First female ascents and the empowerment therein

Photograph by Sara Fleming

Last spring, my climbing teacher Mike Schneiter bolted a new route at the Puoux in Glenwood Canyon, Colo. Purely by coincidence, I happened to climb there with him the next day. I led the climb.

The excitement of a successful send must have gotten to my head, because the first thing I said after touching ground was, “Wait. Does that count as a First Female Ascent?” The answer, technically, was yes. But I was also the second person to try the climb, and it was only a 5.9 (indicating a relatively easy climb).

This incident highlights the predicament now surrounding a common practice in climbing: the labeling and recognition of First Female Ascents (FFAs). Climbing is a unique sport in that that the main objective (outside of indoor competition climbing) is to push to new realms and advance the sport in a variety of different ways.

One of those ways is through First Ascents (FAs), in which recognition is given to whoever first successfully climbs a route. The majority (though not all) of FAs are completed by men. It has become an accepted practice to give credit to women who first successfully climb something through the designation of an FFA. However, as my story illustrates, sometimes it doesn’t mean much.

Recently, some have questioned the validity and ethics of the FFA. The debate was launched when professional climber Paige Claassen chose not to report her ascent of a 5.14a (extremely difficult) route as an FFA. In a Facebook post, Claassen said, “We’re all making HUMAN accomplishments. They all deserve recognition… It’s relatively clear whether an individual is a male or female, so I don’t think the distinction that you are a female achieving something needs to be made.”

True, however this argument seems to share the same rhetoric as those who claim that they’re “not for women’s rights, but for human rights” or dispute #BlackLivesMatter with #AllLivesMatter. Grouping the oppressed with the already privileged doesn’t help the situation, and fails to address the problems people are trying to fix.

The debate about FFAs is much more obscure than these examples, but it highlights a similar predicament: Does specifying a certain group of oppressed people to recognize rights or achievements advance equality, or hold people back? As climbing becomes another venue in which gender roles are smashed, it is an interesting and important case in the development of the sport.

To address some of these issues, we have to go back in the timeline of climbing, a sport which has been relatively inclusive, but not without its faults.

Women began mountaineering (the sport which rock climbing stemmed from) as early as the 1700s, often while wearing dresses. When the more athletic version of rock climbing began to boom in the 1950s, its pioneers were a group of radical, free-spirited and hard-partying men.

Women were hesitantly incorporated into the sport, though in the beginning (and still, to a degree), that meant assimilating to this culture. As popularity increased, some women became part of the group of climbers pushing the physical limits of the sport.

The most outstanding development was in 1993, when Lynn Hill became the first person—male or female—to free climb (ascend through the means of one’s own body, rather than relying on outside aid) the Nose of El Capitan: a coveted route and the most prominent line on the most impressive monolith in Yosemite. This opened the door for a flood of new female climbers to perform at high levels.

Today, the gap in performance between women and men is closing at a remarkable pace. Most notably, 14 year old Ashima Shiraishi became the first woman to climb 5.15a, a grade that only a handful of male climbers have been able to achieve, close to the hardest climbed by anyone.

She and a growing group of other female crushers are challenging the perception that women are not as strong or as capable climbers when compared to men. Because they have different bodies, women generally climb in a different style than most men, executing fewer powerful moves and using more body positioning techniques. However, it is becoming clear that neither is necessarily more advantageous than the other.

Still, gender boundaries persist in the sport. Female climbers remain a minority. They are often praised in the media due to sex appeal rather than climbing ability, criticized because they have muscular, “masculine-looking” bodies, and subjected to a “bro-centric” climbing culture where objectifying women is a common topic of conversation. Gender equality in climbing, as in virtually every aspect of society, is not a reality, and it needs to be addressed.

Historically, when oppressed groups begin the process of liberation and begin to achieve great things in society, it is noted. We remember the first woman astronaut, the first woman doctor, and it will be a benchmark of progress when we are able to note the first woman president.

Yes, it would be arbitrary to do so if women and men always had equal opportunity, but that’s not the case—and so noting the first woman to accomplish a certain thing or fulfill a certain role is a way of cataloguing the progress that society has made. We should not make the mistake of claiming that noticing someone’s gender constitutes sexism in itself.

We can debate whether FFAs are the best way to do this in climbing, and can certainly incorporate other measures that promote women’s progress in the sport, but one thing that remains clear is that gender is not irrelevant: recognizing women’s achievements in climbing is crucial.

As women at the top of the sport begin to climb at the same level as men at the top of the sport, it will inspire more women to try climbing recreationally, which is where the real meaning of the sport is found. Climbing embodies many of the opportunities the patriarchy has historically denied to women: a chance to exhibit strength and power, to exercise responsibility and self-discipline, and to experience the adventure and freedom of the outdoors.

It may sound silly, but climbing is liberating. The more we can open this activity to women, the more it will open up to other oppressed groups—people of color, non-gender binary people, and the economically underprivileged—and the more people will be empowered in the most awesome of ways: sending hard.

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