Yosemite Valley, Calif. – The morning sun creeps slowly into Yosemite valley, but its warming light has not yet hit the bottom of the granite wall where the 600-foot climb begins. The three women starting up the classic route known as “The Nutcracker” shiver in their down and fleece jackets. It will heat up as they climb out of the darkness.
“You’re on belay, Annie!”
With that call, Annie Ballard knows she is safe to begin her ascent. The 43-year old climber checks the knot that connects her harness to the rope, and begins to move up the first of five pitches. Annie has been climbing for 16 years and recently gave up her full time job in the television industry in New York City to move out west to climb and ski more often. Her climbing partner, Rosie Vanek, an American who works for the international aid organization, The Global Fund, traveled some 10,000 miles from her home in Geneva to climb with Annie and a small group of women in Yosemite, considered by many to be the mecca of climbing.
It is a sight that is becoming increasingly familiar on sheer rock walls and climbing gyms across the country: women climbers, often climbing together.
“It was 10 to one, men to women. Now what I am seeing is 50/50,” observes Ted Hansen, a longtime climbing guide who now works at the Yosemite Mountain Shop. He remembers a decade ago when the women he guided were the girlfriends of men who wanted to try rock climbing. Today women are learning to climb on their own and buying their own equipment. Longtime climbers and guides say it is now common to see women in pairs or in groups climbing moderate and even extreme routes, all without a man in sight.
Women possess some physical and mental advantages that make them as good if not better than the men, says Hansen. “They are able to remain calmer in the high-adrenaline type situations. The ladies I would take out guiding were always calmer. The men had that macho attitude. If they couldn’t do it they would get mad.”
Annie places the gear that hangs off of her harness into the rock’s cracks, and then attaches the rope. Rosie will follow her up, taking the nuts and carabiners that Annie placed out of the rock, meeting her at the top of the pitch, which is a rope length, or about 120 feet up and away.
Moving beyond fears and insecurities, and putting mind over matter to scale a cliff hundreds or thousands of feet off of the ground is part of what drives Annie, Rosie, and many women to seek out the climbing experience. Rosie explained, “it can be a huge confidence and self esteem builder, and a learning experience about yourself.”
Watching women climb, you gain an understanding that climbers need more than just physical strength. They also have to believe in themselves to move from the safety of terra firma and into the unknown. It’s a process that demands confidence and mental grit. One climber refers to the times that test him physically or mentally as “GRRRR” moments, when the body feels weak while the mind must be strong.
Those moments force climbers to leave all other thoughts behind and to zoom in only on the task at hand. This process is something attractive to women. “The way it clears your mind, you can’t climb unless you are 100 percent focused...Men are much better at single track thinking. One could postulate that we being compulsive multi-taskers, that it’s more freeing for us,” Annie explains.
On the other hand, Hansen says women’s physical success on the rock “…boils down to strength to weight ratio. The best climbers are women. They are built to climb.”
Women are lighter and their center of gravity is closer to the ground. This helps with the mechanics of climbing. They also tend to be more flexible,and think a bit more creatively on the rock. They don’t “muscle” through moves as often as men do and they often conserve their strength. It is not common to find a sport where women and men share such a level playing field, where girls can be equal if not better than the boys.
Hansen believes female climbers are not simply as good but better. He points to what is probably the most famous first “free” ascent (meaning no falls and climbed without the use of gear or “aid”) of any rock climb in the world - the 'Nose' on Yosemite’s 3300 hundred foot wall of granite known as El Capitan. For years climbers have speculated on who would climb the Nose, and it was common to hear “some day some guy is gonna free the Nose.” Well in 1993 someone finally freed the nose, her name was Lynn Hill. A year later she was the first person to free climb the same route in just a single day. It often takes good climbers three to five. Another decade would pass before anyone else repeated both feats.
Hill inspired young women, and today teenage girls make up a fast-growing segment of climbers who start mostly indoors at climbing gyms and then transition to the outdoors. There is no question that the sport is booming due in part to the growing number of facilities around the country, which have changed the sport from a fringe activity to something that is quickly becoming mainstream. In Fairfield New Jersey, the manager of the NJ Rock Gym explains that five years ago hers was the only gym in the area. Today there are several that have opened in nearby towns, including Gravity Vault, which has several locations.
So many women were coming to climb at Gravity Vault that manager James Harpster said they started a ladies night to leverage the trend. Ladies can get a half price pass on Friday nights and the night’s popularity is surging. Harpster says, “as climbing becomes more known, women are seeing they can become just as good as climbers as men can.” According to the gym owner, ladies night passes are up some 218 percent from 2007 to 2008 and he expects the number to double this year as well.
Women are becoming consumers of rock climbing gear as well. Hansen finds that he is selling more and more of them their own equipment. “They are purchasing full racks. They are leading on their own. They aren’t tied to their boyfriends anymore. They have moved from generally using their boyfriends’ equipment to now buying their own.” He estimates that at his shop, sales of women's climbing gear is up some 40 percent in the last five years.
Long time climber Annie Ballard says that women appreciate the experience of buying and using climbing gear. “Women don’t get to play with gear as much in their lives as men do. Being a climber, you love gear. You have all of the toys and props and you have to figure out the physics. It’s an easy way to play with geometry and physics where you don’t have to get out a hammer and a saw…”
Back in Yosemite Annie and Rosie have “swapped leads” and now Rosie is heading up the upper sections of the climb first, taking the risk and forging the way. She says she does get nervous when she climbs, “I think you think that all of the time when you are assessing the rock formation, you assess what would happen if you fell in any situation. Would it be a clean free fall? Would it be a risk of hitting something?”
Still, Rosie doesn't view what she does as extreme. “There are people who do it in an extreme way. I don’t think of it as being terribly extreme,” she says.
Hanging from a belay 400 feet off of the ground where one piece of gear failing could send you crashing to the ground is not extreme? Not to these women. They say that others, like 39-year-old climber Steph Davis is extreme. Davis is one of the greatest rock climbers in the sport today. She represents just what Ted Hansen was describing, someone who is physically and mentally positioned to climb and climb hard.
Davis has had a string of climbing accomplishments, including being the second woman, after Lynn Hill, to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan in a day. Davis describes that achievement as “a 22-hour push, so you are climbing for 22 hours and at any point you can mess up. There’s a lot of pressure and fatigue. You can’t be very emotional. You have to keep thinking about what you are doing and …be in the moment.”
Davis has noticed a significant increase in the numbers of female climbers over the course of her 20 year climbing career. She has observed that “guys start climbing because they think it’s fun. More women express this feeling of – they are proud of doing something they didn’t think they could do - it makes them feel more confident. [Men] have more an expectation of doing things like that.”
For all of these women it appears climbing is a unique opportunity to feel strong not just in the body but also in the mind.
After five hours of intense climbing, Annie and Rosie finish their classic Yosemite climb. They sit six hundred feet off of the ground at the top of the cliff and soak in the Yosemite view.
Later, Annie reflects on her climbing experience observing that men are often encouraged to participate in sports and in actions in which they take risks. “I think women have fewer opportunities in life to give themselves that challenge than men do because culturally they aren’t encouraged. How many female race car drivers are there? Or doing any risky sport - where you are pushing the limits of what your mind will think is possible? When do you get to feel that powerful?”