“Climb Like a Girl.” This is the name of the clinic, designed for men, that I was assigned to instruct during my first days of work as a guide with the American Alpine Institute. So a couple of weeks ago, during the 2017 annual Red Rock Rendezvous, I greeted four mixed-gender groups to discuss balance, footwork, and technique while slab climbing.
“At the gym where I climb, there’s women sending routes that I can’t finish, even though I’m way stronger than them,” one male participant responded when I asked everyone to tell me why they signed up for the clinic.
“They’re stronger in different ways than you,” I couldn’t stop myself from pointing out to him.
“Climb like a girl.” What does this even mean? So often if you’re accused of doing anything “like a girl,” it means “lesser than.” “You throw like a girl.” “You run like a girl.” The list of “insults” goes on and on. As far as I could tell, I was assigned to teach this clinic only because I AM a girl, not because I’m a expert slab climber, or even have great technique. “Climbing like a girl” seemed to be code for “slab climbing,” a style that requires balance, flexibility, and finesse to ascend less than vertical faces with thin holds. There is an assumption that new female climbers tend to pick up these skills a bit quicker than new male climbers, since they cannot rely as much on upper body strength to pull their way up routes:
“Look he’s not going to climb that route correctly at all, but he’s going to send it anyway with his dude strength,” a woman said to me once while we were projecting together at the gym, watching a guy try our route. And he did. He sent it. And totally climbed it the wrong way.
While there may be some truth to the assumption regarding the strength patterns of new male and female climbers, I started each clinic with the disclaimer that operating under this assumption keeps us in the boxes assigned by our gender. What we would be working on at the clinic was slab technique, which benefits male and female climbers alike. I see women crush overhanging routes regularly, while some of the most elegant and controlled slab climbers I have watched have been men. One of the reasons I love climbing is that it encourages us to go toward our weaknesses and turn them into strengths, find success in our failure.
What I have begun to find more and more challenging while I “climb like a girl” in my female body isn’t pulling on overhanging holds. (Once I started training pull-ups, this got easier.) Rather, it is tracking my growth through existing grade systems. The more I climb, both inside and out, the less grades can tell me what to expect or whether I’m improving. Yes, it’s true that grades vary widely for any gender or body. The climb’s location, the year it was established, the first ascensionist, the guide book author, the temperature during the first ascent, what the first ascensionist ate that day – all of these factors can play into the final grade decision. As I climb boulder problems, face climbs, slabs, and cracks all over the map in my female body, however, the words of this article resonate with me more and more. Grades are, by and large, set by men, based on the difficulty for their male body to complete a climb. That doesn’t mean they’re always harder for me; sometimes it means the opposite. But it forces me to interpret the system and assess myself by a set of standards not created for me.
“Okay Imogen let’s take a break from that one.”
I found her flinging herself toward a hold, repeatedly missing it, and flinging herself onto the mat. She curled up in a tiny ball on the black mat, arms holding her legs, a small puddle of tears beginning to form on the mat beneath her face. Imogen was maybe four and half feet tall, an eleven year old who couldn’t figure out why all the other girls in her climbing class could send this red problem while she kept falling. She wasn’t flailing though; she was setting up her swing, building momentum, and aiming for the hold with precision. She was using incredible dynamic technique, with powerful movement, and she was four and half feet tall. She missed the hold every time.
“You’re becoming a stronger climber, your dynos are impressive,” I tried to tell her through her tears. How is she supposed to know how strong she is when her success depends more on her skeleton than her muscles? If there were more female route setters, who understand our physiology, would we be better able to track our progress, celebrate our success?
I try not to use height as an excuse when I climb or when I teach climbing, though we all know that climbers love excuses. Lynn Hill, at 5’1’’ says I just have to start jumping if I want to send hard routes, so I’m training my dynos. But the root of the issue is not my difficulty with reachy moves as a 5’2’’ climber. It is that the grades in general rarely reflect the same difficulty for me as for my tall and/or male climbing partners. This was hammered home for me the first time I climbed splitters in Indian Creek. During my first couple days I got on “Warm-Up Hand Crack,” a 5.10 splitter “hand crack” that I flailed and yelled my way up. My forearms were bleeding before I hit the anchors. The next day I joined a top-rope party on Coyne Crack, a 5.11+ that fit my hands perfectly near the top, and I floated up to the anchors after the crux.
My gender ends up working in my favor in some circumstances in the world of climbing. I felt that when I climbed Coyne Crack and later when I led 5.11 Soulfire without having led a single 5.10 crack in my life. I have also heard many people say that there is a double standard when women are hired for climbing positions traditionally dominated by men – like route setters or mountain guides. Female boulderers may only need to climb V5 to aspire to a setting position while their male counterparts should consistently send V8. Aspiring mountain guides who happen to be women may need less technical ascents on their resume than the hopeful male candidates. There may be some truth to that, and I’m fully aware that my gender played a role in my position at AAI. But is it truly a double standard when the set of standards we are measured against were made by men in the first place? When we don’t make the rules but must play by them?
How often are we, men and women alike, held to versions of success that do not resonate with us? What does it do to our self worth and sense of identity? What might it look like if we decided what our success looked like, created our own standards and made our own rules? It could be a total mess, but it could be pretty sweet.