I remember the moment when I discovered that pink was for girls and blue was for boys. I was three or four years old. After the discovery, I promptly decided that my favorite color was blue, and it held that status for over a decade. I only recently allowed purple into my favorites, based on my tastes rather than a protest. It wasn’t pink itself that I disliked, though I put up a big fight when I had to wear a pink dress or anything with flowers. Rather it was the concept that I ought to be a certain way because I was a girl. So apparent were gender expectations to my four year old self that I changed my name to Thomas whenever I played with trucks as a kid. (I also had a mullet, but that’s a different story.)
“Guide Built, Guide Trusted”
From playing with trucks to chasing girls at recess, I have always been drawn to activities that seemed to not be “for” me, and climbing has since joined that list. I was introduced to climbing in 2009 as a nineteen year old working for Whittaker Mountaineering, an outfitter based outside Mount Rainier National Park. At the time I didn’t know a crevasse from a crampon, and suddenly I found myself thrust into the world of big mountain climbing, catching glimpses of giants like Ed Viesters and Dave Hahn on my lunch breaks. (For years I saved a piece of paper that had the coffee orders of both men; Dave drinks his coffee black, but that day Ed treated himself to a double vanilla latte.) Whittaker Mountaineering was releasing a new line of outdoor clothing called First Ascent, sold with the tag line “Guide Built, Guide Trusted.” The guides working on Rainier for RMI Guides tested out First Ascent gear samples and were issued a complete First Ascent “kit” for their guide uniform. During that first summer, I remember laughing while my co-worker tried on some First Ascent jackets.
“Why are they so flared at the hips?”
It looked like Elayna was wearing a skirt, the way the bottom of the jacket shot out around her waist. A lot of the women’s jackets fit like that, in an attempt to account for women having hips. And the 2009 color of the women’s Peak XV Down Parka, a necessary number for any summit attempt of Mt. Rainier, was, of course, pink. (I think they called the color a different name, like “berry” or “rose,” but it was almost bubblegum pink.) And grey, they had a grey option too. So the first time I climbed Mt. Rainier in 2009, I donned that grey parka on the summit, still resisting the color pink since 1994.
“Shrink it and pink it.”
That is the joke about women’s products; to create women’s gear most brands just make the men’s version smaller and pinker. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard women say “why is the women’s version always pink?” To be fair, this was a phenomena that First Ascent was aware of and trying to avoid, but at the time there were only five or six female guides out of about sixty working for RMI Guides. This is where the “Guide Built, Guide Trusted” motto fails female climbers. While I worked in the rental shop I watched tons of male guides come in to test samples for the brand but only saw a few women, and Melissa Arnot was the only female guide on the original guide team of First Ascent.* So the First Ascent design team had almost ten times the amount of male feedback as female feedback to determine fit, color, and technical function. These concerns can seem like minor details or personal preferences. Who cares what color my rain jacket is, as long as it keeps me dry? (All the girls in the retail store swore that the women’s Igniter Jacket really did have less insulation in it than the men’s, however, as if women don’t really spend time in cold environments like men do.) Minor details or not, these are pieces of evidence that remind me that I exist in spaces created and still run by men. And the evidence extends far, far beyond outdoor clothing. As a woman and an educator in a sport and community historically dominated by men, I constantly witness the systematic ways that gender affects climbing. It appears in the grade systems, the available mentors, the language of the sport, the role models, and the access to the sport itself.
“Write about what you know.”
I’ve been wanting to start a writing practice for a while, dust off my rusty writing skills. When I expressed this interest to a friend, she told me to “write about what you know.” The closer I feel to the climbing community, the more I am aware of my gender within the sport and the fascinating dynamics gender contributes to climbing. I’m writing about gender and climbing simply because I HAVE SO MUCH MATERIAL. And I keep discovering new material all the time. And because I’m endlessly curious about it. And because maybe it will start some conversations. As this story continues, my questions unfold; how does climbing interact with race and class as well as gender? How can we be critical of our community and still rejoice in the beauty and peace of the mountains? How do we hold fast to the spirit of climbing while the sport stretches and expands, into cities and suburbs, fashion magazines and shopping malls?
If all else fails, at the very least I am practicing my grammar and remembering how to use commas correctly. Happy sending!
*Today the ratios are slightly better with eight women out of thirty-four First Ascent athletes.