Sexism in climbing as a Performance Issue.
(I started the blog post a long time ago but didn’t finish it until this week)
A few months ago Kristin Horowitz penned a blog post titled “The Importance of a Good Emcee: Psicobloc Masters Series and Sexism” A lengthy critique of the competition’s live webcast focusing on every flaw of the on-air hosts performances, including the sexism of the male host and the competition organizers; which Horowitz said reflected the sexism that is prevalent in the climbing industry. Her formulation may be a bit too linear but it got me thinking about a range of issues, including how social or cultural attitudes towards gender within the climbing world impact women’s climbing performance, the role men play in shaping expectations of women’s climbing ability, and if / how women internalize such expectations. This is a hot button issue, and i could provide a number of stories of famous male climbers saying “girls are weak” as if it is a given that everyone should accept and move on. I can also provide stories of situations in which talented female climbers revealed their insecurities in the face of competing with less talented men and boys. So I think gender bias is alive and well in climbing. The question is: what impact does it have on women’s performance levels and why?
Thus the first thing I want to do here is ask women about their experiences in this regard. Do you see the climbing community as having different expectations for women and men? What is your personal awareness of these issues and do they affect you? What are the pressures, both good and bad that climbing places on women and girls? Such questions are a start, but I don’t want to put too fine a point on them because women should be able to describe these issues in their own terms, or raise different issues all together.
One area in which i believe there is a clear imbalance based on gender is first ascents.
When it comes to first ascents men with different levels of ability dedicate significant time to searching out new lines, bolting, cleaning, establishing first ascents, and developing new climbing areas. Relatively few women seem to be engaged in these activities, which are of great benefit to the individual doing them, and the community at large. On the individual level the experience of a first ascent is very different from other types of climbing performances, not only for all the grunt work involved but for the challenge of coming up against something that has never been climbed before. Being the first person to work out a sequence, to discover rests, to face the physical and emotional challenges of route, to comprehend a line and send it, is a very different experience from doing a second ascent, fifth ascent or a first female ascent. Those who come after the first ascent can gain some social status from doing an early ascent, or doing an established line quickly, but subsequent ascents have the benefit of a great deal of information that the first ascentionist did not have, and a level of confidence about the route the a first ascentionist rarely experiences.
On a broader level doing first ascents provides the resources that will be used by the rest of the climbing community. Every area has it’s most inspiring lines, it’s classics, the routes that climbers long to do. These routes play a critical role in the development of climbers who come later. Prolific first ascentionists like Jack Marshal, Louie Anderson, Doug Reed, Bill Orhan and many others have made it possible for climbers who come after them to attain a higher performance level in less time. These folks have shared their vision of what climbing is, and what makes a classic route with the rest of us, in short they have provided a lot of inspiration and motivation to their fellow climbers.
First Ascents being less common among women in the US means that women play a much smaller role in directing and motivating the climbing communities in which they live. It also means that fewer women climbers will be remembered in climbing history because their names are not listed in guidebooks, while competition results and fast repeats don’t often last in the collective memory. Further, routes are our motivation, and the lifeblood of our climbing communities. The people who put up first ascents may have a variety of motivations for doing so, but the result is always an invitation to the rest of us.
All of the above is just me making the case that women should be doing more first ascents am I think it would be wonderful if someone like Ashima went out and did a bunch of FAs at different grades. Admittedly though it would be most exciting to see her do something really hard. I for one, would be interested to see what her routes would be like and how other climbers at the same level would interpret them.
At the local or regional levels new crags always need to be developed to keep the scene vital, in various regions around the U.S. there are still many crags and bouldering areas to be developed there is no good reason why that development work should only be done by men. So lets encourage women to go and discover new areas, new rotes, and to share their vision of what climbing is.
First ascents are just one example of a part of climbing where there seems to be different expectations based on gender, and to me it’s an area of great importance, but I know its not the only one; so feel free to use the comments to describe others. Also we should talk about how to help women and girls reach their potential as climbers without worrying about the boys.