Feminism seems to be a hot topic of conversation in the climbing sphere of late. That’s only logical when it’s once again popping up on the national socio-political spectrum. It has me replaying an experience from last fall in the Red. Just before the election, Charlie and I were climbing at a crag that has a steep cave section with a few long routes in it. I was working out moves on one of them when a group of three guys and a girl arrived at the base of an easy slab across the amphitheater from us. The girl was probably hovering somewhere between 18 and 22, and seemed to be fairly new to climbing, evidenced by the fact that when she saw the rope we’d left under the route Charlie was working she thought someone had just left it and it was up for grabs. The guys shut her down on that right away, pointing out that we were there, climbing on another route nearby. It was apparent they were unaware that we could hear them.
Girl: “What’s that climb they’re on over there?”
Guy #1: “I’m not sure, I think it’s kind of hard.”
Guy #2: “Yeah, it’s pretty steep.”
Girl: “Is that a guy or a girl? I think it’s a girl! It can’t be that hard!”
Sink my heart. Tie a rock around it and cast it into the depths. Feed it to the fishes. Charlie, unable to remain quiet, called back, “You sound like Donald Trump!” Not necessarily an insult in that part of the country, but the girl took it as one (point for her!) and grumbled a bit before closing her mouth. I continued working out the beta to the top of the route.
Charlie lowered me and I untied. I excused myself and began the short hike around the cliff to approach the girl and her friends. When you’re disappointed it can be difficult to smile, but I put my best friendly face forward.
“Hi there! Sorry, I’m a grandma and I can’t help myself…but please don’t sell yourself short. You can climb just as hard as these guys, and probably even harder.”- Guy #1 nodded- “Women around the world are proving it. I’m an old lady and I climbed a 5.14 this summer.” Her eyes widened. Sometimes spray comes in handy when you have a point to make. And I’m really only a step-grandma, but that doesn’t carry as much guilt weight.
After some apologetic mumbling and excuses, she asked me, “How hard is that route, anyway?”
I told her the grade.
“Yeah, well, I’ve done some pretty gnarly stuff, too!”
I felt a small degree of failure in the immediate moment, but at least the seed was planted.
This isn’t just about climbing. Something else- everything else- in her young life added up to her perception of her own weakness. As a middle-aged woman without children, it made me realize how out of touch I’ve become. I guess I assumed that because I feel more confident and empowered than I once did, all women in America must feel the same thing. I was wrong. The recent emergence of research demonstrating young girls’ lack of confidence that women can be highly intelligent proves my ignorance. So what do I do about it? Exactly what I did.
I started climbing in 1998. That’s really not all that long ago, and in 19 years the ratio of women to men in rock climbing has grown enough to be noticeable and our accomplishments are becoming as visible as those of the men. In that respect, climbing seems to be a bit of an anomaly among sports. The role of the strength to weight ratio vs. objective strength, the application of creativity to adaptive beta for constrictions of body size and proportions, and mental tenacity metamorphasize into a unique experience for each athlete.
It’s cool to see women climbing together. I remember the “girl trips” in my earlier climbing days as some of the most fun, supportive experiences I had in those years. We would laugh for hours while making a group effort to get draws up on a harder route we all wanted to try. I needed that then. Over the years, my needs have changed: a consistent partner who hums along on a similar frequency, who is tuned into my particular strengths and weaknesses, and whose style preferences are similar to mine so it’s easy to find projects at the same crag. For the past nine years, that partner has happened to be male. Sure, he’s stronger than I am. He’s also been climbing twenty years longer. And he has never questioned my occasionally overly ambitious goals, at least not aloud.
Despite the existence of so many more female climbers today, I’m still often the lone estrogen element in a sea of testosterone, but that doesn’t make me feel weaker. The men I climb around seem to take a pretty inclusive attitude toward me, and I don’t sense a conscious effort on their parts to do so. More often, I’m put in an awkward position by a woman who compliments an effort that’s really nothing special, merely because I’m female.
I guess the point of all this is that I’m grateful that my experience in this sport is one of overwhelmingly positive reinforcement through interactions with climbers of both genders. I still feel a warm flutter of comaraderie when I see women showing up to the crag together, but even more exciting is the energy that comes from a crag full of just plain human beings who are psyched for one another to climb the hardest they possibly can.
Featured photo at top of page 📸 Pablo Durana, pablodurana.com
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