One Story of the 2016 Women’s Climbing Festival
The event had popped up on Facebook a few months before, and I was immediately intrigued. I’ve been climbing for about two years—primarily with dudes. How cool would it be to spend a weekend with some talented women climbers? What would that even look like? A million other things pulled me to stay home that weekend, but I just had to go.
When I arrived at the Tri-County Fairgrounds to check in, the energy in the room was potent. The strong aroma of coffee filled the air, and two ladies working the check-in table cheerfully greeted me. Other groups of women gathered around chatting about their upcoming workshops, or the climbs they had been on over the past couple days. I’m naturally very introverted, so I didn’t make a large effort to insert myself into any of these conversations, but overhearing multiple groups of women talking climbing as I grabbed my breakfast sparked pure excitement in me for what the day would bring.
Two years is not long, but in the short time I’ve been a climber, I’ve climbed and read enough to see a real disparity between women and men in climbing. I have been fortunate to have climbed with very supportive men who were willing to teach me just like they would teach anybody else, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the skills and the friendships that manifested as a result. But why is it that I have not found myself roped up with another woman…ever? As I stood there munching a mini scone and observing these women climbers, I realized that something different was happening here at this gathering. Rather than the 1:10 ratio of women to men I might usually see at the crag, women were gathered here in numbers closer to 10:0. What this meant I wasn’t completely sure, but I could not wait to find out.
After chatting with some foreigners about their epic vacation, and a quick trip to the beloved Buttermilks to welcome in the pink Bishop morning, I returned to the fairgrounds for the media workshop led by Julie Ellison (editor of Climbing Magazine), Vikki Glinskii (co-founder of the RV Project), and Natalie Siddique (co-founder of Moja Gear). Welcomed warmly, I joined the circle of women in the grass. We went around introducing ourselves, and the ladies led a discussion focused on getting your work—writing, photo, or video—published. The main thing I took away from our discussion was to have confidence: do the work, put in the time, commit to your craft, do it every day, and never apologize for being you. After discussion and lunch break, we headed out to the Happys to climb and shoot some photos. I made sure I snapped some shots of this huge group of women heading up the trail, a plethora of crash pads with legs meandering up the sandy path. Our lady crew cruisin’ up the trail toward the huecoed boulders was a sight to see. Why? Because I’d never seen it before – ever. Not only had I never seen a group of women this large heading to a crag, in fact, I don’t recall ever seeing a solely female group heading out to climb anything, anywhere.
Again, I found myself wondering: why have I never roped up with another woman before? It’s because climbing is very much male-dominated. During a recent phone conversation with a male climber friend, I was telling him about the festival and how climbing with other women was really something special. He said, “Wow, I mean I guess I’m used to that…climbing with ALL of my own gender.” He had never experienced being the minority gender in this thing that he loves to do.
You often see boyfriends “taking their girlfriends climbing.” The guy chooses the climbs, reads the guidebook, and leads all the routes. In Joshua Tree over New Year’s this year, as my guy friend and I approached Hemingway Wall, we were excited to spot a woman on lead. The woman powered through each move fluidly and elegantly pulled over the top of the route, out of sight.
“It’s so nice to have a girlfriend who is willing to lead everything,” a guy lounging at the bottom of the climb said, “This morning, I said I was feeling pretty tired, and she just said, ‘I’ll lead today.’”
“Yeah that’s really awesome and pretty hard to find,” replied the belayer.
I was troubled by this interaction. Why is this concept of a girl leading hard trad climbs out of the ordinary? Didn’t Lynn Hill nab the FFA (not just first female ascent, but the first FREE ascent, male or female) of the biggest trad free climbing prize in the world back in 1994? Isn’t Ashima Shiraishi dispatching some of the hardest sport routes in the world incredibly quickly (and younger than anyone before, regardless of gender)? Hasn’t Steph Davis been free soloing burly 5.11 trad climbs since before the turn of the millenium? The problem isn’t that women aren’t capable of taking the lead, literally and figuratively. Obviously we are. The problem is something else. I want to feel empowered to choose the climbs that I want to do and lead them all, no matter who I am with–whether I am the only girl or not. The problem is, how do I get there? How do all of us? And while I don’t have an answer to that, my gut tells me that for women, climbing with other women is a big part of it.
The following day, I was certainly not the only girl in the Happys. When I got on the first route of the day, I was frustrated by my weak, unconditioned muscles. But what really caught my attention was the pure support of the women below me. I gave it some try-hard, and let the next person go who would do it just a little bit differently. Naturally, everyone had to try the new beta. Nobody’s eyes were glued to our butts or boobs – we were all staring intently at the rock, as each of us committed to new, creative moves that we had never seen or thought of. Our similar physiology made for a wide range of usable beta. The strong encouragement and enthusiasm kept the group going, pushing us closer and closer to sending.
As we finished up out in the Happys, we made our way into an evening consisting of a scrumptious dinner, brews from the Mountain Rambler Brewery, and women talking about the issues and questions that we face as women in climbing. Shelma Jun, as the facilitator, jumped right in with some hard questions of her own. The panelists discussed the acknowledgement of First Female Ascents, climbing nutrition, and the objectification of women in climbing.
Kelly Fields of Chicks with Nuts said something that really summed up the weekend for me: “When climbing together, we can connect with other women in a way that we will never be able to with men.”
Something amazing happens when women climb together. It is difficult to capture exactly what this amazing thing is, but I would describe it as utter empowerment. The stoke as we got on routes over and over and over again, the hum of excited and inspired conversation at breakfast as I checked in, strong women in a space where they are encouraged to be just that: strong.Historically in our society, women have been portrayed as soft, nurturing beings. I’ve had conversations with many older women who are influenced by the outdated idea that as women, we’re “supposed” to look pretty, take care of the children, and cook meals. As women, we are “supposed” to play it safe and be protected by our male counterparts–two things that I have zero desire to do. Rather than feeling like I needed to be protected or feeling like I had certain roles I had to adhere to, at this festival, I felt strong. I felt free. I’ve found that people are often surprised when women step up and prove themselves to be strong, relentless, and confident. Even tonight as I played a game of tag with sixth graders at my job, my male students said things like, “Aw man, you’re getting beat by a girl!” when this girl was just very tactically using quick reflexes and speed to get away from the person who was “it.” There would have been no comment if it had been a male. At this gathering of women, we were encouraged to fully embrace ourselves as climbers, athletes, women, and whatever else we identify with because that is what is going to help us grow as human beings and collectively as women–especially women climbers.
This growth was salient during the No Man’s Land Film Festival which finished off the evening. While some (Georgie Abel, notably) have critiqued film festivals such as Reel Rock for minimizing the coverage of significant women achievements, this festival highlighted women skiing off vertical cliffs, 6-year-old skater chicks, Afghani women given the opportunity to bike, and of course, lady crushers sending insane routes. I was literally surrounded by inspiring women—to my back, left, right, and on the screen in front of me.
I felt uplifted and inspired, and I still feel it remembering the moments I had with these strong, resilient, brave, inspiring–I could continue a page-long list of adjectives to describe them–women. I am so excited and inspired to continue doing this crazy thing we like to do on rocks with other women, supporting and empowering each other to push ourselves to our very limits and exceed expectations–our own, as well as those of the male-dominated climbing world.
Thank you, Cauri Hammer, for all the time and energy you put into this article, and for your contribution to Fringe’s Folly!
The Women’s Climbing Festival sounds like it was awesome. I think it’s a good thing, and I hope events like this gain more steam in the future. I think they will. I think it’s inevitable, and that makes me happy, because I think when any climbers improve, and have more opportunities, we all benefit as a community. As climbing grows healthier, and more whole, so do we. At least, that’s my theory.
To learn more about Cauri, or read more of her writing, check out her webpage. To learn more about this festival, check out the list of links below.
Climbing. What I Learned at the Women’s Climbing Festival
Moja Gear. A Recap of the 2016 Flash Foxy Women’s Climbing Festival and What it Means For Female Climbers
Gripped. The 2016 Flash Foxy Women’s Climbing Festival
Flash Foxy. Why It Matters: One Story of the Women’s Climbing Festival
The Cliffs Climbing. The Women’s Climbing Festival: Just the Beginning
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