I’d never really thought of myself as “one of the boys” until I started climbing. Having gone to a private all-girls school, I was used to being surrounded by women. Likewise, at uni, where I studied languages and literature, female students easily outnumbered their male counterparts. So, it was new and unfamiliar territory for me when I took up climbing and later got a job at my local climbing gym where most of my climbing friends and coworkers were guys.
My climbing journey started about two and a half years ago, in an unassuming gym, Baboon’s Boulder Wall, a well-kept secret, tucked away in a hostel in the heart of Panama City. A stone’s throw from my then home, somehow, just making it to the hostel was a big deal in itself. There was no good excuse not to go, and yet I felt hesitant.
A self-conscious and self-limiting loop of thoughts played on repeat in my mind, at times holding me back. A big part of my hesitation was due to being new to the sport and feeling like a noob. A small part of it was due to the masculine energy at the gym and lack of female peers and role models.
The guys at Baboon’s weren’t unfriendly, in fact, some of them were downright lovely and made a concerted effort, but I still felt a bit out of place. The more regularly I climbed though, the more I integrated into the community there. Every so often, I’d show up to find a fellow female climber training. Sometimes, I’d strike up a conversation. Occasionally, we’d climb side by side without a word of acknowledgement. Regardless, it made me feel a little more welcome, a little more like I belonged there too.
About a year after I’d really started getting into climbing, encouraged by my older sister and climbing mentor (@emayling - ex Climb Fit staff member turned dirtbag climber), I planned my first overseas climbing trip to El Potrero Chico (EPC) in Mexico. An eye-opening journey in many ways, I was humbled by my experiences climbing on Mexican limestone and inspired by the warm people I met there.
To continue the trend, women were clearly the minority in EPC, and I still felt somewhat intimidated by all that masculine energy, surrounded by guys in the campground kitchen. Loud tales of epics, choss piles, and whippers (climber jargon for the uninitiated), laughter and bravado, brought out my introverted tendencies. Of course, the unspoken silver lining to all this was that as I got to know individuals, I also made some really close male friends, and climbed with some extraordinarily patient and kind male partners.
In my 2 months there, I met a handful of female travellers psyched to climb, who’d made the journey to EPC on their own. Apparently, this used to be pretty uncommon but now is becoming more and more regular. Heck yes!
I met climbers of all walks of life there. Recreational climbers, like myself, van-lifers living the climbing lifestyle, guides running women-only climbing workshops and retreats like @spacebelowyourfeet, and one particularly rad human, a woman called Jess, who organised a weekly women’s only meetup called Potrero Chicas (@https://www.instagram.com/potrerochicas/).
At these meetups, women lifted each other up and supported one another. It didn’t matter if you’d never met before. It didn’t matter if it was your first time climbing. It didn’t matter if you didn’t even want to climb that day. It was just a safe space full of smiling, supportive chicks, with bountiful stoke, happy to hang out and have a social climb.
I began to realise that while I love climbing with the boys, I also wished I had a few more female climbing buddies to swap beta with, to push one another, to go on adventures with and just joke around with back home. I left EPC super psyched, inspired to climb, to connect female climbers, and to make a whole new set of climbing friendships. That’s basically how our ladies’ social climb at Climb Fit came to be.
Starting our ladies’ night was a massive exercise in vulnerability for me. Once a week, I’d wait anxiously at a table by the front counter, hoping that at least one woman would rock up to climb. A couple of other staff members and I got good at finding solo climbers in the bouldering area or on the auto-belays and convincing them to join in. (A huge “thank you” is owed to my workmates who promoted the night and encouraged me in those daunting first weeks!) Gradually, a few of those first women became regulars and brought friends along or supported new climbers who showed up to try rock climbing for the first time. Our little group slowly started to grow in numbers.
Fast forward one year, and we consistently have 8 or so ladies show up week in and week out (pre-covid19, obviously). Sometimes a few more, sometimes a few less. Sometimes they disappear for a week or two only to return with adventure stories to share - tales of a multi-day hike in Tasmania or a ski trip to France. These social sessions usually start and finish with big hugs and lots of smiles. Sometimes we climb hard and fall off things, other times we would gossip about life and take it easy. Most importantly, the vibe is always low pressure. Climbers of all backgrounds are welcome. And, everyone supports and climbs with everyone.
And not surprisingly, in these turbulent times, these same strong women have rallied together. After Climb Fit shut its doors, I held a Zoom session at our regular time on a Thursday night. We talked about the news, our new unusual living circumstances, and how to stay positive and healthy during the Covid-19 crisis. A plan was proposed - a shared spreadsheet with a weekly schedule for peer lead workouts, guided meditations, and even an afternoon baking scones!
Women’s- only events are on the rise, and 2019 was a big year for them. Climbing nights and workshops have popped up at several gyms throughout Oz. We had the first women’s climbing symposium in Australia, “Women on Walls” hosted by Nomad Bouldering Gym in November. I even went on a women’s only canyoning trip organised by the Australian School of Mountaineering (ASM) recently. (Huge shout of to the guides and other ladies on this trip for the awesome day out! The day was stress-free, the guides lovely, and the positive energy palpable!)
These events are important because they provide us with judgement-free, safe spaces for learning and growing. They create opportunities to connect with like-minded women who inspire and encourage us. At these types of events, we can have more in-depth conversations about how to overcome the unique barriers that women face in adventure sports and beyond. They also enable discussions with our male counterparts and allies about gender in climbing. And I can tell you, since starting our ladies night, I’ve certainly had a few.
These events aren’t about excluding men. It’s just a different vibe hanging out with a group of gals, and sometimes that makes for a nice change of pace. Our trip out with ASM consisted of a mother-daughter duo, myself and my younger sister, two friends, plus our fantastic guides. We didn’t know each other well, but we cheered one another on, looked out for each other and made sure everyone had a good time. We collectively took responsibility for the success of the trip. No ego, no rush, no competitive vibes. Everyone was just happy to be out in nature, doing something different.
When I attend women-only events, I get to see people like myself doing things that I often struggle to see myself doing otherwise. We can learn so much from our peers! One of my favourite people to climb with these days is a regular at our social nights. We climb similar grades but have different strengths. I push her to try climbs she wouldn’t necessarily choose (sometimes she climbs them more effortlessly than I do!), and she pushes me to do the same. Although we’re not exactly the same height or weight, we know that we have similar abilities so we have a compelling argument to try things we might otherwise avoid. Sometimes we grumble and try and make excuses but we can laugh about it too, and I think we can both agree our climbing has improved because of it.
These events create opportunities to try new things, sometimes things we have never even contemplated. If you had told me when I started climbing that one day I’d get to participate in a route setting workshop, I don’t think I would have believed you. And yet, I did just that at Women on Walls last year. I even got to be a part of the bigger conversation during a panel discussion about women in climbing at the same event. How cool is that?! I love that these events are inclusive, and women with all levels of skill and experience can get involved. Everybody’s experience is valid and important.
As far as I can tell, women-only events are here to stay. I certainly hope so anyway. The more women we can get involved in climbing and adventure sports, the better. The climbing scene is growing and evolving, and women have plenty to bring to the table!