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A feminist review of climbing how-to guides

Women and people of color have participated in climbing throughout the history of the pursuit–from cutting-edge American rock climbers such as Lynn Hill, who redefined the possibilities of free ascents on the Nose, to Japanese alpinists such as Kei Taniguchi, who became the first woman to win the Piolet d’Or, and countless, lesser-known adventurers who return to cliffs and mountains year after year. In 2015, the Outdoor Foundation published a survey of people who trad climbed more than eight times a year in the United States; of the respondents, 37.6 percent identified as female and 25.8 percent as African American/Black, Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic or Other (the only non-white categories listed on the survey; “male” and “female” were the only gender categories). Among sport climbers, the numbers were higher: 41.7 percent female and 27.2 percent African American/Black, Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic or Other. And yet many how-to-climb books do not include representation for people who are not white men. Because so many climbers look to these guides for information, it is crucial that people of all genders and backgrounds are represented, respected, and given information in this genre of climbing writing. The exclusion of images of women and people of color can perpetuate a false narrative that they don’t participate in rock climbing.

Including a variety of people in how-to-climb guides will not only offer a more accurate representation of the climbing population, but will also provide readers with a wider range of perspectives and experiences. Carolyn Finney, author of Black Faces, White Places, thus explained the importance of diversity in outdoor media in an article for Orion: “Truth-telling about who we are in relation to the land on which we stand is as much about how we tell those stories as it is about what we are trying to say in those stories. That our ways of knowing and being in the world are not limited to one group’s interpretation or understanding of the world.”

In this review, I examine four of the most popular how-to-climb books from an intersectional feminist lens, focusing mostly on aspects of gender and race. As Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge write in the book Intersectionality, “Intersectionality is a way of understanding and analyzing the complexity in the world, in people, and in human experiences. The events and conditions of social and political life can seldom be understood as shaped by one factor. They are generally shaped by many factors in diverse and mutually influencing ways. When it comes to social inequality, people’s lives and the organization of power in a given society are better understood as being shaped not by a single axis of social division, be it race or gender or class, but by many axes that work together and influence each other. Intersectionality as an analytic tool gives people better access to the complexity of the world and themselves.” Approaching these texts from an intersectional perspective will leave room for the nuance and complexities that are present when looking at marginalized groups in the media.

Advanced Rock Climbing


In the introduction to Advanced Rock Climbing: Expert Skills and Techniques, Topher Donahue states, “The goal of this book is to be your virtual mentor.” He succeeds in that aim in many ways: the text includes everything from simulclimbing to big-wall free climbing to anchor rigging to offwidth climbing. You do not need to be an “advanced” climber to receive benefit from this guide; however, this book is for someone who already understands basic techniques, knots and rope systems.

Out of all the guides reviewed here, Advanced Rock Climbing offers the most representation for female climbers. In the text, women and men are represented almost equally, with 72 photos depicting climbers who appear to be women and 73 photos showing climbers who appear to be men. Moreover, women aren’t just shown toproping or belaying–they are climbing hard sport lines and leading technical alpine routes. Furthermore, this text also includes many pictures of women climbing with other women. A roughly equal number of male and female “expert voices” are offered throughout the text, with passages by climbers such as Lisa Rands, Steph Davis, Lynn Hill and Angie Payne. In the book’s introduction, Emily Harrington offers a refreshing perspective on fear: “It’s okay to be afraid. Pushing fear back has never worked for me–work on it, accept it, and understand it.” Donahue implements inclusive language as well, using gender unspecific words such as “climber,” “person,” “they” or “world’s best” instead of “man,” “him” or “hardman.” Out of the many photos and drawings in the guide, however, only three appear to show climbers of color. These photos are positive portrayals, showing climbers of color leading overhanging and technical routes.

How to Rock Climb!


The first edition of this best-selling title was published almost twenty years ago. Now in its fifth edition, How to Rock Climb! remains one of the industry’s most popular instructional texts. John Long teaches climbers everything from placing traditional gear to training techniques. Although Long’s generous use of climbing lingo may leave the pure novice flipping to the glossary, this book will serve climbers of all experience levels–even the seasoned veteran will likely learn something new, such as the history behind many of the techniques and methods we use today.

At the same time, Long occasionally appears to forget the existence of women climbers in some of these historical discussions. The first chapter of the book opens by saying that “early man was a climber” in order “to escape predators and enemies and to forage for food”–language that obscures the presence of women among early cliff-dwelling cultures including that of the Anasazi or Ancestral Puebloans in what is now the American West. He goes on to say that “Eons later, in the mid-1700s, man began climbing again–out of desire, not necessity. Spread throughout the European Alps, villages big and small were nestled between spectacular alpine peaks, and for a host of reasons, certain men aspired to climb the grandest peaks on the continent.” Here, the implication that eighteenth-century European men were the first who climbed “out of desire” leaves out prior ascensionists in other parts of the world, such as the monks of Japan who had climbed steep peaks since the sixth century for spiritual purposes. Likewise, the statement ignores the presence of archaeological sites such as that on the Enclosure, a 13,285-foot subsummit in the Teton Range believed to be the location of vision quests, which indicate that Native Americans had scrambled to high places for centuries–and that such longstanding mountain-climbing traditions were not, in fact, as Long argues, “effectively confined to the European continent and, to a lesser degree, England.”

Moreover, Long’s use of the term “men” as the only gender term in the pre-twentieth-century historical passage implies that women didn’t climb mountains in the early days of the pursuit–despite the existence of key figures such as Egeria who described her pilgrimage up Mt. Sinai in a fourth-century Latin travelogue, Marie Paradis who became the first woman to climb Mont Blanc in 1808, and Katharine Richardson who made first ascents of steep alpine rock routes in the Alps in the late nineteenth century.

Fortunately, the book grows much more inclusive as Long shifts from the discussion on history. In subsequent chapters, Long either doesn’t make a reference to gender at all (by avoiding pronouns or by using “you”), or he switches between “his and her” and “he” and “she.” When he does use words like “she” and “her,” the pronouns often evoke women in a positive and empowering way. For instance, Long writes, “Picture a climber on a steep wall of orange sandstone. Above her, the rock sweeps up like a cresting wave, without a single crack in which to lodge her hands and feet. From the ground you can’t see one hold, just a polished face, yet she moves steadily up–high stepping, counterbalancing, reaching, ever fluid and graceful. She’s face climbing, and to the beginner it looks harrowing.” And later in the text, he uses “she” for his description of how to lead sport climbs.

On the other hand, the majority of the expert voices he includes are from men. Out of the pictures that portray a person, 45 appear to depict a woman and 90 appear to depict a man. Nonetheless, of those 45 photos of women, many show women pulling hard moves on steep routes. One woman of color is shown in multiple photos and acts as a prominent visual throughout the book. She is presented as someone for readers to model themselves after, as she demonstrates many different climbing techniques, including highball bouldering. Additionally, the photo of at least one other named climber of color is included in the text–the well-known Hidetaka Suzuki on the iconic crack climb the Phoenix (5.13) in Yosemite.

Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills


Conrad Anker refers to Freedom of the Hills as “the definitive guide to mountains and climbing.” Weighing in at around 600 pages, the newest edition is the most comprehensive how-to-climb text available today. Not only does this text explain knots, leading and first aid, it also includes detailed sections on physical conditioning, mountain navigation, geology and snow cycles, crevasse rescue, mixed climbing and stewardship. This book focuses on mountaineering, but many of the methods described can be applied to other disciplines, especially the sections on climbing technique, conditioning and safety.

The section on expedition planning includes a checklist of personal hygiene supplies, but leaves out any discussion of potentially essential female items such as tampons, which can be difficult to find in some countries, or menstrual cups, which work well for big-wall routes because they don’t need to be changed as often. The book recommends that climbers bring along a “pee bottle,” and the authors add: “Women can use pee funnels in conjunction with a pee bottle. Practice in the shower at home before an expedition.” Out of the few photographs that include a person with a distinguishable gender, two appear to be that of women. One potentially female figure is crossing a snow slope as part of a rope team, while another woman is leading a hard-looking trad route, her hands taped and her face tensely focused on the cracks ahead. There are, however, many drawings of people that appear aimed to provide more inclusivity: a significant number of these images are shaded in, as if to suggest a Latinx or Black climber, or else given long hair or curving forms, as though to indicate femininity.

Training for the New Alpinism


In this text, Steve House and Scott Johnston offer in-depth alpine training information with sections on diet plans, injury prevention, mental fitness, altitude acclimation, and more. Training for the New Alpinism provides support and knowledge that is relevant for climbers of all ability levels, whether you’re planning an expedition to climb alpine big walls in Greenland or heading up Cathedral Peak for the first time. Overall, this is a valuable resource for alpinists wanting to boost their performance in the mountains.

Training for the New Alpinism also includes a small amount of female-specific information. The authors list a series of reasons why training needs to be adapted for each person’s particular needs: “Each of us has unique qualities we bring into this venture that results in our own unique response to it… This individuality comes from numerous sources: genetic predisposition, training history and athletic background, time constraints, age, gender, life’s daily stresses and how you deal with them, your current fitness and health.” There is a short section titled “Women and Strength,” in which the authors state that it “can be very difficult for women to gain appreciable muscle mass, especially in the upper body.” Nonetheless, they describe the benefits of maximum strength programs for helping women become better climbers and prevent injuries, and they note that they “observed large gains in strength in women athletes” who followed such regimes. They conclude: “The cruel fact remains that a female alpinist’s pack is going to weigh just as much as her male counterpart’s. This makes it all the more imperative for her to improve her strength-to-weight ratio.” This statement could be read as a step toward gender equality–such a matter-of-fact assumption that women can and will carry as much as men would have been rare during the mid-twentieth century, when women were often excluded from joining major Himalayan expeditions, in part because they were considered too weak. But a reader might also wonder: Why would this modern recognition of equality be considered “cruel”?

Women are again mentioned in second chapter of the book, when the authors write: “… in the marathon, Ironman, triathlon, and ultra-marathon running events, the top women train at the same levels as the men; there is no reason they cannot do as much as their male counterparts. This will be the same for women alpinists.” Although the text here succeeds in presenting women as equal to men, it lacks substantive female-specific training information. In the section on diet, for example, the meal plans do not take into account the dietary needs of female athletes.

The authors allude to women in other sections of the book: when speaking about injury prevention, they include “absence of menstruation” in the list of symptoms of overtraining. In addition, the book shares six narratives from women, such as Danika Gilbert’s story on handling fear, advice from Zoe Hart about moving through performance plateaus and remaining disciplined about training, Caroline George’s essay about how a climb with a novice female partner inspired her to become a guide, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner’s essay on her first 8,000er, and a story from Ines Papert about her attempts on the Kyzyl-Asker (a 5842-meter peak, where she and Luka Lindic climbed a new route in 2016). These narratives are invaluable to the text, as they offer smart advice to readers from a woman’s perspective. For instance, in Danika Gilbert’s section, she writes: “As I experience it, fear is generally of two types: one keeps me alive in the face of real-life threats, the other keeps me from doing something I am indeed capable of doing without dying… While climbing, and at home, reflect on the process of fear. This is where we can each look into ourselves and sometimes uncover clues as to what drives us and what holds us back from our greatest potential.” Zoe Hart likewise writes, “Training gave me confidence in my body, which equaled confidence in my mind.” And Krissy Moehl writes: “Discovering my limits, and ability to push through them, to become more aware and comfortable in my body is grounding and affirming.”

Yet the majority of the personal story sections (35 out of 41) are written by men. With only 15 photographs of women and 148 of men, Training for New Alpinism has the lowest woman-to-man ratio of all the books in this review. There is only one discernible photo of a climber of color.


Overall, most climbing how-to guides do not represent women as often as men. Climbers of color are depicted even less frequently than white women are. And while this review looks at only the “male” and “female” genders, representation in the media is needed for those who identify as nonbinary or other genders, as well as people from other groups such as Deaf climbers, para-athletes, transgender climbers and queer climbers. Authors of climbing how-to guides are in an especially influential position to shift attitudes about who can become a climber, as many novices and intermediate climbers turn to these texts for guidance and coaching. In an Outside article by Teresa Baker, filmmaker Miho Aida describes the importance of representing and telling the stories of climbers of all kinds: “…often I feel invisible–whether playing outside, attending environmental conferences, or working in outdoor education. For example, other climbers will typically approach my climbing partner to ask questions about the route, even when I’m clearly geared up as the lead. Why don’t they see me? Then I stumbled upon an explanation. Typically, the people with whom I interact in outdoor arenas are white. Similarly, the industry’s media tend to showcase scientists, activists, or athletes as white and usually male. No wonder people don’t see me; I am not what they are accustomed to seeing in our field. But I am here, and so are other women–including women of color and those of differing ages, abilities, sizes, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic backgrounds. We all need role models, but if our media continually fail to provide images and stories of people who look, sound, or live like us, we have failed huge portions of our global population.”