‘Have you got the boobs to try this route?’

That’s not something you hear very often. Or ever. When you look at it, tons of our colloquialisms are a bit sexist, a hangover from when that was ‘OK’ I suppose. Phrases such as ‘You climb like a girl’ to which I want to reply, ‘What, you mean elegantly, with technique and control?’

Anyway, I didn’t set out to write about changing our discourse – though that’s extremely important, it is a whole other issue – I wanted to share some thoughts about the long-standing discussion of gender balance – or imbalance – in the climbing scene. This is an extremely hot topic at the moment. More so now than probably ever, campaigns, groups and hashtags such as This Girl Can, Crux Crush, Move Mountains, Women in Mountain Training, #LikeAGirl, #RethinkRoleModels (I could go on), are passionately promoting the empowerment of women in sport; climbing being a prime target as a traditionally very male-dominated scene.

Two things strike me first off: one, that organisations/groups/individuals have been campaigning about this for years – it’s not a new thing; and two, my personal experience is that many female climbers do not feel marginalised, intimidated, or that climbing is a male-dominated activity any more.

A drawing of guest author Camilla by her mum, Hazel Barnard.

The Pinnacle Club

The first public collaboration of climbing women was the Ladies’ Alpine Club, formed in 1907 – fifty years after the Alpine Club (men only – on account of women’s supposed physical and moral deficiencies in the matter of mountain climbing). The Ladies’ Scottish Climbing Club came a year later; and in the Pen Y Gwryd Hotel in Snowdonia on 26 March 1921, the UK’s first female climbing group was established: The Pinnacle Club.

In a couple of years’ time it will be the club’s centenary anniversary; so what’s taking so long? Why after 100 years are we still so dissatisfied with the state of equality in the climbing scene?

I can imagine that when the club was first set up, the public may have looked upon it as a rebel movement, possibly one attracting unusual women or troublemakers (OMG! A woman in breeches!), and this may have caused a reluctance for some women who were perhaps otherwise keen on the mountains, to join. It takes confidence to be a part of something pioneering. Perhaps some of the independence gained by their contributions to the First World War effort empowered those first few ladies enough to kick-start the scene – but it takes time and sustained action to change centuries of cultural barriers.

Enchantment Larches by Nikki Frumkin

Another factor in slowing the growth of membership to such trailblazing clubs is hard to relate to now: how would you hear about said clubs? No internet! It would be a lot harder to spread the word. And then, say you did hear about it; have these workers, full-time mums and housewives got the time or the money to travel to the climbing meetups, that are possibly several hours across the country? Who’d look after the children while Dad is at work? At first, these ladies’ climbing clubs were very much for wealthier ladies of leisure, and it would take time for things like cars, female disposable income, and attitude changes to filter down the ranks and open up climbing opportunities to a larger range of women.

Women in Climbing

It’s made much easier for us female climbers, on the whole, these days: female-tailored gear (yes, shame a lot of it is still pink and purple … ); we have skilled jobs and some money and cars; the internet helps us meet people to climb with, we have training walls that give us the option of ladies-only nights. The explosion of bouldering has also made it pretty accessible to get involved in.

Back in 2013, Steph Meysner, who organizes the Women’s Climbing Symposium, in an interview for The Guardian said that she believes climbing culture is changing, something she had begun to notice a few years ago. ‘The change has been organic. We are seeing a wider change in attitudes towards risk-taking. In the past, women have tended to be villainized by the media for taking risks.’ That was five years ago already, what about now?

She Collects the Puddles and Lakes She Swims Each Year by Paula Flach

It’s almost impossible to tell how much of the issue is being sensationalized. You will always get sexist individuals, regardless of how much progress we as a society have made, but we all know that in any media field all it takes is one report of a single incident of sexist behaviour to find its way on to the internet and there will be headlines/tweets/posts extrapolating, twisting, globalising, and suggesting that we have made no inroads into redressing the balance whatsoever. Some of these will be extremely persuasive and plausible, and it can be hard to filter stuff you read on the internet – we haven’t always got time for further research. But we are then left with a skewed understanding of the situation, possibly a negatively skewed one.

I was a little nervous of writing the above paragraph, as I don’t want it to be misunderstood and I’m not at the forefront of this issue by any means. I’m totally pro continuing to journey towards gender equality in climbing (and sport in general), and I certainly don’t think that we have fixed and ticked off all the problems with this. But, I do think that – in the climbing scene at least – we are doing the right things, and that we have made and are making substantial progress. I like the positive, ‘So change it. Get out and do it’ message that current campaigns such as This Girl Can adopt, it’s motivating and inclusive, it involves doing, and it offsets more negative, complain-loudly-but-don’t-do-anything-about-it voices online.

My boss remembers climbing at the crag thirty years ago, when it would be a total novelty, an event, if a single woman turned up to climb. But now when I go to the wall or out into the Peak, the balance is very different – trending in the right direction. Which is pretty great. When you look back even further than that to the tiny group of ladies who founded the Pinnacle Club nearly 100 years ago, and then fast-forward to the millions of women that climb across the globe today, it’s impossible not to see the breakthroughs made, and to feel optimistic about it.

New project: Waymaking

Waymaking anthology of women’s adventure writing, poetry and art

I know there is still work to be done, and I am lucky enough to be part of an important and inspiring project which aims to – in a small way – help to kick start addressing the issue of the lack of female voices in adventure and outdoor writing and visual art. This project is called Waymaking; an anthology of female poetry, prose and art. We can’t claim to be representing the full diversity of adventurous women out there, but this is just a starting point – we’ve got over fifty voices. The ideal outcome is that it will inspire and encourage other female adventures to tell their stories, too.

Waymaking has contributions from climbers, runners, mountain bikers, walkers, landscape observers, swimmers, nature lovers, mothers, daughters and partners. Some are telling of one-hundred-mile-an-hour mountain epics, some of the quiet internal peace gained from being submerged momentarily in a brook, alone, and others are in between. All are valid, compelling adventures, evocative and portrayed with eloquence and beauty. The project is the brainchild of award-winning poet Helen Mort, outdoor-scene guru and writer Claire Carter, and elite outdoor athlete Heather Dawe, and will be published in October 2018 with a beautiful introduction from outstanding nature writer Melissa Harrison.

The Pinnacle Club was the starting point for the UK female climbing scene, and here we are today. Here’s hoping that in 100 years’ time, we’ll have a plethora of women’s adventure writing and art out there, in a small part, perhaps, a ripple effect of projects such as Waymaking.

Bouldering at Ardmair Beach by Deziree Wilson


Guest post by Camilla Barnard, Editor at Vertebrate Publishing.