One of my favourite things about being a girl, is my ability to take people by surprise
Michele on Chain Reaction 12c at Smith Rocks (Photo: Nick Ducker)
Every person on earth is up against their own set of challenges and being a girl who happened to fall in love with a male dominated sport is one of mine. Climbing comes along with its own set of gender issues and stereotypes. Each time I feel like I'm able to catch someone off guard, and challenge their preconceived notions about gender roles, I consider it a tiny (but not inconsequential) success. I revel in those moments.
I started climbing 6 years ago, just after having finished 18 years of ballet training cold turkey. Having a fair bit of coordination, some strength, flexibility, and a whole lot of try hard, I wasn't so bad at it! I progressed through grades, tried all types of climbing and immersed myself in the lifestyle. I was in love.
Michele on Lords of Dogtown 12.d at Smith Rocks
As a female at the crag I was regularly the minority. Soon enough I felt like I was climbing what I considered to be “pretty hard”. I felt like I got to surprise people more regularly. I was getting comments such as “wow, thats pretty good for a girl”. I was inadvertently frustrating male climbing partners who felt like they should be climbing harder than me. Once I was climbing with a fellow lady crusher and a helpful gentlemen offered to help us find some find some 5.9’s to climb. We laughed, shook our heads a little and found a couple more appropriate warm ups around the corner. The dudes saw what we were climbing, and mumbled an apology.
I was on a roll and it was awesome. Then, this summer, I Iearned a little bit more about what we girls are up against. I injured my finger, and I mean a total rupture, out for 8 weeks kind of thing. I was devestated, but ended up taking the opportunity to teach a new friend how to climb. She was psyched and I was happy to hang out at the crag, lead a couple “easy” routes (with my finger taped) and belay.
We arrived to the local sport crag one day where a few parties were already climbing. A small group of young guns were dogging a short, bouldery route. It looked challenging and fun. Having no guide book I asked to glance at theirs to get acquainted with the area. They were happy to help and promptly directed me to a couple 5.7’s on the other side of the wall. It took everything in me to bite my toungue and say “thanks, thats exactly what were looking for”. I turned and walked away as I felt the frustration build. I would have taken so much pleasure in walking up and onsighting their “project” had my finger been un-injured. For the first time in ages, I couldn't break down that stereotype.
Michele on the East Ridge of Edith Cavell (Left) Michele on the East Ridge of Pigeon (Right)
Climbing is an amazing sport and I've met amazing people because of it, but our sport is still riddled with sexism. I have been lucky (and stubborn) enough to be able to devote a ton of time to climbing and with a fair amount of hard work I have been able to get to a level where I have the privilege of breaking stereotypes.
But what about the lady who loves to climb but just doesn't devote as much time and hard work to it as I do? She goes out on the weekend with friends, cruises some moderates, maybe even works up the courage to face her fears and lead a couple pitches here and there? With my ruptured tendon, I got to step into her shoes for a while and It feels like shit. The crag suddenly turns into an intimidating place where big dudes flex their muscles, give you endless beta, and maybe even offer to put your rope up. And the thing that sucks the most, is that maybe you are scared to lead that pitch, and you'd love a top rope… but then all of a sudden you're meeting that person's expectations and that's the last thing you want to do.
One day I had a great friend complain to me that he wished there was more girls that climbed to balance out the sport. I agree with him. That day, after simuling an easy multi pitch, he casually said “that would be a great girlfriend route”... Aarggh! Comments like this perpetuate the issue, creating an unwelcoming and discouraging environment for a girl learning how to climb. Of course there are less girls in climbing.
Would those helpful guidebook owners have said the same thing to a male arriving at the crag? Somehow, I don't think so. I can't help but notice a pattern. Expectations and stereotypes are damaging no matter how you look at them and I'm getting sick of seeing them at climbing gyms, crags and walls. Suggesting a grade for her warm up after just meeting her? Not okay. Calling a particular route a “girlfriend” route? Not okay. Assuming she wants your beta? Not okay, ask first. Assuming you climb harder than her? Maybe she does and maybe she doesn't.
Michele Climbs on Twisted, Field, BC