What I Learned at the Women's Climbing Festival

By Julie Ellison ,

I’ve always felt a little out of place when surrounded by a bunch of women. I own approximately one dress (appropriate for both weddings and funerals), I have never willingly painted my nails, and I only have long hair because I’m too lazy to get it cut. My interests have always swayed more toward what are traditionally considered male pastimes, so it was easier to hang with the boys. With them, I never had to worry about the conversation shifting to topics like hair, clothes, and makeup, and my guy friends would never squeal, “Oh my gosh! You have GOT to let me give you a makeover!” or call me out for my ill-fitting, wrinkly T-shirt. When it comes down to it, being around only women made me feel inadequate as a female, like I wasn’t quite up to snuff.

Becca cheers Natalie on from the top of the massive Grandma Peabody boulder in Bishop. Photo by Julie Ellison

A few months ago, an email from Shelma Jun, creator of Flash Foxy, landed in my inbox, inviting me to attend the first ever Women’s Climbing Festival. I was immediately apprehensive. What would a women’s-only climbing festival be like? Would I stick out like a sore thumb? Would I be called out for not being girly enough? I hadn’t been around just females in years; in fact, I had sort of avoided it most of my life.

Fast-forward to February 19, the first day of the festival in Bishop, California. I arrived by myself and immediately headed to the Buttermilks to stretch my legs and do a few padless problems before the welcome party. I walked up to Hero Roof, a fun but steep V0, where a group of girls were working the problem. They were getting a bit tired and starting to pack up, so I hopped on. I hadn’t said a word to them, but as soon as I got a few feet off the ground, they jumped up to spot me. When I pulled the lip, they cheered, calling out “Nice job!” and “Awesome!” despite the fact that they didn’t know me from Eve. As I downclimbed, I heard one girl say, “OK now I know it can be done. I gotta do it!” She unpacked her shoes and pulled on a minute later, gave it some grr to make the cruxy bump over the lip, and topped out. That’s when it hit me: None of us are here to talk about clothes or the newest trend in hair color—we’re here to climb.

Danyelle on Serengeti (V5) in the Happies. Photo by Julie Ellison

The welcome party at Mountain Rambler brewery looked like any other climber gathering: Beer was being consumed in mass quantities while the participants traded tales of whippers and epics. I met a group from Colorado who had driven with six people in one truck, traveling 20 hours one way through whiteout snowstorms and wind that knocked over tractor-trailers to be here for four days. “When we heard there was going to be the first ever Women’s Climbing Festival, we knew we had to be there,” one of them said. “It’s historic!”

Kim from Canada works her project: Soul Slinger (V9). Photo by Julie Ellison

What I quickly realized over the next two days of climbing is that when you get a group of lady climbers together, there’s a space created unlike anything else. The beta is way better, the psych is high, and the positive vibes are overwhelming. It’s not that feel-good, “everybody gets an award” crap; it’s pure try-hard and motivation. We were grunting, falling, sending, cursing, drinking beer, and running around like wild animals in a boulderfield. We were able to try moves over and over without some dude coming up and spraying us down with unwanted advice. We could take our shirts off without fear of being objectified or ogled, and there was no talk of “sexualization of female climbers.” None of that mattered. It wasn’t about being a man or a woman; it was about being a climber. 

The point of a female-centric event like this isn’t to exclude men; it’s to uplift and empower women. We still make less money than men for doing the same job. Women are oppressed in dozens of countries, some violently. During the Women in Climbing panel discussion held on Saturday night, Kelly Fields, guide and creator of Chicks With Nuts, said it best: “It’s our duty to other women around the world to elevate our own situation and try to close the gender gap. If this is how we can lift each other up and make things a little bit better for women everywhere, then we have to do it.” We’ve all heard the cliche that climbing is a male-dominated sport, but it’s clear to me after this weekend that men aren’t the only ones calling the shots any more. Our girl crew is growing—and fast. It’s time to get on board or get out. 

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