Gender & Climbing

"I hope a lady climbs it first," I blurted out. Crickets. I immediately wished I could suck the words back in. 

Alex Herbert trying the open project.

A group of us were bouldering: four women and five men. We were trying an open project, which is a way up a rock that hasn't been climbed yet, often because the line is hard.

I suffer from an unfortunate case of chronic foot in mouth (CFIM). I wanted a woman to climb the rock first because, well, I guess I want more females making first ascents.

But I felt shameful about my comment because the guys who were also trying the open project are my friends. By wanting a woman to climb it first, I alienated half the group. I realized I had spoken from a place of spite, maybe even vengeance - but we'll get to that.  

"You know, there's been no FMA of Beth Rodden's Meltdown," Jesse reminded me.

"FMA?" I asked. 

"Yeah, first male ascent." 

I laughed. First male ascent. What a funny concept.

But first female ascent (FFA)? That's been a fad, and a controversy, in recent years. The FFA acknowledges that a woman managed to climb a hard route or boulder problem after the first ascent. Sometimes a couple dozen men had sent it before her; sometimes only a few guys had succeed in finishing the line.

Denoting a send as a first female ascent can be a source of empowerment to other women; FFAs can help women overcome perceived barriers that may be holding our best climbing back. 

Christine Sjoquist snagging the second ascent of a problem I established in Montana's Tobacco Roots (and blowing clean some holds as she sends it). Christine has developed numerous problems and routes in Montana, rendering the FFA obsolete.

Yet the FFA may also be more of a hindrance to women’s empowerment, as argued in Andrew Bisharat's essay, "The Curse of the First Female Ascent." Bisharat argues that climbing is a unique sport in that "both women and men have achieved such close performance results on the exact same playing field."

He also poses a very legitimate question: "...if the underlying context is that this woman achieved something only after a man or men achieved that same accomplishment before her, then aren’t we implicitly reinforcing the concept that women will always be a few steps behind the dudes?" Towards the end of the essay, Bisharat clearly states his belief that the FFA is "doing more harm than good."

I enjoyed the essay and thought Bisharat was brave for offering his thoughts on such a heated debate, especially as a man.

The comments to follow the essay were many and varied. Most commenters applauded Bisharat. But some posted enraged responses. 

"More men continuing to to try to tell women what to do and how to do it will not advance women any further in the sport." 

"Why do you feel entitled to have an opinion, let alone express it on such a public forum?"

These comments, I believe, come from a reservoir of hurt and anger created after centuries of women's oppression and from sexism that continues today. This reservoir exists in the each woman’s subconscious. Some women are very tapped into it; they are sometimes called "angry feminists." Some women, like me, are surprised when they come in contact with the reservoir. (Like, did I really just say that out loud?) 

We’ve seen remarkable feats accomplished by women in climbing and other sports. We’ve also witnessed as girls have excelled in school over the last few decades, often out-competing their boy peers. And for the first time in U.S. history, a woman will be an option on the presidential ballot. 

Nan adjusting her bandages from a moped accident. She continued to climb, despite stitches in her hand and a very swollen knee.

Nan adjusting her bandages from a moped accident. She continued to climb, despite stitches in her hand and a very swollen knee.

Between the Women's Liberation Movement, continuing efforts of feminists (both male and female), and what I believe to be an expanding collective consciousness, women now have more opportunities to fulfill their potentials as mental and physical athletes.

Being a millennial, it’s easy for me to forget that there ever was a time when a girl couldn’t be an athlete. I was reminded of my disconnect to the recent monumental strides in women's rights this past summer, when I was climbing in Kalymnos with my friend’s 62 year-old mother, Nan.

"So what sports did you play in high school?" I asked her.

I couldn't stop staring at her muscles. I imagined her teenage self strutting through the school halls, varsity jacket glistening with pins from three season's worth of sports. 

"You know, there weren’t girl sports when I went to school," Nan answered. "I was always so jealous of my brother. I knew I was the better athlete." 

Oh right. I had forgotten how recently Title Nine had passed (1972). The history of women’s oppression is just not something that comes up often in conversation. "Remember when women couldn't vote?" Or my favorite icebreaker while filling my cup at the keg, "Hey, wasn’t it messed up when women were (and sometimes still are) treated like property?"

Even for someone with CFIM, I’ve yet to drop a giant freaking feminist bomb in casual conversations. Just little bombs, like favoring the women over the men while bouldering that one day.  

It isn’t because I don’t care about my fellow women and our shared struggle to gain equality. I think it’s because the men in my life have overwhelmingly been non-sexist. They have cheered me on in basketball games; they have reaffirmed my scholastic dreams. They have projected climbs with me, asking for details about the movement and listening as I offer my beta.  

These girls I met while living in Peru will grow up in a patriarchal society where violence against women is not always met with repercussion.

I know that on a global scale I am privileged in having these men in my life. I know the fight for equality isn’t over in our country, and that sexism is still a very real thing that holds very real power. And while I’ve had the support and respect of many men, I’ve also been treated with disregard and impudence.

I’ve been completely ignored in important conversations where I was the only woman. I’ve been treated as a sexual object. Sometimes, at school and in my work, I’ve felt that because I’m a blonde woman, I have to fight for people to take me seriously, to view me as an intellectual equal.

So sexism happened and continues to happen in subtle and sometimes blatant ways. Climbing is a microcosm where we can see how we continue to grapple with gender relationships.

An interesting phenomenon is the (real or perceived) reverse sexism happening in the sport. On yet another journey down the Internet Vortex, I came across an Instagram meme where men were spotting a woman climbing. The text read something like, "And here we thought we were supporting a fellow climber. Turns out we were oppressing women." 

The meme was a reaction to Hey Flash Foxy's upcoming GirlCrew Ramble in the Gunks. The event will, as their website reads, "celebrate the magic of women climbing with women." The exclusion of men from this gathering and last year’s Women’s Climbing Festival in Bishop, California sparked a myriad of responses from men, many of them jokes about either having a Men’s Climbing Festival the same week or showing up to the women’s events in banana hammocks.

My husband came across an Instagram photo posted by Hey Flash Foxy. In it a woman is bouldering over a rocky landing. He pointed out that the caption only gives credit to the women spotters below, while the man, also with arms raised to guide a potential fall, receives no recognition. This caption blatantly ignored the man in the picture who was there to "support a fellow climber." This could be called reverse sexism, and some male climbers can feel ostracized by the deliberate exclusion.

Lady time in the Milks.

Sometimes I want to go out climbing with my lady friends. I want to "celebrate the magic" Flash Foxy speaks to. Because it’s true. There is a different energy when women climb with women.

It seems to be the same for men. My husband and his friends are going on an all-guys trip to boulder in the southeast. Did I put up a stink about not being able to go? You betcha. And although I want to show up with my own version of a banana hammock, I won’t, because I get it.

Sometimes us ladies need the Girls Only Club to get our groove on. Sometimes a woman will only feel comfortable to try climbing with other women as company. The Women’s Climbing Festival is an opportunity for ladies to feed off that girl-power energy.

But as much as I’m for women’s empowerment, I also think we should be mindful of deliberate exclusion and emphasis on gender. When I said, "I hope a lady climbs it first," I was in some ways, as Bisharat wrote, "doing more harm than good." When it comes down to it, my friends were all trying a route, and I should be equally stoked for anyone of them to send it. After all, each one of us struggles with a unique set of challenges.

Inge putting up a first ascent in the Batholith.

Although men typically have more muscle mass than women, we have our own genetic advantages when it comes to climbing. We generally have lighter frames. We also tend to master foot movements faster as we cannot solely depend on upper body strength when we first learn the sport.

A lot of the strong climbers in my life are men. But just as many are women. My good friend, Inge Perkins, was arguably the most talented sport climber in Montana. And I have many other strong, fiercely skillful women in my life who dance up routes many men struggle on. 

In my experience, a woman crushing it outdoors is just as normal as a man doing the same. And I believe we’ve only just begun to see how capable women truly are, in climbing and beyond.

The nuances of sexism in climbing culture require continued discourse, education, and tolerance. Yet I believe, on a whole, climbing shows how gender equality gains significant traction—from the women breaking perceived barriers to the men cheering their fellow climber on as they spot her sending a highball.

So yes, let’s continue the work of eliminating subtle and overt forms of disempowerment based on gender. But let’s not forget to celebrate how far we’ve come, ensure tolerance and inclusivity work both ways, and continue to normalize the concept of strong female athletes.

More from Climbing