It's a Man's World...NOT!!!
My lifetime climbing plans were probably the same as most climbers as they start out. Climb the classics, and work up to the big alpine routes and maybe even an expedition or two to the Himalayas. Even before I started climbing, my favorite NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC articles were not the ones with the naked native women in various countries around the world, they were the articles about the best climbers in the world attempting to climb (sometimes at great cost) the great peaks of the world. One story I will always remember is the expedition to ANNAPURNA led by ARLENE BLUM. The tenacity shown by this group of women was incredible, but in my warped, young hardman's opinion, most of the Himalayan routes were just long hikes up steep snow, with no REAL difficulty (even though the expedition had a tragic loss of life).
One day, while paging through one of my magazines, I ran across a picture of Lynn Hill near the top of Insomnia, a stout 5.11 at Suicide Rock in California. Here was a young woman, probably close to my age, HAVING FUN on an extremely difficult (at that time) route! Surely she was the only woman climber in the world that could climb that hard, and that must have been near the limits of any woman's ability. One of my passions is collecting and reading climbing literature, including guidebooks to most of the areas I have visited. While paging through my guide to Granite Mountain in Arizona, I ran across Lynn Hill's name again. She had the first ascent of the hardest route in the book! A visit to the Shawangunks (accompanied by the obligatory guidebook purchase) showed me the true ability of this amazing woman, and it was there that I learned about Bonnie Prudden and Barbara Devine. They climbed as hard or harder than most of their male contemporaries, but I still considered them "freaks of nature" when it came to a woman's place in the world climbing scene.
When it came down to it, I had never really climbed WITH a woman. Sure, there was an assortment of "belay betties", girls I wanted to impress with my climbing prowess (before I tried to impress them with my carnal desires). My impression of the female climber was that they were too weak and timid to try anything harder than top rope the routes that I led for them. That opinion was about to change, when one of my "well known" partners had to work and could not climb with some visiting climbers from out of the area. He asked if I would show them around for the day, and I agreed to meet them the next morning.
I had planned on heading up to my "secret" area in the mountains, and figured I would pick up the visiting "hardmen" in the parking lot at the Garden of the Gods. I pulled in, looked around, and did not see any climbers waiting for a ride, just a couple of women leaning on the railing next to the parking lot. I parked near the women, and got out to sort my gear (not that it needed it, I just wanted to impress the girls, and amaze them with my skill and bravery). My plan was working, as they walked over towards my vehicle and asked if I was planning on climbing. I informed them that some visiting climbers were unable to climb with another "well-known" local, but that I was appointed to be their "guide" up in the mountains, and we were going to do some difficult first ascents!
When they asked if I knew "well-known local", I started to wonder, but when they knew my name, I realized I had been set up. These women were the visiting climbers I was supposed to show around! I quickly recovered, and loaded them and their gear into my vehicle, and then raced up the twisting dirt road to my "secret" area about 20 miles up in the mountains. My driving prowess on this road impressed one of the girls so much that when we arrived at the pull off near the trail to the rocks, she informed me that I had scared the piss out of her. She proceeded to drop her shorts, sit on my bumper, and relieve herself, without even asking me to turn away (which I did when I realized what was about to occur). Well, there went the timid part of the stereotype! At least the weak part was still there...
When we arrived at the rock pinnacle on the side of the canyon, I showed them a couple of thin crack lines I had scouted out a week or two before. I threw out numbers like hard 5.11 or 5.12, trying to show them it was worth the trip, and hoping that I would at least look good if I failed to get the first ascent. As we roped up for the better looking of the two lines, they seemed unimpressed. I worked my way up a short hand crack, over a small bulge, and into a perfect thin-fingers crack. As I slotted some stoppers into the wider sections, I noticed that they still seemed unimpressed. At about 40 feet above them, I could no longer squeeze my fingers into the crack, and fell off. It seemed some impossible face moves with no protection would be necessary to top out on the buttress. As I was lowered to the ground, I let them know it was really hard, and that we should head around to another rock that had a beautiful face just waiting to be top-roped. The moves at the upper part of the crack would be way too hard for them to waste their time attempting. Instead, I heard one of them say she would give it a try.
To make a long story short, my coveted difficult first ascent was dispatched with ease. With a grace and skill I had not expected, she reached my highpoint, and used her slender fingers and exceptional footwork to reach past the narrow section to a small hold on the face. Hanging there, a small brass nut fit into the last of the crack, and with hardly a grunt, the top of the buttress was reached. I watched in awe as the other woman scampered up and cleaned the route, then declined the offer of a top-rope, as I was afraid to fail again and get hauled up by a woman. I did, however, eat a large helping of HUMBLE PIE!
As the day went on, and a few more routes were dispatched, I found myself amazed by their flexibility and amazing footwork, which helped them overcome what I percieved as a lack of upper body strength. A bouldering session to end the day put that perception to rest also, as they cranked as hard as any man on some burly problems. As the sun went down, we returned to my vehicle, and I realized that I had learned a lot more than humility that day. A nice, quiet drive back down the canyon brought us back to the parking lot. As I dropped them off, I thanked them for their willingness to drag me around all day, and they thanked me for showing them some untouched rock in a climbing crazy state!
As the years passed, I realized that many women were climbing at a standard equal with men. As I taught more climbers, I realized that a woman starting out is usually a better climber than a man, as she realizes that she can not crank up a route just using brute strength. Footwork and grace are more important than big biceps and pects. I put many of the techniques I learned from women to use, and noticed that most of the GOOD climbers weren't the strongest ones. The list of accomplishments by women climbers in the past 20 years approaches that of the best male climbers, and in some cases, surpass the feats accomplished by men.
LESSONS I HAVE LEARNED
To all men who plan on climbing with the fairer sex...
A woman climber is not just there to hold the rope for you, as you impress her with your feats of daring and strength. Watch her, help her, but above all, learn from her...you will be a better climber if you apply half of the technique that comes naturally to her, even just starting out!
To all women who are just starting to climb, or tag along holding the rope for your partner...
DO NOT let yourself be intimidated by what seems to be beyond your ability. DO NOT try to imitate the style or follow the holds that your male counterpart used. YOUR balance and grace will allow you to use holds that are completely overlooked by most men in their effort to crank of another one-finger pull-up to impress you.