As she reached the top of what used to be known as an impossible peak to rock climb, Lynn Hill looked to the camera crew and said, “It goes, boys.” This statement heralded an achievement which broke all the other records that countless men climbers had set before her. By breaking this record and climbing, unaided, the iconic peak El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, Hill not only became known as the best woman rock climber in the world but as one of the greatest climbers of all time.
Rock climbing has grown from a counter-culture movement based in Yosemite in the 1970s to a widespread sport that’s almost as dangerous as it is fun. As the sport developed throughout the 20th century, men’s names punctuated a significant number of achievements — a bleak playing field for gender equality. However, more and more women are being recognized as powerful leaders in the community.
Feminist movements in general have experienced an increased following in recent years. As issues of gender equality are vocalized, it can be uncomfortable to point out differences between men and women, because making a simple Venn diagram cannot easily explain the world. But when it comes to rock climbing many believe there are definite differences, physically, in how the sport is approached. Generally speaking, women have stronger lower bodies, while men have stronger upper bodies. And although to an outsider rock climbing may seem to be a sport focused on the upper body, in reality it’s almost the opposite. When climbing a “route,” the best climbers will use their lower bodies, almost as if they are doing continual, gracefully maneuvered squats up the wall. So, as women are introduced to rock climbing, they naturally have an advantage in terms of lower body strength and the sport as a whole. Often novice male climbers will attempt to depend entirely on their upper bodies. Amanda Carver, a local climber, says that despite the initial advantage upper body strength can give a man in climbing, “women can compensate in technique.”
Janaan Lake, a fellow local climber, says that women tend to be more graceful in climbing, while men simply attempt to “muscle through” certain routes. “In the end, it’s an advantage not to have that strength because you have to learn technique.” However, as the difficulty of climbs increases, the playing field evens out. Different climbs will favor different people, depending on everything from hand size to height.
“Mountain Project,” a popular website for local rock climbers, rates and reviews routes among the community, allowing members to log on and post reviews of what they have climbed. The site recently released statistics that compare which populations completed various difficulties of climbs. When Mountain Project compared the difficulties of what men and women climbed, it found nearly no difference — gender had no significant impact on the level at which someone climbed.
But despite these numbers, are women treated differently? Says Clark, “If anything, I think [women] get more respect.” In fact, social differences in climbing seem to depend on whether or not the climber has kids. When warm weather hits the Wasatch Mountains and outdoor climbing becomes safer, climbers meet up with friends who not only have the equipment but the safety knowledge to climb in the canyons. Lake said that she sometimes feels jealous of men for not having to experience the same type of pressure she does to find someone to watch her kids when climbing — it’s generally assumed that the women will watch the kids rather than the men. Even then, when her husband is able to watch the kids, she goes climbing with what is mostly a male group of climbers. Says Clark, “It’s been an issue.”
Korban Lee, a local climber with children, agrees. He thinks that it’s easier for fathers to go outdoor climbing and find someone to watch their kids than it is for mothers in the sport. Women climbers also experience stereotyping, he says, because people don’t expect females to be climbing at such high levels. “I think … they are treated a little differently by the community at large because they are doing something so well that has been traditionally seen as a bit of a masculine sport.” Thus, he views women climbers as “more adventurous” than their male counterparts.
But gender is no obstacle when it comes to breaking records. Sierra Blair-Coyle, a young professional rock climber and boulderer who is known for winning a wide array competitions in the sport, says that “the numbers are evening out.” Growing up among rock climbers, she said, “I was treated as an equal, in age and in gender. Most climbers were older than me as well. This really helped me to learn to push myself because I was chasing my peers.”
Lynn Hill once stood alone as the single woman among a group of climbers that would fundamentally change the tools and techniques used in rock climbing. In Yosemite National Park, this rock climbing group dubbed the “Stone Masters” was led by Jim Bridwell. Among the group, Lynn became the first ever person to free climb the rock face of The Nose on El Capitan, and then repeated that climb the next year in only 24 hours. After breaking yet another record in Colorado, Hill said, “Short or tall, man or woman, the rock is an objective medium that is equally open for interpretation by all.”
written for Intro to News Writing, Sophomore Year @ the University of Utah