought I was going to die. It was a big exposure to something I’d never been exposed to. It was terrifying, and it took so much work and a lot of wanting it super bad. I was also inspired by a lot of other women around me at that time.  

What climbers inspired you to keep going? 

Just the friends I climbed with, and local women who were crushing. They had day-jobs, but they were still finding the time to do these things. The one person I will name is Krystin Norman. She’s a coffee scientist for Starbucks and she’s a great rock climber and an incredible person. That’s the kind of climber I’m inspired by: people who weren’t born climbing; they just wanted it and made it happen.


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