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This article was published in Rock and Ice issue 232 (February 2016).
Growing up in New Zealand, with very few strong women climbers around at the time, I spent nearly all my time climbing with guys and did everything I could to fit in. I didn’t want to be treated differently or be seen as less strong than them. I fought to carry equal loads, I handled power tools, and I never let anyone do anything for me for fear of being seen as incapable. At bouldering comps I occasionally even threw my scorecard in with the men’s.
As I expanded my horizons to other countries, I realized that women can be feminine, strong, and capable at the same time. Women may still be playing catch-up in a male-dominated sport, but there are now many examples of women climbing at the same standard as men. Our strengths are just different, and this is something to be proud, not ashamed, of.
Still, women lag well behind men in one area: Only occasionally, compared to men, do we establish first ascents, and hence climbing history is largely written by men. This discrepancy might be because women focus on trying to prove ourselves on established routes. I believe, though, that the disparity is holding us back. First ascents let you explore your creativity and find a climb perfectly suited to your strengths. For example, I am more likely to bolt crimpy, technical faces than powerful, dynamic roofs. It is even possible that the relatively low number of routes established by women is part of the reason why climbing can seem more suited to men. If more women put up climbs, there would be more climbs that suit us.
I often wonder why more women don’t bolt routes and believe that part of the reason is societal: Women aren’t expected to handle power drills and do heavy work, and many still aren’t comfortable with either. Yet these perceptions are simply remnants of what society used to be. Women are just as capable. So throw caution to the wind and believe in yourselves.
First ascents are hugely rewarding. They are a great deal of work: You can drill and clean a route for days before even trying the moves. However, the
result is worth every second of effort. I find new-routing to be more satisfying than any other form of climbing because each line is your creation and interpretation of the rock.
Five Tips for First Ascentionists
1. If the climb is not very overhung, put in a good anchor and maybe a couple of directional bolts, and then, before you put in all the bolts, toprope (or toprope self belay with a Mini Traxion) the line to get a feel for how it climbs. This helps to get bolts in the right places, especially when you are not used to bolting. Of course it is not always possible. If not, just place the bolts where there seem to be good positions to clip, and expect to move them if necessary to make the route flow.
2. Be prepared to place smaller directional bolts. This saves wasting a full-size bolt in a place where it will probably not be used for climbing. Directionals are also easily removed and the holes patched once the permanent bolts are placed.
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