“There are some secrets you will never learn…till…you leave the world, your recognized world, and plunge into the vast unknown.” –Mary Schaeffer Warren, 1911
ALPINISM, AWAY FROM WELL-TRAVELED REGIONS, is rarely straightforward. Routes twist and bend, at times leading to false summits. Maps, if they exist, may be vague. Some handholds are secure; others, seemingly identical, crumble into dust at the gentlest touch. In many ranges, rain or snow is almost guaranteed. But there are always the instances when I find myself entranced by a flash of eye-watering blue between the clouds, or the sun-rich scent of an old-growth tree across a belay–tiny, iridescent moments of startling truth. And there are the times when I think, by piecing those recollections together, I might chart some essential pathway for my life.
“A huge challenge to overcome is the inaccessible view that so many hold toward the wilderness. Messages are sent to so many people that the wilderness is not a place for them to be….” –Rosemary Saal
Climbers have long sought such inscapes in the mountains, trying to define our own place in the world, to explore the boundaries of personal and human potential. By now, there are plenty of examples of women whose accomplishments have equaled those of men. In 1993 Alison Hargreaves was the first mountaineer to solo all six of the classic North Faces of the Alps in one season. A year later, Lynn Hill made the first free ascent of the Nose in a day–a feat that remained unrepeated by anyone for more than a decade. In 2005 Ines Papert won overall first place in the difficulty category at the Ouray Ice Festival, completing a route some three minutes faster than the famed Will Gadd. Three years afterward, Beth Rodden achieved the first ascent of Meltdown, a 5.14c finger crack then considered the hardest single-pitch trad route in Yosemite. And in 2009 Kei Taniguchi became the first woman to be awarded a Piolet d’Or, for an alpine-style first ascent with Kazuya Hiraide on the southeast face of Kamet–a 7756-meter pyramid of steep ice and rock in the Garhwal Himalaya of India.
Women have also proven themselves in less quantified ways. For years, Silvia Vidal has established hard aid lines on remote big walls, climbing by herself without any means of communication to call for rescue or even a forecast. New Zealand alpinist Pat Deavoll has carried out minimalist expeditions to some of the world’s most isolated mountains. During her 2009 first ascent of Pakistan’s Karim Sar, she found her way alone through a bewildering labyrinth of granite and ice, free soloing above hundreds of meters of frosty air.
EACH YEAR BRINGS TALES of women’s adventures–at times with cloudbursts of media attention, more often as quietly as snowflakes spinning into drift. Gradually, the data accumulates as well. In a 2015 Outdoor Foundation survey, 37.6 percent of US residents who said they engaged in traditional climbing more than eight times a year were women (compared to 41.7 percent of those who reported sport climbing that often). During the past decade, the numbers of participants who selected “female” on their American Alpine Club membership forms rose from 16 percent to 20 percent. From 2005 to 2014, the Klub Wysokogorski Warszawa of Poland grew from 20 percent female to 23 percent. In 2010 the Federation Francaise des Clubs Alpin et de Montagne had a 36.4 percent female membership.
Yet when the American Mountain Guides Association released its first State of the Guiding Industry Report in 2013, only 11 percent of their guides were women. The vast majority of IFMGA-certified guides worldwide are men. Taniguchi remains the sole woman to have received a Piolet d’Or, an award given to cutting-edge ascents that reflect “the spirit of alpinism.” [Since the original publication of this article, Lise Billon became the second woman to receive a Piolet d’Or.–Ed.] From 1993 to 2015, a mere 11 of the 320 members of expeditions that received the Mugs Stump Award were women. Michael Kennedy, one of the organizers of this grant for alpine-style ascents, reports getting very few applications from either female or mixed-gender teams.
As a mountain guide, I’ve longed to read more stories of female alpinists, glimmers of experiences that might help me comprehend my own journey. Ten years ago, Molly Loomis wrote a now-classic article for the American Alpine Journal, “Going Manless,” about the challenges and possibilities women have encountered in the vertical world. Like her, as I try to understand the persistent gender disparity, I’ve interviewed dozens of women from a range of backgrounds. There are no absolutes, I’ve realized, only collections of individual stories. Some commonalities are shared by many; some by merely a few. In the pages that follow, I’ve gathered an array of women’s voices, letting them fill some of the lingering silences as they discuss what factors may have held us back, and what might move us forward. Each narrative is another landmark on the collective map of alpinism, and when we trace them out on paper, we find that there are far more varied and elaborate trails than we thought when we began.
BACK IN 2005, LOOMIS HAD WONDERED, “Despite a long list of impressive ascents helping to dispel doubts about women’s capabilities…women remain a minority in the world’s high places…. Why?” British climber Kath Pyke offered one of many possible answers: “Typically, climbing media portray women with beautiful bodies achieving at sport climbing.” For aspiring female alpinists, “there are few images, role models, or real people out there to talk to.”
Committed alpinists often recall a hero who helped them imagine their own potential. Female mountaineers have yet to reach a critical mass in the media, and if young women primarily encounter images of female sport climbers and boulderers, they may assume, consciously or unconsciously, that the world of alpinism is less welcoming to them.
Western mountaineering literature arose during a time when many writers still saw adventure as an expression of purely masculine and imperial values. Adina Scott, who took part in An American Ascent–a documentary about African-American mountaineers–points out the ongoing need for expanded topics and new forms of stories, ones “that diverse populations will find more relatable than the traditional Western narrative of man vs. mountain.”
The rise of new media has helped spread some of these tales, giving more voice to underrepresented groups and experiences. Dawa Yangzum Sherpa, one of the few female Nepali mountain guides, says, “Social media has helped to level the playing field for female alpinists. This has allowed us to better connect to each other, and also get support from other women.”
ONE QUESTION SEEMS to be resolving itself: whether women are physically able to keep up with men in the hills. Scientific research conducted in the Rocky Mountains during the late twentieth century indicated that women might actually be less susceptible to high-altitude pulmonary edema than men are (Journal of Occupational Health, 2014; also noted in Jennifer Jordan’s Savage Summit, 2005). Already, in a 1984 Mountain article, Rosie Andrews predicted that “specific features of body type can be as much an advantage as a disadvantage [at upper-level rock climbing]…. Thus a natural balancing [between men and women] exists which is lacking in many sports which emphasize traits such as large size, where men have the obvious advantage.” As modern climbers bring more technical rock skills to the mountains, Andrews’ words may become increasingly true.
In addition, the popularization of minimalist climbing has made big objectives easier for fit, small-framed women who once struggled with the weight of heavy loads. Slovenian climber Tanja Grmovsek explained in Alpinist 19, “Today’s single-push, alpine-style approach–with lighter gear and without the laborious, expedition-style techniques such as hauling and fixing ropes–is more suited for women’s bodies.”
The core of alpinism has always been about psychological endurance, imagination, good judgment, leadership and teamwork–areas in which all genders can excel. Lise Billon, a young French alpinist, has trekked with mixed-gender teams across storm-swept icefields to climb giant new lines. “The physical difference is not that great,” she tells me, “and those other [mental] aspects can largely make up for it. Social and cultural conventions are the limiting factor…. But, little by little…those customs are changing.”
NONETHELESS, COMMON PRECONCEPTIONS about male and female behavior in the mountains remain: men are considered to be more competitive, with higher risk tolerance; women are thought to be good at communicating, and likely to make decisions that lead to group happiness over individual reward. But to what extent have long-entrenched ideas about gender characteristics become self-fulfilling prophecies? In the 2008 Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Kelly Danaher and Christian S. Crandall described the persistence of what social scientists call stereotype threat: for members of groups considered to be less able at particular tasks, the fear of confirming those stereotypes can become an “extra burden,” affecting their performance.
In 1984 Rosie Andrews wrote that most male climbers raised in traditional Western culture have “generally been encouraged to perform physically, problem-solve, take risks…. Girls are usually more sheltered and protected…. Rather than being prepared for independence, we learn to expect to play a supporting role, which hinges upon reliance on others.” Recent gender studies expand on this idea. In a widely read 2014 Atlantic article “The Confidence Gap,” Katty Kay and Claire Shipman concluded, after reviewing the research: “Do men doubt themselves? Of course. But not with such exacting and repetitive zeal [as women], and they don’t let their doubts stop them as often as women do.” It’s not hard to imagine the effects of that confidence–or lack thereof–during ascents of bold, committing lines. Or to dream of what new adventures might be possible when more women learn to bridge that gap. Crystal Davis-Robbins, who has established first ascents in India and Patagonia, explains, “Women have the same capacity to ‘open our minds’ as men do.”
“There is a wild inside of me; I think this is true for everyone, whether they have acknowledged it or not. Unexplored caverns, anxiety-ridden ridges, peaceful and known streams.” –Jenny Abegg
Stereotypes have also affected historical interpretations of women’s stories. As recently as 2005, Australian climber Abby Watkins told Loomis for her AAJ article, “I think perhaps when women do risk everything for a mountaineering goal, society frowns on them.” There is a much longer tradition of acceptability for men to set off on adventures far from the home. When British mountaineer Alison Hargreaves died on K2 in 1995, Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee condemned her for having “behaved like a man.” As Ed Douglas and David Rose observed in their biography of Hargreaves, Regions of the Heart, “Many commentators believed that a mother [like Hargreaves] taking such risks was morally more culpable than a father doing the same.”
The canon of mountaineering literature contains few in-depth explorations of the experiences of fatherhood. In many modern societies, men and women still face different expectations–and are held to different standards–around raising children. “I feel that women have more societal pressure than men do to ‘put family first,'” Davis-Robbins says. Female climbers generally have to decide by their mid to late thirties whether or not they want to plan to have children, around the age that many alpinists approach the highpoint of their abilities and opportunities. Yet as parenting roles evolve, fathers such as Tommy Caldwell and Jimmy Chin have begun writing more about their efforts to balance family responsibilities and expedition climbing. To varying extents, all alpinists confront the ethics and practicalities of how to reconcile an expensive, time-consuming and dangerous pursuit with the rest of their lives. As Majka Burhardt declares in Alpinist 50, “We’d all benefit from more diverse examples of what alpinism can be.”
SOME CLIMBERS SUGGEST that we shouldn’t distinguish between men’s and women’s alpinism anymore. In Alpinist 23, Silvia Vidal argued, “If someone congratulates me as the first woman to open a new route on Shipton Spire by herself, that person is underrating my accomplishment.” Her twenty-day journey up the northeast pillar–amid the vast solitude of cold stone, falling snow and thin air–should stand on its own. Lise Billon agrees that “a route is not transformed because it is climbed by women; it does not become harder, nor easier, nor less beautiful.” Yet she notes that with all-female ascents, there’s no way anyone can assume–as even current climbers sometimes do–that a man did all the leading.
When a woman repeats one of the world’s hardest routes in pure style, her climb can become a public statement that this terrain isn’t only reserved for men. At the same time, the over-promotion of less-significant first female ascents can make it seem as though women are incapable of exploration or unwilling to face the unknown. Szu-ting Yi, an alpinist from Taiwan, wonders whether women might be better off dreaming up entirely new forms of adventure: “I like what Yvon Chouinard said: ‘If you want to win, create your own game.’ I think there’s a huge blank canvas out there for women to demonstrate their strengths and creativity.”
If social factors turn out to be the only constraint, we should consider what French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote in her 1949 classic The Second Sex: “It remains only for women to pursue their ascent.” In a Hypatia article, University of Alberta professor Dianne Chisholm observes that this phrase likely has a double meaning. “The word [for climbing] has several definitions in French, including ‘the action of climbing a mountain’ and ‘the social action of rising toward an ideal.'”
WHAT, THEN, IS THAT IDEAL? Is it to push climbing to the limits? Or to make every climber feel absolutely free? Although many of us like to think of the alpine world as a separate realm from the rest of society, we’re all influenced to some degree by broader cultural notions about the meanings of mountains and adventure. As climbing historian Kerwin Klein writes, “The whole point of gender ideology…is that it’s invisible to participants. It’s built out of the thousand-and-one entirely unselfconscious habits, dispositions, and presuppositions about how the world works…. Nothing gets articulated until it breaks or is challenged.”
Mentorship programs, role models and more-representative stories–online and in print–can assist women as we strive to overcome barriers in our minds. There’s also a cognitive shift that might help our whole community evolve–to value “feminine” and “masculine” alpine traits simply as combinations of characteristics held by individual climbers to greater or lesser extents (as scholars such as Joseph Taylor argue), not as attributes tied exclusively to women or men. This way, we could learn to see these qualities more as assets than as constraints. After all, many of the ideals associated with the spirit of alpinism resemble traditional concepts of “femininity”: humility, respect, oneness with the natural world.
In a 2013 anthology, Women Who Dare, Lynn Hill recalled that when she freed the Nose, “I saw that having a rigid mindset is a detriment, not only when it comes to gender, but also when dealing with the world at every level…. As climbers, we need to see possibilities instead of limitations.” As members of wider demographic groups move past preconceived notions of their abilities, we’ll see higher standards in alpinism. And more climbers will be able to experience moments of true freedom in the hills.
Mountain guide Jenny Abegg remembers that sense of awakening during her early climbs: “It was intoxicating, an incredible feeling, and it made me feel more free and at home in my body than I ever had before. I was allowed to dream big, to feel empowered…. I don’t know if this has to do with escaping gender roles…but maybe it is more about escaping the human condition.”
THERE ARE TRAILS that vary wildly in my home range of the Cascades. In some places, the way is clear; in others, ancient trees grow densely, obscuring the twists and turns that lead through the thickets. Gazing down from ledges, I can sometimes make out the broader ridges and valleys, following each topographic curve to where I stand. From the summits, if the sky is clear, I can trace those lines as they arc over snowy peaks, down bright rivers, and eventually to the sea. In such a shimmering expanse, I dream of infinite wandering paths.
When I’ve climbed high enough, I’ll pause to get my bearings and look back at where I’ve come–and how far I still have to go.
For more from Charlotte Austin visit charlotteaustin.com.