Girls, Women, and Climbing

Cover photo by Ben Crawford

We recently had our annual sport climbing competition at the local gym, Spire Climbing Center, here in Bozeman. I had the creative pleasure to set for this event alongside a rad group of passionate climbers. We spent most of the week leading up to the event hanging in harnesses, arranging plastic holds into routes ranging from 5.6 to 5.13.

When the five women finalists were announced, a peculiar pattern emerged: three were youth from the climbing team, and two of the top three were thirteen-years-old. Local hard woman Becky Switzer came in second. She was older than the first and third place contestants combined. Fourth place was sixteen-year-old Aubry Johnson, and fifth place was 21-year-old Bozeman Climbing Team alumni Bridget Creel.

I’ve been ruminating on the competition since it happened as I’m intrigued by the dynamics age and gender play in climbing. What’s arguably one of the most unique aspects of the sport is how the gap between women and men is relatively narrow—and narrowing. The other gap that is narrowing, at least for the female climber, is age.

This is old news. Two years ago, Ashima Shiraishi was the first female to climb V15 at 15 years old. Yet it’s fresh on my mind after the competition. I couldn’t help but wonder: is it fair to have youth climbers compete against adults? Or more specifically, is it fair to have girls compete against women?

I KNOW. This sounds whiney. Adult climbers can have the advantage of experience. Sometimes they’ve been climbing for a decade or two longer than the youth competitors. (Though often this experience was developed outside, pre-climbing gym explosion, and doesn’t always translate to plastic.)

More so, women climbers have a few disadvantages compared to their girl counterparts: namely, puberty.

Whereas puberty prepares boys for battle, puberty prepares girls for childbirth. Our hips expand. We grow boobs and the propensity for fat. Body fat, after all, is a necessary component of gestation. I am literally one of the last people who would promote, “Women are solely meant for childbirth.” But hormones seemingly have a different agenda.

I’m also one of the last people who would actively put a woman in a box and say, “You will not get stronger with age.” In fact, a lot of evidence leads us to believe otherwise. Endurance athletes of both genders can peak in their mid-30s to early 40s. Most of the women athletes I know seem to gain muscle with age.

Yet muscle mass isn’t always helpful with climbing, and endurance for sport climbing is only one piece of the puzzle. Strength-to-weight ratio plays a—maybe the—central role in climbing performance. Watching the female finalists climb, the differences between girls and women were obvious. The girls could use crimps like edges. They used footholds as crimps. They weighed probably half to three-fourths as much as the women athletes.

These thirteen-year-olds were spectacular to watch in qualifiers and on the final route. They are some of Bozeman’s most talented climbers, boy or girl, woman or man. They move with grace, poise, and intelligence. I love watching them climb.

And yet it can be hard to relate. There’s no undoing puberty. As a woman climber, I frankly cannot get inspired by thirteen-year-old climbers. I can enjoy watching them climb. I can cheer them on and hope that they will continue to pursue excellence in their sport and lives. But their bodies and circumstances are so radically different from my own that the translation of their performance into personal inspiration does not happen.

There’s a difference between being inspired by someone and admiring them. I can admire these girls for the hard work they put into their sport. But watching them climb isn’t going to make me want to go out and be a better climber. It’s going to make me feel like I might never be as strong as a thirteen-year-old because I will never weigh less than a hundred pounds again in my life.

Let’s say, though, that climbing finals isn’t solely for inspiring the audience, (which it’s not). Let’s say it’s mainly for pitting top athletes against one another in the spirit that competition makes everyone better. If this is the case, we come back to the question: is it fair for girls to compete against women?

Youth have coaches, a training program, meals cooked for them, and smaller responsibilities apart from climbing. Adults have adulting. Becky, for example, works two jobs, one as the ED of the nonprofit Touch the Sky. She has a house and a dog and taxes and van payments and and and. Making time to train, with a coach, yes, but in the confines of a busy schedule, requires discipline and flexibility derived from the self.

Adulting can be stressful. Not to say kids don’t experience stress, but adults have more responsibility, which often results in more stress. Stress is the quiet killer, as they say. It wreaks havoc on the nervous system, causing muscle fatigue and soreness. And speaking of soreness, kids recover much, much faster than adults, both during physical activity and after.

Not many women athletes competed in Spring Fling this year. Only five females over the age of 18 entered the open category. I couldn’t help but wonder: would more women have competed if youth weren’t allowed in opens?

I mean, as a woman, it’s hard to compete against someone who doesn’t have the weight-vest that is my mammalian signature. And I’m a mere 32B! Achieving the same strength-to-weight ratio as a thirteen-year-old would require very unhealthy eating habits—or a very intense training regiment.

The training can be done. It has been done, by Becky and other post-puberty athletes continuing to push the limits of the sport. Becky trains harder than anyone I know. She eats with performance in mind. She reads books on sports psychology and approaches climbing with a commitment to excellence.

Not to say girls don’t do these things. Regardless of age, talent takes time. It takes consistent effort and a desire to improve. Though the female finalists at Spring Fling spanned three decades of age and wildly different stages of hormonal development, the unifying factor was their drive.

It seems the equation for excellence in climbing could read something like this: circumstances + body type + desire = performance. If one has the means (time, energy, equipment, etc.) to climb and train, the desire to improve, and an ideal weight-to-strength ratio, she can excel in the sport.

Girls have the advantage when it comes to circumstance and body type. This leaves desire, which I like to think trumps all. But does it?

In a way, competition is a celebration of excellence earned from one’s desire to be her best self. Watching another woman climb at an elite level shows how desire manifests into expressed potential. Often times, when a woman climbs hard, I know she had to train around work and sometimes around family. Her desire helped her overcome the challenges that are inherent in being a woman athlete.

One of the more hurtful things that can come from pitting girls against women is that women are tangibly faced with a cultural body-image narrative that we actively have to push back against, again and again and again. The narrative tells us the ideal body-type is really skinny. When a woman competes against a pre-pubescent girl, it can be hard not to fell heavy and large by comparison. This touches into a subconscious belief that has been planted and nourished throughout a woman’s entire life.

This might be why I thought so intensely about the girl/woman dynamic that became evident in our local competition. I want girls to pursue their strongest self—which is why the children’s competition the day after the adult one is a great way for girls to express their hard-earned talents. Pitting a woman climber against a girl climber, though, can leave women feeling alienated and insecure.

The adult opens will be there when girl climbers become, well, adults. And if the desire is still there, and circumstance and body-type continue to align for climbing excellence, then these women athletes can showcase their talents in finals against other women.

Needless to say, this is one woman’s opinion. I wrote this piece to process my own reaction and to also invite conversation around how we might best built up athletes of all ages and gender. That’s the essence of this exploration. Is it fair, on physical and emotional levels, for girls and women to compete?

And more importantly—does this dynamic empower both women and girls?

Because that’s largely the point of sport. To empower. As relatively new members to the competitive sports community, females are invited to define their relationship to their sports in ways that makes sense to the nuances of gender. In a sport like climbing, where puberty creates challenges unique to the female athlete, I think we need to be intentional with how we navigate girl-woman differences with empowerment being the primary goal.