Accept and Adapt: Women in Climbing

More women climbing means a richer experience for all of us.
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More women climbing means a richer experience for all of us.
Nina Williams works Change of Heart (V6) at the Women's Climbing Festival in Bishop, CA. Photo: Colette McInerney

Nina Williams works Change of Heart (V6) at the Women's Climbing Festival in Bishop, CA. Photo: Colette McInerney

“I'm scared,” I told my spotters this past winter while working a highball in Bishop. I had just gotten through a few burly moves, but the risk of a big fall from the crux at the top of the tall boulder amplified my fear. With my favorite female climbing partners below me, ready to guide me safely to the pads, I didn’t feel self-conscious about letting my fears be known: how nervous I felt, how frustrated I was because I couldn’t push past this mental barrier, or how bad I felt about myself.

“I’ve got you, Shelma,” my friend Mel said. “You can bail or try the crux, whatever you want to do, I’ve got you.” Her words of encouragement were soothing; I fully believed that she was there supporting me and my decision, whatever it might be.

Rewind to a year earlier: same problem, male spotters.

“Just stand on your leg and reach up,” one said.

“You’ll be fine, just do the move,” said another.

I felt pressure not to appear weak, as if I were whining by confessing my fears of making that crux move so high off the ground. Unconsciously, I acted totally differently. Even in my own head, I told myself I needed to “man up.”

Like many female climbers, I’m no stranger to the male-dominated sports world. Growing up in Southern California, I spent my high school and college years surfing, skateboarding, and snowboarding with the boys. I loved how those boards would connect my body to the ocean, the mountains, and even the concrete of the city through fluid movement. And God, I loved the speed! I loved how, with practice and technique, the speed no longer felt wild and uncontrolled. Eventually my passion for going fast escalated to cars in my early 20s. Three semesters of welding classes at my community college gave me the technical skills needed to craft a roll cage for a rally car I was building—a 1985 VW Golf 2L 16V.

There were a couple girls I knew who were into the same things, but we all had separate friend groups, and each group already had their token one or two females. With close male friends, I didn’t mind not having many girlfriends. During a snowboarding trip to Big Bear my senior year in college, I saw a crew of female shredders that clearly rode together all the time. Hucking off 60-foot jumps, cheering each other on, and laughing and teasing loudly. Without realizing it, this aspect of female camaraderie, an intimate but playful bond over a shared passion, had been missing from my life, and I wanted it.

After serious shoulder reconstruction surgery a few years later, I was under strict orders to avoid any hard impacts on my shoulder for a minimum of two years. No more snowboarding, skateboarding, or downhill mountain biking for me. Now what? A friend suggested I try toproping at the gym, since a fall only meant losing a few inches of vertical gain and sitting back onto a stretchy rope. The technicality and try-hard of climbing mixed with the vibe of just hanging out with friends was perfect for me. As I got better, I started going outside more often, finding even fewer women there than the handful I had seen at the gym.

Desperate for fellow female climbers, I befriended every woman I came across, meeting up with them at my home gym of Brooklyn Boulders and organizing trips to the nearby Gunks. I found so much inspiration from my badass girl crew, and I knew others would too, so I started a simple Instagram account. Go climb with friends, snap some photos, post a few here and there. Just for fun, nothing too serious. The next thing I knew, the account, @heyflashfoxy, had thousands of followers. I started receiving messages from women looking for female climbing partners, meetups, and more examples of lady badassery. Maybe there should be an event, I thought, but would anyone actually come to a climbing festival just for women?

A year later, 150 tickets went on sale for the first ever Women’s Climbing Festival in Bishop, selling out in less than 24 hours, with another 150 climbers maxing out the waitlist. Emails from pro climbers, volunteers, and vendors poured in. They all wanted to be a part of it. I had never organized an event like this; who knew if it was going to be any good? But it didn’t seem to matter; it was as if there was a collective sigh of relief, like the female climbers out there were saying, “F***ing FINALLY!”

Six months later, more than 200 women converged to climb in the desert, all for different reasons. One new climber came to meet more women and climb outdoors for the first time. One longtime climber came cautiously; she was tired of having been the only women at many crags but nervous of the stereotypes of cattiness and competitiveness. Pro climbers and guides came to share techniques and safety tips, at the same time proving that females can be the experts, despite the fact that women make up 8 percent of AMGA-certified ski, rock, and alpine guides. Just by coming together in that tiny town on the Eastside of the Sierra, we started a conversation and took a step forward in changing how the climbing community functions.

Some could argue (and have) that climbing is one of the few sports where gender doesn’t matter, that women can climb as hard as men. More than 20 years ago, Lynn Hill was the first person, man or woman, to free the Nose on El Cap, and earlier this year, 15-year-old Ashima Shiraishi climbed a V15 in Japan (she was 14 at the time of the ascent). If women are climbing as hard as men, does gender even need to be acknowledged? Climbing recently surveyed more than 3,000 female climbers, and 78 percent believe that women will climb harder grades than men at some point. At the same time, Flash Foxy partnered with Brooklyn Boulders to conduct a survey of 1,500 participants, both male and female, on whether gender affects our experience in the climbing gym. Results revealed that 65 percent of female respondents felt uncomfortable in some parts of the climbing gym, while only 29 percent of male respondents felt the same. That leads me to believe that even if women are physically as capable as men of pushing the boundaries in climbing, it doesn’t change the fact that women can still feel outnumbered, unwelcome, unsupported, or intimidated.

To overlook gender in this case is to simplify the affects of gender, which is not only about the physical differences between men and women, just like climbing is not only about the highest grades achieved by the most skilled climbers. Gender is a social construct, providing roles we are expected to play whether we want to or not. Many of us learned, grew, and thrived in the male-dominated climbing community. Climbers of every gender had to adapt to existing notions of partner dynamics, expectations, and definitions of success. But just because these constructs already existed “before our time” doesn’t mean we have to play along. In fact, we shouldn’t. Climbing’s historically mostly straight, white male population is now seeing more women, people of color, and queer folks, and we all must accept and embrace that change. Disrupt the status quo to more accurately represent the broader, changing demographic of climbing.

The way women are supposed to act and the roles we play change when an interaction includes men. Women-only spaces provide an opportunity for us to discover how we might act differently. More than 76 percent of the respondents in the Climbing survey felt like someone of the opposite sex assumed they were weaker or less experienced as a climber just because they’re a woman. It’s almost as if women can’t just go out and climb in mixed company. There’s a constant pressure to prove ourselves as strong and capable climbers. With more women than ever climbing, and numbers only going up, marginalizing a huge chunk of the climbing populace doesn’t do anyone any good. But having female-only spaces isn’t the end goal.

“Climbing with a bunch of women is awesome,” my friend Michael Pang, who was in Bishop at the same time as the festival, said. “There’s so much stoke, support, and cheering. Can I climb with girls all the time?”

So here we are, in a utopia filled only with supportive, stoked women and an abundance of amazing crag snacks…never to climb with men again? Well, that misses the point entirely. The aim of the Women’s Climbing Festival is to open an experimental space that helps us acknowledge the growing community of women climbers, build solidarity with one another, and play with the possibility of climbing differently. We want to re-imagine our relationships with climbing without feeling pressured to conform to masculine social norms, and for some of us, to subvert them. Instead, we ask: How should we climb together? What do we climb for? And how will these experiences transform our relationship with climbing everywhere? I can’t wait to find out.