Femme Zen of Ascent Part 1
I have fallen head over heels for rock climbing! It is the perfect composition of adventure, athletic performance, and exploring who I am and what my mental and physical limits are. Climbing has a remarkable way of igniting a light within anyone thirsty for a rad experience. It really pushes you to do something that scares you every day; a motto I love to live by.
Because of this great love of rocks, I have recently set out on the road to pursue climbing. I am living full time in a van and traveling to some of the treasured climbing crags of the West Coast like Joshua Tree National Park and Red Rock Canyon in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The Femme Zen of Ascent
CLIMBING: The unique adventure-action sport connecting people to some of Earth's highest mountains and steep rock faces in thrilling, adventurous and daring ways. For many, climbing is a meditative, expressive space to explore their physical and mental capacities, constantly pushing new, remarkable limits. I climb because of the satiating healing analogy climbing presents. To me, climbing closely mirrors the journey of a warrior throughout battle. Projecting a route can be full of so much mental and physical torment; each new problem grants endless climbing and life lessons. From heinously small crimps (a climbing hold where your fingerpads are the only point of contact to the hold) to nonexistent feet, once you send, you are relieved with this great feeling of accomplishment and ease, a feeling similar to “getting to the other side'' of adverse experiences. It reinforces the strength within, constantly reminding me that I am capable of anything.
From sport climbing competitions to massive high wall first ascents like the world famous routes in Céüse, France, the climbing scene has skyrocketed in its popularity across the globe over the past ten years. In a male focused athletic world, women have absolutely dominated the climbing scene. Much of this growth can be attributed to world-class female crushers like Lynn Hill, Ashima Shiraishi, and Margo Hayes.
I think of Margo and I think of greatness.
In the late winter of 2017, Margo Hayes made history becoming the first woman to climb an incredibly difficult grade of 5.15a (9a+). The same year, Adam Ondra, who is acclaimed to be the world's greatest, sent what is today’s hardest recorded sport route: Silence 5.15d (9c). Though the difference between 9a and 9c climbing is extreme, it is clear that Margo is notably exceeding the expectations for women in climbing. Following her ambitious ascent of La Rambla, Margo also sent Chris Sharma's legendary route Realization (also known as, Biographie), another 9a+. Both of Margo's legendary ascents are featured in Reel Rock 12.
Where it All Began: Short Highlight of The OG Crushers
Mountaineering predated rock climbing by over 100 years; tracing as far back as 1786 when Michael Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat summited Mont Blanc, France. This cultivated the earliest “climbers,” as the sport of mountaineering exploded in popularity. Rock climbing was not recognized as a sport separate from mountaineering at this time; mountaineers would sometimes “rock climb,” but only when necessary to reach the summit of a mountain.
Around the 1950s, mountaineering attained a high-class “pompous” and male-centric reputation. Slowly, a rather extreme counterculture arose, rejecting the societal norms of the 50’s. Thus, rock climbing as a standalone sport emerged. Climbing has come a long way from mountaineering because of generations of fierce, determined female pioneers.
I am not here to give you an extensive history lesson on climbing, but to highlight a few powerful female game changers in the sport.
Fay Fuller (1869-1958) In 1890, mountaineering extraordinaire Fay Fuller became the first woman to summit Mt. Rainier, a daunting 14,411 foot tall mountain in the state of Washington. Refusing any help from her male climbers, her first ascent of Mt. Rainier was only the beginning. Fuller went on as a journalist for a local paper where she wrote about her adventures, and later helped found the Portland, Oregon based mountaineering organization, Mazamas. After her ascent of Rainier, Fuller was granted a column in her local newspaper The Tacoma Ledger, dedicated to covering mountaineering events.
Pasang Lhamu Sherpa (1961-1993) In 1993 Pasang Lhamu Sherpa busily worked to become the first Nepalese woman to summit Mount Everest. This was a big day for Nepalese women, inspiring many young Sherpa women. Pasang was a hero; she reshaped expectations as an ethnic and religious minority by refusing any obstacle and bravely ascended up the south side of Everest in the Spring of 1993. Tragically, she lost her life to the descent of the mountain but her heroism lives on through Nepalese people to this day, as her story is retold with the utmost admiration and respect.
The 70's into the 80’s -Rock n Roll Era of Femme Climbing
For roughly a decade, counterculture musical geniuses like Janis Joplin sang through Yosemite Valley as its high walls such as El Capitan and Half Dome were being explored by a new era of rock climbers known as the Stonemasters.
Among this new wave of rock climbers was Lynn Hill, who is most known for her free ascent (climbing without any aid, not to be confused with free soloing, which entails climbing a route without any aid or protection)of Yosemite National Park's famous big wall route The Nose. Lynn Hill completely changed the game, becoming a huge influence on the history of climbing… and is overall one bad-ass lady!
Yosemite is also where bouldering became popularized as a method to train for big wall ascents. What is bouldering you may ask? Ropes-free baby! That’s right! Though bouldering inherently feels a lot less secure, as you are climbing completely free of a harness, any rope, or a belay partner, it is quite exhilarating, and often calls to most beginners first since you don’t need to know how to tie any knots or find a belay partner!
Towards the end of this psychedelia inspired period of a rather gritty lifestyle for the Stonemasters, climbing changed into more of a popularized and competitive sport. Where climbers once resided in national parks, adventuring away, and sometimes being confused as hippies by the rangers, new sport climbing (drilling bolts into rock and clipping in draws to rope climb) became explored, and climbing gyms became more common.
Today: Competitions, First Ascents and The Path Forward
Today's busy climbing scene is full of phenomenal and inspiring athletes like two-time World Cup Winner Alex Puccio and aforementioned Ashima Shiraishi, who have both dominated the competition scene. Climbing was even included in the 2020 Olympics. The USA Climbing team showcased strong athletes Brooke Raboutou and Kyra Condie. A soon to be released film The Wall, Climb For Gold features Olympic Gold medalist Janja Garnbret of Slovenia, Shauna Coxsey of Great Britain, Miho Nonaka of Japan, and one of the youngest contenders for the games, Brooke Raboutou of the USA. Be on the lookout for the release of the film, which dives into each athlete’s remarkable and inspiring journey to the Olympic Games.
These strong women have not only inspired so many younger girls to pursue their climbing dreams but have also shaped them into exemplary role models advocating for mental health and a less-toxic critique of female athletes. In a 2020 interview regarding her recently published book How to Solve a Problem: The Rise (and Falls) of a Rock-Climbing Champion, Ashima Shiraishi comments on her prior statement that “…climbing is a sport that females might be able to take lead in,” suggesting “we can catch up to the guys. I don’t know how long it will take — but it might not be too long.”
Shiraishi confirms that these women have worked to redefine body standards and make climbing more inclusive to all. Girls have muscles too!
Climbing gyms have spread out across the globe, definitely making climbing a lot more accessible. With this, underprivileged communities and minorities have become more invited into the climbing scene. The climbing community has definitely come a far way from the white male-dominant sport it once was, but there is certainly more we can do to diversify the crag and make the entire outdoor industry more inclusive. (#colorthecrag #sheadventures)
The rise of gym culture has brought both novice and avid climbers together instituting communities really well. With this, tons of nonprofits and climbing groups have started really bringing awareness to how everyone can enjoy climbing together. With its 6377 sq.m (68,641 sq. ft) plywood panels, Kletterzentrum Innsbruck is the biggest climbing gym in the world that was designed and built in one push at this size.
Be on the lookout for my next story featuring some phenomenal BIPOC, LGBTQ+ female crushers and their hopes to continue to diversify the art of the ascent!
Enjoy Meredith's playlist!
Meredith is a journalism and environmental sciences student devoted to adventure and high stoke. She is currently on the road studying remotely to pursue rock climbing and connect with the great outdoors of the West Coast. Follow Meredith on Instagram.
Additional Information & Resources
Women Rock Climbers Instagram
Irene Yee Rock Climbing Photographer Instagram
Film: The Wall
Women Rock Climbing Group Facebook
Ladies Climbing Coalition website
A Brief History of Women Mountaineering: On Braking the ultimate Ceiling By Susan Froderberg
Climbers Mentions Instagram Account + for photo credits/repurpose
Jim Brindell: Wikipedia
Bryce Bozovich Photos of Meredith Instagram
Greg Minoske Photography Instagram
Jan Novak Photography Instagram
Tim Temple Photography Instagram
Please let us know photo credits we have missed or any additional information.
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