The Work Behind the Body: Kristen Drumheller

Every sports community has its local icons. In climbing, these are often the names in guide books: the people who put up first ascents in the area. These icons proved to be pioneers in what is humanly possible. They are the men and women committed to pushing themselves, and in so doing they push the limits of the sport at large. 

In Bozeman, one of these people is Kristen Drumheller. You may be familiar with the name even if you don't live in Montana. She was an alternate on the first ever U.S. Women's Sport Climbing in 1988, though she soon discovered that comp climbing wasn't for her and she "gladly escaped back to the wilds and endless unexplored rock of Montana," as you'll read in the interview below. 

Kirsten climbing at Avalanche Gulch

Kirsten climbing at Avalanche Gulch

Alongside her husband and fellow local legend, Bill Dockins, she helped established some of Bozeman's classic routes, including Soft in the Middle (11c), The Fugitive (12a), and Strawman (13a), all located on the Gallatin Canyon's beautiful granite.

Kristen was one of the first women that came to mind when I was brainstorming who to feature in this series. At 57, she's still crushing it, training at the gym and getting outside on a regular basis. Her goals may have changed since climbing in the 80s and 90s, but her dedication to health and fitness remains constant.

Essentially, that's what this series is all about. Each woman I feature brings something different to the larger conversation about women's physical potential and body image, but the common denominator is a celebration of the ways women push their bodies to be the best athletes possible. When I watch Kristen flow up the wall, I am reminded that there's no limit to how and when we express our unique bodies. Sure, at some point we may be too ill or too injured to be physically active, but largely how we age is an option. 

From leading her first 5.10 to climbing 5.13, Kristen embodied a "limitless" spirit that carries over to her climbing and physical activity today. I'll see her out hiking on trails with her daughter or busting out pull ups at the gym and feel my own limits expand. 

Thanks, Kristen, for redefining what's possible for women "back in the day," and for continuing to do so today. 

Below you'll read more about the changes Kristen has witnessed in climbing culture, how she trains and plays, and what she's learned from over four decades of athletic endeavors. 


Meet Kristen Drumheller

Climber & Route Developer

K: What sports do you enjoy?

KRISTEN: I am a rock climber, but I also ski, hike and backpack. I do a little mountain biking as well.

K: How often do you workout? What do those workouts usually involve?

KRISTEN: My ideal week involves two days of general weight-lifting alternating with two days of aerobic activity, and playing outside on the weekend. Often I will substitute a couple of trips to Spire instead. At Spire I either do “up-and-downs” on the auto belays or non-stop bouldering traverses for endurance, or I top-rope and lead with partners.

Laps on the autobelay.

Laps on the autobelay.

In reality this training schedule is pretty aspirational: it seems like every week something comes up that interferes with going to the gym so I have to be pretty flexible and just do whatever I can. Furthermore, at age 57, my “training” is looking suspiciously more and more like “physical therapy.”

K: How often would you say you get “out” to enjoy your sports?

KRISTEN: Depending on the weather, I get outside two or three days a week. A good week will have a couple of hikes and a solid day of rock climbing.

K: What are some of your favorite places to go?      

KRISTEN: I have spent time at a number of climbing areas in the past (Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Smith Rocks, Red Rocks, Squamish, Bugaboos, Hueco Tanks etc.) but my favorite areas are local:  Gallatin Canyon, Hellgate Gulch and pretty much anywhere in the Beartooths.

K: When did you start climbing?

KRISTEN: My brother took me climbing for the first time in 1977 when I was a junior in high school. He took me up to Practice Rock in Hyalite Canyon. I have a clear memory of each route we did that day because it felt like such an adventure. That single day out was enough to hook me, but it wasn’t until I started college that I began climbing with any regularity.

K: What was it like to be a woman climber in the 70s, 80s, and 90s?

KRISTEN: For many years after I started climbing, the ratio of men to women seemed to be about 8 to 1. The population of climbers itself was small compared to other outdoor pursuits, and the percentage of women in the sport was smaller yet.

It wasn’t until the mid to late eighties that the popularity of climbing blossomed generally and the previous decades of 60’s and 70’s feminism encouraged women to give the sport a try. The current issue of The Alpinist (#58) has a well-written and insightful article called “Paradigm Shift” by Caroline Treadway that examines the growth of hardcore women in a sport in which the ceiling wasn’t glass, but granite.

In the early days I was very fortunate that all the important men in my life (father, brother, and husband/partner) were “natural feminists.” They would probably not use that term to describe themselves, but they all simply accepted that women could excel at anything.

I didn’t grow up with the heavy baggage of belief that there were certain careers or endeavors that were closed to me because of my gender. That, coupled with an admittedly irreverent disregard for societal expectations, allowed me to pursue climbing with a passion.

It’s important to note, however, how much having female role models had an impact on me. Early on there was a lucky day in which I met both my future husband and partner, Bill Dockins, and my future best friend, Lucy Cooke. I was climbing with some friends at a local area when we encountered another group of three men and a woman (Lucy). I watched as Lucy toproped a problem.

She had about a thousand tendons and muscles that rippled from her fingers up to the sleeves of her t-shirt and I thought “What! Girls can look like that?!” followed immediately by “I want to look like that!”

Kristen "looking like that"

Kristen "looking like that"

Around this time the climbing magazines (all two of them––printed on paper because there was no such thing as the internet) started running articles about a young woman climber named Lynn Hill. Not only was she climbing as hard as the guys, she was my age and about my build. In fact, she was a couple of inches shorter than me. I figured if she could unlock the sequences on reachy, hard cruxes, then, maybe someday, so could I (once I had developed Lucy-like muscles, of course).

During an early road trip through Wyoming, I marveled as I watched Beth Bennett lead a steep, difficult climb at Vedauwoo. She flowed up the route with strength and grace.

That afternoon I got up enough nerve to lead my first 5.10. The confidence I gained from that particular benchmark helped jump start my climbing career.

In the mid to late eighties climbing started to gain mainstream popularity. Bill and I began to see more and more women climbers as we traveled. It was becoming less rare to see teams of all women, although back here in Montana, Meg Hall and I spent a day climbing in Gallatin Canyon and the “event” was written up in a magazine... 

In the late 80’s or early 90’s, in the spirit of support and community, a number of Bozeman-area women had the idea of a “women’s only” weekend at City of Rocks in Idaho. A few of our excluded significant-others (I won’t name names) affectionately dubbed the weekend “Hags on the Crags.” The name stuck and there were many Hags on the Crags weekends over the next several years until we all started having babies.

The 90’s also saw the rise of indoor climbing gyms and many bolted sport routes, which, because of the relative safety, may have been a contributing factor in the increasing percentage of women in the climbing population. Today it is common to see all-women teams tackling hard routes.

K: What changes have you seen in the sport (in general, and concerning women in particular)?

KRISTEN: When I started in the late 70’s, climbing was still a hardcore endeavor practiced out in the wild by a few hardy and adventurous folk (mostly but not always men) with holes in their knickers and a faraway glint in their eye. Trad climbing wasn’t called “trad”; it was called “clean” because folks were no longer using hammers and pitons.

It would be a decade before cordless pneumatic drills became available and lines that didn’t follow cracks were easily protectable through the placement of bolts. Prior to that wonderful new technology, however, Bill and I and our friends drilled bolts by hand with a hammer and hand drill.

Those first sport routes took a lot of time and sweat to put up––a single bolt hole could take up to an hour to drill. (Hence the “sporty” nature of many early sport routes.) Today, a good portion of climbers (roughly half of whom are female) learn to climb on colorful plastic holds in gyms with loud music and a snack bar nearby.

Comparing the trad climbing of the 70’s to the gym scene of today is like examining a branch of evolution where a single species can include both wolves and Pomeranians.

One of the biggest changes I have witnessed has been in the attitude of younger climbers toward the sport. With sport climbing––basically outdoor gyms–– there is a much greater emphasis on gymnastic difficulty than there is on courage, for lack of a better term. When you place your own (trad) gear, there is always the niggling-to-strong doubt whether that last tiny nut could hold a fall.

Sport climbing, with its increased safety and emphasis on movement, has produced some exceptionally strong men and women who can climb ridiculously difficult routes. Trad climbing, however, has produced puzzle-solvers with the strength to hold on whilst twisting in a manky tricam, and an uncanny ability to maintain calm while staring into the abyss beyond that distant, sketchy piece of gear.

Part of the sport climber’s mindset nowadays also includes a willingness to “work” a route, sometimes trying it as many as 30 or 40 times. Perhaps it’s my trad background or my route-developer’s thirst for new routes, but I never spent more than a few attempts on a route. I figured if I couldn’t get it in a handful of tries, I should go try something else.

Another big change has been the advent of climbing competitions. In 1988 I was invited to be an alternate on the inaugural U.S. Women’s Sport Climbing team. Comps were a brand new thing then. Having never climbed in a gym, and coming from a trad/backwaters-of-Montana background, I experienced a fair bit of culture shock at climbing on plastic holds on the side of a building with cameramen dangling all over, a large crowd cheering and with music blaring. That scene doesn’t seem so strange now because we are all used to the gym environment. I did a few more competitions that year, but afterward I gladly escaped back to the wilds and endless unexplored rock of Montana.

Climbing for me has always been rooted in a sense of adventure out in nature, experienced with a trusted partner on the other end of the rope. It is basically the antithesis of climbing competitions.

And while I have also enjoyed sport climbing in popular places and am deeply appreciative of having access to a gym like Spire, ultimately it’s that spirit of discovery and curiosity out in the craggy back of beyond that still calls to me.

KHow has your relationship to climbing changed over time?

KRISTEN: When I first started climbing with Bill, I hated ratings. I was just a beginner but he wanted to challenge himself on harder climbs. I served as his “pin bucket” on more climbs than I want to count; I collected the gear as he hauled me up through the cruxes.

To salvage my dignity, I had to learn technique and creative problem-solving quickly. I also had to get stronger. Those first pull-up sessions involved Bill lifting me up to the bar so that I could lower myself back down. We did this until I finally grew enough latissimus dorsi that I could pull my own darn self up.

I think it was that day in Vedauwoo when I led my first 5.10 that I started to like ratings. They became a way to measure progress. Bill and I told each other that we had to be able to cleanly lead 10 routes of a particular grade before we could call ourselves a “5.10, 5.11, 5.12 etc. climber.”

At some point I started swinging leads with Bill. My training sessions included doing 100-150 pull ups a couple of times a week. No longer a pin-bucket, I was a full-fledged partner.

For more than a year we lived in our bus, travelled all over and climbed 5 or 6 days a week. I even had a sponsorship. That was a time I will never forget. I think everyone should go on an extended road trip at some point in their lives.

However, there came a time when I recognized that chasing ratings often had more to do with ego than with fun.

Occasionally I would have moments of awareness that twisting my finger(s) into a tiny crack and weighting it fully probably wasn’t sustainable in the long run. The thought, “Someday I am going to have arthritis,” would briefly interrupt my flow. 

Sure enough, the day has come to pay the piper. I have an artificial hip. I have arthritis in both hands, neck, and back.

It was worth it. I never let my gender limit my climbing, and I won’t let age stop me either. I will keep climbing even when the only rating I can chase is 5.5.

Mentors are still important to me. These days my mentors are people-of-a-certain-age who are still climbing with enthusiasm. I won’t list their names in case they are offended by inclusion in my “oldsters” list.

For the past several years I have been trying to give back to my sport. I taught a few beginner classes at Spire Climbing Center when it was just getting started, I helped produce guide books, I wrote a brief guide to weightlifting for some young women who wanted to get stronger, I volunteer for trail days, participate in SMCC events, take beginners climbing, and Bill and I are replacing old bolts and anchors.

K: How has/have your sport(s) shaped your body image and your relationship to your body in general?

KRISTEN: The day I first met Lucy Cooke I realized that my notion of feminine beauty was not mainstream. Muscles are beautiful on women. Any body that can get you deep into the wilderness or carry you up an expanse of vertical rock is worthy of appreciation. Strong women move over rock with a power equal to that of men and a grace uniquely their own. Today’s climbing community is more egalitarian in that regard than at any point I can remember.

K: What advice would you give women and/or fellow athletes in general to better enjoy their unique bodies?

KRISTEN: Get stronger physically. Not only will that strength help you climb better, but the confidence you gain will carry through to the rest of your life.

(My daughter laughingly pointed out to me one day that whenever I impart my Important Life Lessons to her they all seem to involve climbing-related analogies . . .)

Use lots of sunscreen and wear belay glasses. Your skin and neck will thank you when you’re older.

Most people climb better when they are leading than when they are on a toprope, so lead climbs that are a little harder than you think you can do. You may surprise yourself with how well you do.

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