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Rise up: How We Can All Elevate Our Female Peers in the Climbing Community

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Laura Capps mid-flash of the classic Flaming Groovy (5.12c), Mill Creek, Utah.Kevin Capps

We’ve been fostering an unbalanced community. I recently took the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) Rock Guide Course in Boulder, Colorado. At age 23, I was the youngest person—and the only woman in the class. However, this did not mean I was the least experienced guide. I studied outdoor leadership in college, I have six outdoor certifications including my AMGA Single Pitch Instructor and PADI Divemaster, I’ve worked on underwater coral propagation projects in Asia and have taken part in wildlife census gatherings in the Amazon Rainforest… not to mention I’ve been climbing rock and ice with great mentors for years.

Through these people and experiences I’ve learned strong risk management and systematic problem solving. Even with this wide range of skills, during the course I was continually talked down to or not talked to at all, coddled, and frequently interrupted by fellow students. A couple days in, the microaggressions started to feel prominent; I began to feel like I couldn’t ask questions or add to risk management discussions. I had already talked with a couple students in my pod explaining this, but it continued.

I approached the instructors, noting my disconnect from the group dynamic. I realized that I didn’t fit the demographic of a mid-30s married man, but I deserved to be there. My instructors said they’d also noted the disunity and interruptions. They told me they’d spoken with one of the participants earlier that day. He’d explained that none of his behavior was intentional. This made me feel better (if only slightly) because it reminded me that these actions weren’t done out of malice but out of habit and societal norms.

The thing was, I’d been here before. As I reflected back on earlier guiding experiences the reality of the situation hit me. All this negative external input had a name: implicit bias.

Women are at the forefront of climbing in many aspects, from Lynn Hill freeing the Nose to veteran guide Angela Hawse becoming the AMGA’s first woman president to the top outdoor photographer Nikki Smith sharing her empowering story as a trans woman. But whether women are treated equally at the crags and gyms is another discussion. We still run into assumptions about our experience level, have our technical processes questioned by male climbing partners, and receive distasteful comments and microaggressions. This ultimately causes gender norms—however outdated—to feel more concrete and gaslights women into feeling that we need to modify our behavior: We run the risk of believing that maybe we really aren’t capable, or even that our male counterparts should have the final say in critical decisions. This situation is compounded for women in marginalized groups such as LGBTQ+, women of color, and adaptive climbers. These effects have negative impacts not only on the emotional safety of a group but physical safety as well.

Additional input strengthens our decision making process and when women aren’t given the space to speak, the group as a whole loses out on critical risk management information. We as a community fail not only women but all climbers when we adhere to outdated, injurious gender norms. Let’s look at the issues, as well as a few possible solutions.

How prejudice affects the current landscape

No matter our gender, race, or age, we are all influenced by the people we’re around, the media we consume, and our educational systems. This by no means implies that we should be complacent about our implicit biases; we should instead stay conscious of them. We can go about this by educating ourselves, opening ourselves up to new (and potentially uncomfortable) learning experiences, and having open, unabashed conversations about topics like gender disparities.

How do these biases affect the on-the-rock reality for female climbers? In a survey of 3,000 female climbers conducted by Shelma Jun in 2016, over 76 percent of respondents said they felt like another climber assumed they were less experienced because of their gender. These types of situations run the risk of creating a dynamic in which female climbers feel uncomfortable speaking up and/or contributing to risk-management calls. Overall this shrinks our collective knowledge, cutting off the wisdom and experience of a good half of the climbing community, leading to incomplete and dangerous decision-making in teams. Consider the statistic cited in Bruce Tremper’s book Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain that 93 percent of people killed in the US by avalanches are male and you see why it’s important to get everyone’s input. 

Fostering a Safer Community: A Handy Guide

These principles are geared toward men who want to learn to create a better environment at gyms and crags, but women can certainly apply them too. Feel free to mindfully practice these principles with close friends as well as lady crushers you’ve just met. 

I. Avoid Assumptions About Climbing Experience and Skill Level

It can be easy to jump to conclusions about someone’s climbing ability based on surface-level attributes like gear or demeanor. However, instead of assuming it’s a climber’s first week getting vertical, openly ask things like what her experience is and how long she’s been climbing. She could be an avid trad climber or a veteran alpinist. The bottom line is, you really can’t know until you ask.

II. Let Her Speak

Studies repeatedly show that women get interrupted more than men—and that men are more likely to be the interrupters. One scenario might be a female instructor giving a belay class, only to be interrupted by someone who learned to belay from his friend, now chiming in with his sketchy method. Instead of being an interrupter, keep a growth mindset and listen to what she has to say. You might gain a new perspective on that route you’re about to put up, or that line you’re going to ski. Maybe she’s seen copious amounts of rock fall in the area, or has knowledge on just the right placement for that #00.

Don’t offer advice; ask for it. This not only shows you respect her process but also helps you build your own skill set. As you ask for advice, remain respectful of her personal space and time—respectful intention, tone, and body language go a long way.

III. Embrace True Equality

This goes back to the antiquated stereotype that women should be treated as precious cargo… Women are people, and people can be strong, persistent, and resilient beings—we are capable of incredible feats. Stop “checking in” or assume that you’ll carry the rope just because you’re the man. Instead, find ways to be equal partners—if it’s not something you’d do for a guy friend, then don’t do it for her either.

IV. More mentorship

The best way to increase safety is through education and mentorship.

A 2019 study from the Outdoor Foundation found that women make up 51 percent of sport climbers, yet only 39 percent in mountaineering, ice, and trad climbing combined. Numbers decline even more when you look at the demographics of guides through the AMGA, where the number drops to a mere 8 percent. So, why the disconnect? It could be due to a lack of educational opportunities for women in climbing. Thus if you find yourself in a position to teach or offer mentorship, do so.

Aspiring climbers should have equal access to educational-advancement tools, be they a class in the gym or a big-wall clinic at the local gear shop. However, “equal access” doesn’t just mean entry access; it also means that women participants feel like they have a safe space to try, fail, and contribute to the conversation. As a mentor, this means being patient and realizing that what might work for one student might not work for another, so tailor your approach to each student.

If you’re interested in learning more about climbing it’s important to get reliable information, local guiding services are a great resource where you can find certified professionals. Ask for female guides when possible. This supports the advancement of women in the industry and strengthens our understanding that women can be exceptionally capable, competent leaders—in turn leaving our community more well-rounded and safer for everyone.

Resources for Continued Education of Female Climbers

Women’s-specific climbing organizations

Print Resources