Maiza’s Journey

From the Amazon Rainforest to the North Cascades:

How Brazilian-born climber Maiza Lima became one of the sport’s unlikeliest stars

By Richard Osborn

Photo Credit: Irene Yee

Maiza Lima’s route into the world of sport climbing has been more challenging, more fraught with danger than any 5.13 she’ll ever encounter. Maybe that’s why the 33-year-old climber appears so unflustered on the blank faces and overhangs of her project routes from the Cascades to Red Rock Canyon.

The unlikely Climbing cover girl was raised in the state of Pará in northern Brazil, home to the Amazon Rainforest. Life in her village, Alacilândia, was simple. The family didn’t have much. Their home was constructed of palm trees. Maiza and her two brothers rarely had enough food, clothing, or shoes. If the fishing wasn’t good, she says, they would subsist on squash, carrots, or potatoes for days at a time. Their hand-stitched mattresses were hay filled. They didn’t own a car, so laundry day meant a long hike to the Arraias do Araguaia River. Educational opportunities were limited. There were no Christmases, no birthday celebrations either. There simply wasn’t enough money.

And there was the unsettling matter of her now-estranged father and his addictions—to both alcohol and gambling. He would disappear at night, sometimes not returning until the next morning. When the losses mounted, he’d send someone to the house to fetch more cash.

“This journey brings me to tears almost every day,” said Lima, who’s emerged as one of the sport’s most exciting new talents. “It’s just so unlikely that sometimes I can’t even believe it myself. I feel like I’m one in a million. I just remember dreaming of a better future when I was 10, 12. I had nothing going for me. I didn’t even have a higher education to go to. The fact that I’ve been able to turn my life around and get away from it has been absolutely incredible.”

“I always had big dreams. I always had this belief inside of me that I was meant to do something,” she added. “I just didn’t know how to get to it.”

By the time Maiza was 17, her mother, Geralda, had had enough. To escape her increasingly abusive husband—and to find a way to better support her children—she set off for the United States with her daughter in tow. Maiza remembers leaving Alacilândia, her younger brother running after the car, crying. Exactly how they made it to Kirkland, Washington in 2004 has for years remained a closely guarded secret.

To protect herself, Maiza would tell friends and acquaintances that she regularly traveled back to Brazil over the years. But the truth is, she’s never been back. That’s because she and Geralda came to the U.S. illegally. It’s only now that Lima is beginning to unburden herself, opening up and revisiting all that she went through as a teenager.

“I’ve never shared this because the fear of judgement was so big for so many years. It’s been really hard to keep all of this to myself,” she said. “We went through a lot, my mom and I. I think that brought us so much closer together. We didn’t think we were doing something so bad, so illegal. We just wanted to change our lives.”

Photo Credit: Irene Yee

Lima says she talks to her brothers on the phone every day, but she hasn’t seen them face-to-face in more than a decade and a half.

Outside of her mother, Maiza didn’t know a soul in the U.S. She didn’t speak any English. Together they started a cleaning business to make ends meet. Maiza would need the money. Her immigration process has run into the thousands of dollars. (Though she has obtained a green card, her pathway to citizenship continues to this day.)

Their undocumented status brought hardships on them both; some voiced, some not. But Lima knew deep down that the risks, the sacrifices were necessary.

“My mom was always crying. She had it rough, but she’s a fighter. Always has been,” said Lima. “She’d take any chances to do the best for us. She knew this was probably her only chance to give us a better life. She still helps my brothers, still helps me. She’s always there for us.”

For several years, Lima embraced the party lifestyle, an attempt to experience a life she had never known back in Brazil. She was a regular in the bars and clubs in and around Seattle, dancing the night away. Salsa in stilettos. But she was somehow always left unfulfilled. All that changed the day a group of friends from a local church took her on a hike. She had done plenty of hiking back in the Amazon, but this was different. This you did for fun.

Photo Credit: Irene Yee

In 2015, looking for more of a challenge, she joined the Mountaineers, a nonprofit group of outdoor enthusiasts, driving two-and-a-half hours from Kirkland to Tacoma to take introductory climbing classes. (“It was quite the commute, but worth it.”)

Here she was, 27, and just discovering rock climbing. A latecomer to a sport that she somehow seemed born for and one that would come to impact her life in profound ways. As Lima is quick to note, she was anything but a natural. Just five foot three, she wasn’t very strong or, for that matter, at ease high up on the rocks. But over time, she began to get the hang of it. Before Lima knew it, she was roping up and tackling challenging climbs in Washington and elsewhere, all along chronicling her achievements on Instagram (@maizalimarock), where she’s developed a loyal following.

With her first-ever athletic endeavor came newfound strengths—both mental and physical—that she never knew she possessed. The empowerment was intoxicating.

Hardly a wallflower, she was making friends in bunches, too.

“When people meet me, they say, ‘Wow, you come off as much taller than you actually are.’ I just say, ‘It’s the personality.’ My friends always say I’m like a vacuum; that when I walk into a room, everybody comes toward me.”

Her future husband, Dallin Wilson, was among those who were drawn to her. They met while climbing, of course. Lima was having trouble mastering a route. Dallin, meanwhile, completed it twice in his hiking boots. It was a perfect match. They were engaged on a multi-pitch route and married at 5,000 feet in the North Cascades.

Wilson’s role as a firefighter with the U.S. Air Force has since taken the couple to Great Falls, Montana where they now reside. As Lima’s profile in sport climbing continues to grow, she finds herself in high demand. She’s drawn interest from companies like Marmot, YETI, Maxim Ropes, and Gnarly Nutrition. Suddenly, there are clinics, photoshoots, and sponsor demands to juggle. In the fall of 2020, she made her first appearance on the cover of Climbing magazine. When the issue first hit the newsstand, it was undeniably a moment of validation, an emotional one that showed just how far she had come. (Lima sheepishly grinned when informed that it was one of Climbing’s top sellers; the boost may have been due to her proud mom, who ventured to the nearest climbing gym to purchase 10 copies.)

“I just cried, I was so happy,” she confided. “But I still don’t feel like I’m an established sport climber. I still have that pressure. Someone who climbs a 5.14 probably thinks I’m just a fraud. ‘Why is she on there when I could be?’ It’s really hard. You always want to be better. You always want to push yourself more. In climbing, you’re never satisfied. I love the opportunities that climbing has given to me. I just want to stay curious and see what else it can bring.”

“She’s an amazing climber, but she would never tell you that,” said Irene Yee, the photographer who captured Lima in action for Climbing. “As climbers, part of the experience is being riddled with doubt. Maiza’s definitely one of those people who is doubtful of her abilities. She really has that process of deep self-assessment. It’s always interesting to find somebody who has that kind of self-doubt yet continues on and keeps improving. She’s achieving so much. She’s really going for it and works hard for it.”

Perhaps Lima’s self-doubt is a byproduct of the uncertainty she lives with every day; the knowledge that her struggle is ongoing.

“She faces a lot of fear in this country with her immigration status and what’s happening in the world,” Yee continued. “She’s overcome a lot, but that struggle is not done. I think we forget about that. We love to see these ‘overcoming’ stories. They’re done, they’re finished. But that’s not true for Maiza. She still faces a lot of things that could bring her back, unwillingly, to the place that she came from.”

Yee’s cover shot captures Lima muscling her way up a 5.12b in Red Rock outside Las Vegas. Lima hangs from Fresh Air in a box canyon called Sandy Corridor contemplating her next move, a tricky overhang-to-slab transition. She knows if she fails, the fall to her last protection will be a painful one.

It’s yet another risk, another leap of faith in a life filled with them.