Ladies Climb Harder Than Me

As a child, I hated running. I didn’t mind it if I was playing soccer, tag or storming enemy defences in an epic snowball fight, but running for it’s own sake was a kind of low level torture. Despite this, and for reasons that now escape my rational mind, I joined the Greenfield Elementary cross-country running team somewhere around the first or second grade.

It was the start of an undistinguished career in long distance running that mostly consisted of bringing up the rear of our team’s morning training runs and vying for last place every fall during a race at William Hawrelak Park. It would be years until I started to appreciate and enjoy the unique pain/pleasure dance of long distance running. In fact, I’m pretty sure the only thing I learned from being a young runner was that the idea that boys were better at sports than girls was complete bullshit.

Where I grew up, the dominant narrative we learned as children was of the “boys rule/girls drool” variety, especially when it came to my gender’s relative prowess at sports. We reinforced it in the schoolyard and then gym, often with help from teachers, coaches and other “grown ups” around. According to this narrative, I should have been a better runner than the girls on the team, but time after time, I finished far behind them. It didn’t add up, the story I was being told on the playground told me one thing, but my piss poor running performance said another.

Looking back, it would be a stretch to call these childhood running losses an “awakening”. I was a kid, and whatever brief moment of clarity realizing that my gender put me on the winning side of the dominant social narrative was quickly eclipsed by something else. Like all young boys, I went on to become a teenager, and where I grew up, that meant years of socialization into a pretty culture rich in toxic masculinity. I learned that my value had a lot to do with well I could hold my own in a fight, how hard I could hit someone on a hockey rink and how many beers I could put down, all things I carried into my young adult life. Thankfully, at some point I started climbing rocks.

Most sports are gendered. Men and women compete on different teams, in different leagues and sometimes with different rules. Women’s hockey does’t allow body checking, and neither does women’s lacrosse. There is no women’s decathlon in the Olympics, nor a women’s 1500m swimming event. Seriously, google women’s 1500m swim and you’ll see a photo of Gregorio Paltrinieri, the gold medal winner for the men’s 1500m race. One of my favourites is how golf course tee boxes with the one with the shortest distance to the hole are called the “ladies tee”, something I learned when an octogenarian mocked me for using one during one of the few outings I’ve ever made on a golf course.

Compared to the norm, climbing has a pretty even playing field. Everyone who climbs, and falls, does so on the same rock faces and walls. Everyone uses the same the gear, and the difficulty grades are pretty static, even the notoriously confusing British grade system. And, when anyone climbs a big wall, a high peak or heads up on a free solo, the chance of severe injury or death is exactly the same.

And, unlike a lot of sports, even the most vicious mens rights activist would have trouble making the case that men climb harder than women. Lynn Hill wasn’t just the first woman to free climb the Nose on Yosemite’s El Capitain, she was the first human to do it, beating a number of men to the prize. Ashima Shiraishi, a 15 year old girl, can climb V15 boulder problems, the upper limit of difficulty in that climbing discipline. And while there hasn’t been a 5.15c route sent by a woman yet, it’s widely agreed that the key word in that sentence is yet. To put it another way, if you climb and you’re not Tommy Caldwell or Chris Sharma, there are women who climb harder than you. And, even if you are one of them, or you climb as hard as them, there are still women who are better boulderers, alpinists, sport climbers or big wall climbers than you.

Now, this is not to say that the climbing community is some kind of promised land. Climbing can be a pretty bro-ified sport and has a long history as a “boys club”, but what it does show is that when you take out the rules and norms that set different expectations between men and women, you also get rid of a lot of perceived difference between what they can achieve. In other words, if climbing has an issue, it might be less a problem within the climbing community, and more a reflection of the fact that climbing exists in a world where the patriarchy is a thing.

I’m not a great climber and even writing the words “feminist man” make me feel like an self-congratulatory asshole giving himself a gold medal for acknowledging that someone with a different set of genitals is an equal human being. I have an injured shoulder, weak ankles and crippling fear of being emotionally vulnerable. But, even with all this, whenever I walk into a climbing gym or up to a crag, I’m convinced of two things. The first is that I can climb 5.13, all I need to do is train and push myself. The second is a reminder that in that gym or on that rock there is going to be a woman, or often a teenage girl, who climbs harder than I do. Every time that happens, it reminds me of that first race I lost to a girl, and that the dominant narrative in our world is basically a grown up version of the same boys vs. girls/rule vs. drool stories of my childhood, and like those stories, it’s bullshit. 

Cameron Fenton