Is Climbing a Place to Discuss Gender Politics?

What does it feel like to be a woman who climbs? A question no one has ever asked me and one I don’t feel needs to be asked. Is it right for gender politics to weave its way into climbing, or has it always been there but is rarely addressed? 

Climbing is an ever-evolving sport, people’s motivations and their place in the sport are dynamic, and as a result change over-time. 

I recognise with considerable gratitude that I am a young woman who is rarely questioned of my abilities  in the outdoors, as well as my place in this male-dominated sport. It may seem irrelevant to refer back to the perception of ‘wilderness’ and ‘the outdoors’ through the classical era, but I believe that where climbing stands today in terms of gender politics stems from these early philosophical traditions of what the ‘wilderness’ really means. 

For as long as climbing has been around it has managed to embody a wild and unpredictable persona. The ‘dirtbag’ era in the 70’s seems to resemble the original idea of what wilderness is to man. A sense of aimless wandering, seen as quite the opposite to being ‘civilised’, which might indicate being polished and refined. ‘Dirtbag’ climbing was definitely not something of a ‘polished’ way of life. It is about a community that is collated of like-minded people that feel the same about the outdoors. It became less so about the climbing and more so about the ability to let the rock toughen your skin, show signs that the wild does not dominate you, and one will do whatever it takes to commit themselves entirely to the outdoors. 

The wilderness has always been something of a threat to man, it’s unpredictable and malicious. As the popularity of climbing grew, it was simultaneously about the rise of being able to see the pleasure in terror. Climbers look for danger, they are constantly looking for the next big thing. We’ve seen climbers such as, Alex Honnold succeed at doing the impossible. His most prominent feat being the free solo of El Capitan, which took place in the climbing Mecca, Yosemite. This Californian National Park is home to some of the most memorable climbing achievements, appreciated by the mainstream media, as well as the general public. Yosemite is also the home of American dirtbag climbing communities. There are commonalities that lie between the dirtbag lifestyle and environmental ethos, which is why it is common to see climbers participate in environmental activities. Tommy Caldwell, a prime example of this, was the first to climb the notoriously hard route, Dawn wall on Half dome (located on the right of the photo below). Consequently, he is an active environmentalist. The connection between climbing and environmental consciousness is another debate to be had, however it is evident that this healthy relationship with the environment originates from the organic and authentic tie that climbers have with the outdoors. 

In reference to Honnold, I’m not sure I can fully understand the desire to complete projects that have such a high element of risk. The branch of free soloing from traditional climbing is an exacerbated example of how climbing takes the risks of the wilderness and morphs them into a challenge. Almost providing a chance to experience the wild in a raw way, no man-made safety, just you and the rock. To me, what makes climbing refreshing is that no one knows what the next big thing will be. It is already out there, waiting for anybody to dare to give it a go. 

In the past these projects that exemplify themes of danger and ground-breaking successes have been heavily dominated by male athletes. Woman, in the same respect, have also accomplished revolutionary projects through stand-out abilities. In my opinion, it is important to celebrate performances of women rock climbers as a result of their accomplishments and not because of their gender. For me there is a notable climber who is one of the best in not only her age group, but illustrates exceptional ability compared to the majority of climbers worldwide. Ashima Shiraishi, a North Face athlete, was the youngest to complete an ascent of a grade 8c+, making her a prodigious athlete. This not only sets the bar of hard-work, determination and strength for young woman, but also for every climber in the world. 

Our view of the wild is specific to the individual. To one man the wilderness is a desert of pain; raging seas, sheer cliffs, and a single red light to not enter. However, to another the wilderness is a place to prove your hardiness and excitement of the unknown fear that lies ahead. To me the latter really epitomises the motivation of climbing for many. In my eyes, climbing is about experiencing fear by opening yourself up to the potential risks and the thrill that comes hand-in-hand with that. From personal memory, the Isle of Portland in Dorset was a place where I could acknowledge the above. One memory in particular stands out. The sun had set, nighttime darkness flooded in, it seemed to get darker with each passing minute. Despite the lack of light, I went up the arête, on the route ‘fallen slab’. I couldn’t position my hands quickly onto perfect holds, just grabbed the rock aimlessly and hoped it would hold my weight. The moves felt clumsy and imprecise, but I can not forget to mention the undeniable elation that I felt. Waves crashed onto the rock-face below me, I couldn’t see them, but the sound just rolled into my ears. There was no ‘raging seas’ only a black space beneath me that led me to just keep going up, as high as I could go. There was something so incredibly thrilling about reaching the top, so much empty space underneath me, yet I just had to focus on what was above. 

‘Fallen Slab’ arête in Portland: Taken by Ben Duursma, 2019

Climbing motivations may well be about the outdoor and wilderness, however why is it that the contemporary growth of climbing shines a new light on the aesthetics of the sport? When you walk into a climbing gym these days, you may notice how popular it has become. Millennials are drawn to climbing, especially indoor climbing. So, what are the incentives of indoor climbing gyms if the element of danger is taken away? The colourful holds and plush mats provide a safe space to climb, a place where rope is not battered against sharp rock, but slides nicely through shiny carabiners. There is such a large emphasis these days on perfect technique and correct equipment; the sport has transformed into an aesthetic showcase. Each move looks continuous and effortless. Bouldering is a suitable example of how the aim is no longer to reach new heights, challenges that are impressive to the ordinary non-climber, but to climb a couple of metres with complex moves that operate through components of flexibility, problem-solving and of course, strength.  

Just because there has been a detachment from the wilderness and the climber over-time, doesn’t necessarily mean it is a negative shift. If anything, the breadth that the sport currently has makes it the most inclusive it has ever been. It can accommodate to every climbers needs. High or low, fast or slow, using accurate technique or just pure-strength. They are all valid options. Just as everyone’s perspective on the wilderness is diverse, everyone’s goals are also varied and not gender specific, but unique to the individual. The rock isn’t bias towards a gender, it treats every climber as an equal. Of course, some people have advantageous capabilities, such as more muscle or more flexibility. However, using gender as an overarching justification doesn’t recognise the fact that each individual has a respective skill that is beneficial to them. 

Edinburgh International Climbing Arena: 2019

For myself I don’t know whether I want to climb because of the need to problem-solve, or because I like getting to the top, or because maybe I enjoy being a woman in a sport that’s flooded with men; it is no unfortunate situation but one that constantly provides new challenges. It’s thrilling in itself to know that you are part of a movement that is re-defining woman in the outdoors. The goal being to eradicate the pre-meditated view that woman have an innate fear of the wild. So, maybe climbing doesn’t need to be about gender politics, but discussing them may in turn reveal honest and real self-motivations that constantly makes me want to prove something to anybody. 

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