Guest post: the other side of women in climbing

February 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Following Charlotte Clark’s post here on The Girl Outdoors on the delights of learning to scale rocks, avid climber Jess Spate reveals the darker side of the pursuit.

Climbing is one of those sports that pushes the limits of what you can do both physically and mentally. Whether you’re just starting out on a relatively safe, friendly bolted 3+ sports route or figuring out what is possible at E11, the challenge is more or less the same- find something you’re not sure you can climb and do it.

Men dominate climbing at all levels but there are always a small number of women up there giving the boys a run for their money. It’s interesting to watch the progress of beginner groups. At first, the naturally stronger men will dominate, and will muscle their way to the top while the women are more likely to struggle. But after a few weeks everything changes. While those with greater upper body strength will have spent a few weeks completing routes with sheer brawn, the less physically strong- and this usually means the women- have been learning technique through trial and error.

As the group is introduced to more challenging routes that demand sophisticated technique, the burly folk will start to wonder why their usual method doesn’t work any more and they’ll be gradually overtaken by those with better balance and a more thoughtful climbing style. Brute strength will only get you so far.

The attitude of male climbers to female climbers is interesting. If I’m climbing with another woman there are still men who will assume we don’t know what we’re doing and try to ‘help’ by pointing out the easiest routes. These men are never experienced climbers. Climb outdoors for a single season and you’ll see plenty of women tackling hard routes no matter where you are.

Outside of competition climbing- something only a tiny percentage of climbers do- men and women climb the same rock. Do the same route and you get the same grade, even if I struggle to reach a key handhold where a six foot man wouldn’t. Once in a blue moon comes a move that’s easier for short people but by and large, those with longer reach and extra strength will have an advantage. There is nothing more annoying than at tall guy yelling ‘Just reach for it!’ from the bottom of the crag. He can reach it, you have to find another way to do the move.

It’s very easy to get frustrated by that (and to be honest, sometimes I do) but it’s important to keep it all in perspective. You’re not competing against the guy who just did this climb and made it look easy. It’s not the same climb for you as it was for him. This is your climb and you’ll have to find your own way. If you do, you’ll learn something he didn’t that will almost certainly be valuable on other routes.

At 5’4, I am taller than one of the greatest climbers the world has ever seen by a clear 4 inches. Lynn Hill was the first person to free The Nose on El Capitan in the US – an achievement that remains as one of the most significant in modern climbing history. It pays to remember that. Climbers are not limited by what they can reach, but by the ways they learn to deal with the problems that the rock presents.

As a woman, you are not necessarily a better or a worse climber than a man. You may not have the reach or the strength, but if you work at it you’ll develop balance, flexibility, and technique to get you through hard climbs. You’ll test what you can do and push that limit in the same way every developing climber does. There will be strong men who climb harder than you and strong men who can’t get anywhere near what you can do. They don’t matter. When you’re on a hard route there is nothing but you and the rock, and that’s the way it should be.

Jess Spate is an avid climber and edits Outdoor Equipment Online, a UK price comparison site that includes a large women’s climbing gear section. She also works for Appalachian Outdoors in the USA.

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