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Back in 2012 when I started climbing, a climber stood out a mile away if they were living in New York City—or any city for that matter. She was even more noticeable if she were a woman, given that there were fewer experienced female climbers in the sport. From my own observations, the gyms I frequented in NYC reflected this. In 2014, Manhattan Plaza Health Club hosted a bouldering competition, but the women’s category remained empty until the competition date. A few women eventually signed up, but this was only due to local women rallying to spread the word. Additionally, a girlfriend of mine was awarded a huge cash prize at another competition hosted by Chelsea Piers. Despite being a talented traditional and ice climber, she placed first by default; no other women entered. My friend took the cash and flew to Yosemite to aid-solo the West Face of Leaning Tower.
It’s hard to believe this was less than a decade ago. In that short time, we’ve come a long way from “Ladies Night” meaning half-price gym passes for women to a massive uprising in women’s climbing coalitions, initiatives, and events, with shared goals like promoting women-focused mentorship programs and more-representative stories that uplift other women. Chicks Climbing and Skiing, She Moves Mountains, Flash Foxy, and others are offering women’s-only climbing clinics. The UK-based Women’s Climbing Symposium, now hosting its ninth annual festival, was recognized in 2016 by the Women’s Sport Trust for raising visibility and increasing the overall impact of women in the sport, and has featured Lynn Hill and Hazel Findlay as speakers. The inaugural Women’s Bouldering Festival, founded by Zofia Reych, was held in Fontainebleau, France, in September 2018 with a mission of encouraging excellence in climbing and ethics through route-setting and conservation workshops, bouldering clinics, and a strong mentorship network. And Treeline Women’s Climbing Festival, based out of British Columbia, hosted its third annual event in July 2019 to provide women with the resources to grow their skills. When you consider that a 2018 report from the Outdoor Industry Association showed that 46 percent of outdoor participants are now female, this is an understandable trend.
Lizzy VanPatten, the co-founder of She Moves Mountains, an outfit that guides and teaches climbing exclusively to women, believes in the importance of working with a mentor—regardless of gender. “There is something to be said about working with a mentor in whom you can see yourself, with whom you share similar life experiences and conditioning, who you can ask questions beyond the technical aspects of the sport,” says VanPatten. “Oftentimes for women, this means learning from other women.” As both an athlete and an AMGA Apprentice Rock Guide, she has had to ask herself how she can gain respect as a professional when how she looks—a woman standing only 5’2”—is often not what people imagine as a guide. “My climbing career has been defined by people doubting and challenging my capabilities,” says VanPatten. “[But] climbing with other women began to challenge what I believed my body was capable of.” When VanPatten sees other women climb, she feels inspired. “I see this sentiment echoed by my clientele,” she says. “One woman said that her favorite part of a retreat was watching me climb. Learning from people who look like you allows you to believe you’re capable.”
Unfortunately, despite the recent influx of women into the sport, female leaders like VanPatten have been statistically rare—even today, only 8 percent of mountain guides are women. (For more, see climbing.com/womeninguiding.) Kitty Calhoun has been guiding for 39 years, and guiding exclusively with Chicks Climbing and Skiing events since 2000. When she started climbing in 1982, there weren’t many female alpinists, let alone mentors—her first mentors were men. And male mentors have a different vibe. “The support is different. Men tend to show, but women share,” says Calhoun. “Male partners and mentors were assertive, and if I wanted to swing leads, I had to be that much more aggressive to make sure I got my share.” In Calhoun’s experience, women tend to learn better in all-female environments because they are less intimidated to ask questions. The good news is, Calhoun says she’s now seeing more women getting into climbing—thus creating more such all-female environments.
During my initial, hungry years in the sport, all three of my mentors were older men. Eventually, through their thoughtful guidance, I became well-versed in anchor building, gear placement, and rope management. However, for several years, I didn’t feel any desire to take on a mentorship role myself. For me, it was less about my level of technical experience than about my reluctance to assert leadership. Perhaps, much like VanPatten, I was concerned about how other climbers—specifically male climbers—would receive mentorship from a woman who stood only five feet tall. This preconceived message that a woman may be subject to criticism, implicit bias, or even potential harassment is reason enough not to step into a leadership position. But I’d like to argue that it’s the very same reason we women should continue to do so—in order to change the tired, old, sexist narrative.
As our sport continues to grow, it’s critical that we address the lack of mentorship, regardless of gender labels or any gender imbalance. Women are ready to lean into leadership roles with the understanding that these positions aren’t solely about mentoring—they’re also about creating powerful networks between climbers. While historically it was challenging for women to connect with other female mentors, women climbers are now spearheading a movement that says, “We are leaders.” Back when I was learning to climb, my mentors were compassionate and committed to helping me develop my skills—but they were men. I was well aware of a space that needed to be filled. Back then, I used to say, “If he can do it, then I can, too”—and I did. Today, I see women everywhere ardently taking on more mentoring roles and supporting other women. Today, I also think, “If she can do it, then I can, too.”
Podcast producer and freelance writer Kathy Karlo (fortheloveofclimbing.com) lives for rock climbing, sharing doughnuts with strangers, and positive vibes. Climbing is mostly jumping for her, as she has a negative ape index.