the “female climber” dilemma

the paradoxical nature of recognizing “first female ascents”

In 2013, Chris Noble published “Women Who Dare, ” a collection of profiles of America’s 20 most inspiring women climbers. Falcon Guides, the publisher, called it “a celebration of feminine beauty, athleticism, wisdom and skill.” The compilation of so many anecdotal experiences paints a comprehensive, and inspirational, account of the trials and accomplishments of women climbers. But through this book, these women’s impressive athletic feats are highlighted against the backdrop of a traditionally male-dominated field. By stressing female achievements, we’re also reminded that women have yet to achieve equal status with men. By celebrating a culture of separate recognition, the equality gap between sexes is only perpetuated.

Women and men have participated in segregated athletic events since the dawn of competition. In many cases, like running or swimming, this makes sense: There are biological and physiological differences that make combined participation infeasible. Team sports like soccer and basketball begin to blur this clear distinction when it becomes harder to measure technical skill over physical strength.

Rock climbing, however, may be the closest we can get to a level playing field between men and women. The combination of skills required to be a successful climber transcends the typical biological and physiological constraints. Brute strength is undoubtedly part of the requisite for success, but so are factors such as flexibility, vision, wingspan, boldness, problem solving, and endurance—factors that do not come from biological designations as man or woman. Nonetheless, historically climbing has been considered a male activity in the same way that land exploration, mountaineering, and fieldwork has traditionally fallen to men.

Most climbing routes are tagged with recognition for the person who completes the “first ascent” or “first free ascent”—that is, whoever reached the top of the climb first with or without help from extra tools. Starting the 1980s, as a broader wave of feminism rippled through the Western world, the “first female ascent” became another staple of celebration as women grew more prominent in the athletic sphere.

Steph Davis, a world-class climber and one of the women profiled in “Women Who Dare,” admits in her foreword to the book, “I’ve been uncertain of how to think about the concept of women climbers,” because “that label strikes me as a pot with very thick walls.” Davis likens identifying as a woman climber as no different from putting herself in any other kind of category. “Living within labels and categories keeps us within the pot, where everything is great until our roots are crushed up against the walls. Then freedom comes only from smashing the pot to send off shoots in every direction and grow freely without restriction.”

“Rock and Ice” editor Andrew Bisharat captured the current conversation about singling out first female ascents in his early October 2015 article, “The Curse of the First Female Ascent”: “In other words, if the underlying context is that this woman achieved something only after a man or men achieved that same accomplishment before her, then aren’t we implicitly reinforcing the concept that women will always be a few steps behind the dudes?”

This isn’t to say that women are only completing climbing routes after men. Climbing icons like Lynn Hill and Beth Rodden have successfully established climbs long before men could. In Hill’s case, she was the first human to finish the hardest free climb in the world during the 1990s, a route just shy of 3,000 feet of the most challenging technical, vertical rock on El Capitan in Yosemite that takes on average three to five days to complete. Plenty of men and women have repeated it since then, yet no designation for “first male ascent” exists. In 2008, Rodden established another route in Yosemite that still hasn’t been accomplished by a man.

Bisharat brings up a fair point that, for both men and women, it’s often insulting to have your gender attached to your profession (“e.g. ‘male nurse’” and “woman doctor”). Qualifying someone’s title by including their gender is suggesting it’s unusual or not to be expected. This isn’t a new thought. The exact same case can be applied to race or sexual orientation. Comparable discomfort is drawn between statements like “my black neighbor” or “my gay mailman.” This uneasiness suggests that quantifiers like gender, race, and sexual orientation should come secondary to a person and their profession. Is this any different for athleticism?

Sasha DiGiulian, widely considered the most successful climber, either male or female, of this generation, however, does appreciate the designation of first female ascents (of which she’s claimed an impressive amount) because they “flag the progress of women’s achievements” and “are necessary to encourage progression.” To her, they serve as inspiration.

Bisharat ultimately concludes his article with his disagreeing opinion: “By following in men’s footsteps and seeking out [first female ascents], women are automatically setting themselves up to always be one step behind.”

While this opinion posits the lamentable possibility that women will forever lag behind men, in the wake of Hill and Rodden we can’t forget that not all women are faltering a step behind. Just this year, 14-year-old Ashima Shiraishi, became the youngest person, either male or female, to climb a grade of 5.15a, the beginning of the hardest climbing grade, which only a few athletes in the world ever accomplish.

She’s running dozens of steps ahead of everyone, leaving men and women alike in her dust. She’s an inspiration as a climber, not as a female climber.