Lead by Example: An Op-Ed on Women’s Climbing, by Alix Morris
I am a rock climber. I am a woman. I am a friend, sometimes a lover. I am a daughter and a free spirit. I am me, most importantly. I am not a babe, your babe, or a crusher babe. My name is Alix.
When I was thirteen years old, my club soccer team joined a boy’s latin league in Orange County, California. We became the only white team in the league, as well as the first female-only team in the competition.
The other teams doubted us, stared at us funny, and made us prove ourselves. Initially, they didn’t know how to play against us. Should we slide tackle? Can we push them? The confusion was written all over their faces. We were girls.
I may have been stiff and uncoordinated, but I was also fierce and aggressive. What I lacked in grace I made up for with my rage to get the ball from our opponents. Suffice to say, within a few minutes of our first game they realized that we were opponents willing to play the game to it’s fullest— not the socially constructed concept of a bunch of girls.
This experience made a lasting impact on me. We were not weak. We were just as good as any of the teams we played. I loved this experience so much that I played on another male team, and (again) was the only white person in the league. Still, I never felt like I was any different from the boys on my team. We ate together, played together, and hung out together. I was accepted onto their team as a friend and a mate despite my mis-matching skin and body parts. I was a soccer player.
I’ve become a rock climber. When I go rock climbing with people, (unless it’s with someone vastly superior to me) my partner and I are peers. We are a team. We are not male, female. We are not female, female. We are simply two people sharing a passion and having an adventure. At the end of the day, we’re humans collaborating to make something happen that is greater than either one of us.
I thrive on the flow state of climbing. I thrive on the movement. Climbing makes me feel graceful, powerful; sometimes feminine, sometimes not. But climbing always makes me feel free, and unfettered. Not just from the daily grind of regular society, but from a world quick to label people with stereotypes. I am free to find my own identity, and define myself as I desire.
This is not to say my life even in this sport is void of any grounding episodes of reality. This reality returns me to the world of stereotypes. This reality bears the labels.
We were at the Cookie Cliff on a warm fall day last year. My friend led Catchy (10d), the classic finger to thin hands crack. I followed it, having led it a half dozen times by then. Two guys, one from the Bay and another living in his car, queued up in line behind us.
“I bouldered a bunch of v6’s on that trip,” one of them (Eric) said, loud enough to grab my attention.
Their spraying enticed me to chime in. “Have you two climbed El Capitan yet?! The Nose is one of the greatest rock climbs!” I told them.
“No, we haven’t,” the other (Sam) replied. “So you’ve climbed it then?”
“Yep. It’s amazing!” I said ecstatically.
“Did you follow your boyfriend up it?” Eric commented.
I laughed. “No. We are equal partners. Is that what you guys think?
Being serious, he said “Well yeah. Girls usually do follow they go trad climbing.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “There are a lot of lady crushers in Yosemite,” I informed him, “more this year than the previous few. And I am sure they could teach you guys a thing or two about the climbing here.”
I took a lap on Catchy and we headed up the hill towards Red Zinger (11d).
Before I was out of sight, though I yelled back, “If you need a rope gun up Astroman, let me know.”
“Those guys were being serious…” I said, “I can’t believe it! I have never encountered that before.”
“You handled it well,” my friend, Skyler, replied.
Although offensive, the reality was that they were ignorant and likely new to climbing. Is it fair for me to use this one experience to form larger extrapolations about the entire climbing community?
Sexism is deeper than the climbing community. Women are sexualized, underestimated, expected to be caretakers. Women are characterized as not being bold or adventurous, and are told at a young age to get married and have children. Women and men have been conditioned into certain stereotypes from a young age. The most effective way to shift these stereotypes is to break free of them and lead by example. The most effective way to shift these stereotypes is to break free of them and lead by example.
The climbing community and media have shown me this in a way few other outlets have. After all, Lynn Hill was the first person to free climb El Capitan in a day. Silvia Vidal routinely puts up big, remote, solo first ascents to equal any male peer. Josune Bereziartu arguably climbed 5.15a when it was the hardest grade at the time, in 2005. Ashima Shiraishi just sent a 5.15a in a few days of effort. She also sent a stout v15. Beth Rodden put up the un-repeated Meltdown clocking in at 5.14, one of the hardest traditional pitches anywhere.
In climbing, the physical differences do not hold women back. Women and men can take turns pushing the limits of the sport, and that is a beautiful thing. We are equal.
Every person, both female and male, in the climbing community or not, has the freedom to do whatever it is they desire. It takes courage, a level of risk, and sacrifice to get there – but it is there. Our biggest dreams can be achieved and rock climbing has shown me this.
The climbing community is male-dominated, but more women are partaking in the sport. Climbing magazines and films often show more men pushing the boundaries. But this does not necessarily imply sexism. It is just as likely that it is simply because there are more men climbing. I do not think that the lack of female presence in climbing media is due entirely to sexism. To some degree, it is just a matter of statistics.
But where there is sexism (and it does exist), it is up to all of us to try our best to counteract it. So far, I have noticed two approaches to sexism in the climbing community and industry. 1.) women can have empowerment groups, special hash-tags and cliques to create a space that is free of misogyny (but also excluding the majority of rock climbers); or 2.) women can just go climbing and pursue their passion – in other words, women can become equal in climbing simply by climbing.
And while we are on the subject, let’s not forget that female climbers also have an incredible advantage over men in the climbing community and industry – the male to female ratio is very favorable for us; it’s easier for us to get free gear; it’s easier for us to get jobs in the outdoor industry.
For example, I was accepted onto Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR) for a few reasons. One of them was because I am a female big wall climber. The Yosemite climbing community is small. I watched my ex-boyfriend, more qualified than me, get denied on SAR. I am not ignorant to this. I have it easier as a woman in the climbing community.
Last year, Libby Sauter and I did the first one day female ascent of the Salathe Wall on El Capitan. It was an incredible day with an inspiring friend. Reflecting on it now, the hype around this ascent bothered me. I climbed it in a day twice earlier that season with a male. It wasn’t a big deal. What made the experience special was not climbing it with a woman, but climbing it with a friend. Each run up the Salathe was equally satisfying and challenging.
The Salathe in a day was not the first time I experienced this kind of thing. I also noticed this advantage as a female engineering student.
At my community college, I was a minority as a white woman. My colleagues were Asian males. I was accepted into UC Berkeley for Civil Engineering, a distinguished university in the field. Meanwhile, some of my male classmates, who had more extra curricular activities and a higher GPA, did not get accepted. If I was a male, I doubt that I would have gotten the same opportunity.
The reality is that when we enter a situation as a minority, in a culture that is slowly shifting its prejudices, we actually have an advantage. In many aspects of modern society, we are striving for diversity in all fields – more women in science, more women pursuing higher academia, more women in climbing, more stay-at-home Dads, more sensitive men. Sexism isn’t a one-way street.
I agree that we, the universal we, have to continue to make changes – and we are. If women want to get huffy about being underestimated or sexualized and turn it into a huge problem in this community, then these people also have to stop taking advantage of the system. Some of these women are benefiting from the sexism that exists in it. This is hypocritical because women make strong arguments against sexism, but then reap the benefits of lower standards for sponsorship and recognition.
Sexism does exist. It’s pervasive and systemic, but it’s changing. Nothing happens overnight – it takes time. It’s in our climbing community and industry, it’s in our workplace and it can happen anywhere. This is greater than the climbing community.
Change the system – but not by victimizing yourself and feeling entitled.
Instead, lead by example.
If you want to be treated as an equal, then act that way. Be honest with yourself, your motivations, and your desires then act accordingly. If climbing is your passion, I believe your time will be better spent pushing yourself, and being an equal partner and friend to everyone you chose to tie in with.