A Boys (and Girls) Club

A Boys (and Girls) Club

Recently I found myself in one of those deadly Youtube spirals that stretches on for eternity. You know, the kind where you stopped folding laundry to watch one 2:43 clip and now the light has changed outside and you’re sitting on pile of sad, unmatched socks?

Generally my Youtube binges consist of Buzzfeed Tasty videos, which leave me feeling sad, lazy and very VERY hungry. This time, however, I watched a solid couple of hours worth of climbing videos, and I came out the other side motivated, and pretty darn happy.

Usually when I watch videos of the climbing greats, Adam Ondra, Chris Sharma, Alex Megos etc., I feel inspired, sure, but I also feel that their strength and skill level is out of my reach. This time, however, was different. Because I was watching the other climbing greats… Sasha Digiulian, Alex Puccio, Hazel Findlay, Emily Harrington. The badass girls of the sport.

I think there’s a pretty big argument to be made that climbing really is a gender neutral sport. Sure, men’s height and natural affinity for power gives them an advantage… but even Men’s Journal acknowledges that sometimes teenage girls put them to shame.

There’s a great video by Epic TV that demonstrates the different strengths that men and women bring to climbing. It compares Alex Megos, Tommy Caldwell, Emily Harrington and Hazel Findlay; four climbers that are dominating climbing across all fields.  Alex shows his power on the campus board, but Hazel demonstrates her flexibility in a boulder problem she creates. It makes me wonder what strengths I have that even the strongest men can’t match.

And this doesn’t only apply to the top dogs, it’s something that I experience on a daily basis.

Completely by accident, I have ended up with a group of climbing buddies that is largely male. Now that I think about it, for my past 3 outdoor bouldering sessions, I have been the only girl in a group of men. And it’s pretty great.

I am never made to feel like I can’t do something because I am female. It is assumed that I will have a go on every single problem that the boys are attempting, and the excuse that “I can’t do it because I’m a girl” just won’t cut it. After all, when climbers like Ashima Shiraishi are absolutely dominating, there is absolutely no excuse not to go for it.

Ashima Shiraishi (age 16) is arguably one of the world’s best climbers (Photo credit: http://www.outsideonline.com)

Recently I was bouldering at Redhill, and watching my friends Luke and Jason attempt Japanese Steel (7a+). It is a problem that demands immense strength and endurance. It hadn’t even occurred to me to give it a try, until Luke turned to me and said “Hey Em, do you want to hop on?”. It was that simple. No “Yeah, it’s probably too hard for you and you have to reach pretty far, but you can try it I guess?”. It was simply a fact that I was out climbing with them, and of course I was going to try.

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Luke and I watching our friend Jason Ruger crushing Japanese Steel (Photo Credit: Jason Randall)

And when I inevitably fell off the climb, there were no comments about how maybe it wasn’t a “girl problem”, it was just a matter of needing to get stronger, commit to the moves and try again… the same challenges that the boys were facing.

I’ve also noticed that there is no pressure to act more “masculine” in order to be taken seriously. You can be however “feminine” or “masculine” you want to be, and as long as you’re trying your hardest, you will instantly have the respect of anyone that you’re climbing with.

So, while it may be intimidating to rock up at the climbing gym and see a room full of tall, burly muscle-men… tie back your perfect hair, pull on your badass pink climbing shoes and crush it.


Featured Image: Jason Randall



The hills are alive with the sound of AAAAAARRRRGGGHHH!!!

The hills are alive with the sound of AAAAAARRRRGGGHHH!!!

It’s a beautiful day. The air is warm, there is a gentle breeze, the mountains are calling. As the sun leaves the horizon, a group of eager climbers heads out to enjoy a tranquil day on the rock. They breathe in the beauty of mother nature. Laughter and bird song fills the air.

This is the image sold to us by outdoor fitness blogs and stock photography.

Happy Hikers at Top of Mountain
Photo credit: http://www.123rf.com

This is bullshit.

First of all, sun is bad, overcast is good.  Secondly, nobody is organised. Half the party forgot to set an alarm, and the other half slept through theirs. You will leave an hour later than planned, everybody will have to stop to fill up with petrol, there will always be a shortage of water, and someone will need to borrow a chalkbag.

Thankfully you will have 6½ jars of peanut butter and 8 loaves of bargain-basement bread, because these are essentials that everyone would have remembered to pack.

And then there’s the soundtrack.







The song of the dirtbags.

I didn’t realise this was a normal thing for climbers to do. I mean, I had seen videos of Adam Ondra wailing like a banshee, but that’s Ondra… he makes so much noise that it has actually become a running joke. And if I was projecting some of the world’s hardest routes, I would also be screaming my way up.

Photo credit: Chris Noble

I think I’ve always been a bit shy to actually let loose on a climb. Occasionally, I’ll let out a grunt or, if the exposure is a bit intense, a quiet “fuuuuuuuuuck”, but I don’t feel that I climb hard enough to justify screaming.

Aye, there’s the rub.

Is it that I don’t scream because I don’t climb hard enough, or am I not climbing hard enough because I don’t scream? Maybe I would have gotten through the crux moves of some of my failed attempts if I had let rip with a yell.

In an interview with Ondra, he says, “Screaming is something that I hate about myself… and I don’t do it to make myself more visible. It’s more that I need to focus to do a certain move while breathing out, and if I scream while doing that move, then I’m 100% sure that I’m doing that move while breathing out.”

So, really, screaming is just loud breathing.

This theory actually has merit. An article entitled “Why You Should Curse and Scream” explains that screaming can actually produce a burst of adrenaline, which can give you the strength to power through a really hard move.

So, if you want to crush, get out there and make some noise.


Featured Image: http://blog.ryanair.com

James Barnes: the extraordinary ordinary man

James Barnes: the extraordinary ordinary man

As I type this, I’m sitting in the coffee shop of City ROCK Cape Town in Observatory. The staff are buzzing around the front desk and the gear shop, and the route-setters are working their magic on the walls. It was just a few days ago that I was sitting outside in the small backyard (read: grip storage area) interviewing James Barnes. It was far quieter, as we had arranged to meet up at 13:00, when the route-setters aren’t allowed to drill for fear of disturbing the afternoon yoga class.

If you have been to City ROCK recently, you may have noticed a pair of blue eyes and a mop of dark, curly hair running around the gym and up the walls.

That would be James.

At first glance, he appears to be your usual happy-go-lucky guy. You would never guess that he is one of South Africa’s strongest climbers (although he would deny it if you addressed him as such, the statistics  don’t lie).

James recently moved to Cape Town from Johannesburg to take the position as head route-setter at City ROCK Cape Town. This is in preparation for the move from their current location in Observatory to a massive new gym in Paarden Eiland. I’m lucky enough to know him from my time living in Joburg, and this is the first time I’m seeing him since his move to the Cape. When I arrive at the gym, we spend a few minutes catching up before he suggests moving outside so we can get the interview going.

I had originally intended to chat to James primarily about competition climbing. I wanted to ask him about his first place at Rock Masters in December, what drives him, how he trains, what his competitive goals were. But the conversation takes a different turn.

James tackling the Rock masters qualifying route. (Photo credit: Carlo Antonelli)

When I mention his competitive performance, he tells me, “I’m actually kind of falling away from competitive climbing, and I want to actually focus mainly on just climbing outside.”

Well, there goes my plan.

But this also gives me a chance to really chat to him about a far more complex and interesting topic: his outdoor performance.

There are many climbers I know that have hit their plateau and are pretty happy to continue climbing fairly low grades. I also know many climbers that are working to get stronger and climb harder. I know only a handful that are throwing themselves into climbing with everything they’ve got. James Barnes is one of these people. And I want to know why.

He is climbing grade 32 on rock, and projecting grade 34. He has claimed the first South African ascent of Spirit Bird (32) in the Free State, along with sending numerous other classic lines across South Africa. He is currently working Hey Jupiter (34) at the Underside in Cape Town, along with fellow City ROCK route-setter and all-around incredible climber, Chevaan Patience.

This absolutely astounds me. The amount of determination and passion necessary to be climbing these sorts of grades is incredible. I ask James what draws him towards these particular climbs.

About Hey Jupiter he says, “The last person to do it was Steve Bradshaw, who opened it in 2009, and it hasn’t seen a second ascent and that’s why it kind of appeals to me.”

Steve Bradshaw on Hey Jupiter (Photo credit: ClimbZA)

I assume that this, his attraction to routes that haven’t been repeated, is his competitive side showing. So, I ask him about it, and it turns out to be slightly more complex than that.

“I’ll look at routes that haven’t been repeated in a while and I’ll ask myself, ‘Why are people neglecting it?’”

 As I ask him more about this project, his sheer dedication and passion becomes clear. He knows the route like the back of his hand. Without even thinking about it he tells me, “The entire climb is probably about 12m, a total of 8 quickdraws including the chains. The first 4 draws are not that hard, but then you have maybe like a 7c+ boulder problem right at the end.”

The more we talk, it becomes obvious why James is performing so incredibly on rock; he is giving it everything he’s got.

He explains that, since moving to the Cape he is going out to the CBD boulders and Deadwood in Newlands Forest from 6pm to 10pm some nights. The day after the interview, he went out to Underside at the crack of dawn to tackle his project. This in addition to route setting, coaching, trail running and the occasional surf (he is originally from Kwazulu Natal, after all.)

Looking at his incredible achievements, one begins to wonder how seriously he takes his outdoor sessions. Does he approach his projects in the same way he approaches a competition?

In typical James fashion, he surprises me with how easy going his climbing mindset really is. When I ask him about his experience of climbing outdoors, he explains that “you’re literally out there, being in the mountains, finding your own way of dealing with what’s in front of you. And you can sit, take your time, brush the holds, choose your feet, figure out your own unique way of doing it. There’s never a right or wrong way, there’s just a way.”

As I listen to James speak, I can’t help but notice how easily I can relate to and understand exactly what he is saying. I had this idea that his mind works in a completely different way, and that this is what enables him to be such an incredible climber. But rather I find that his love for climbing and the outdoors mirrors my own.

I have often fallen into thinking that I will always be stuck as an average climber because I don’t operate in the same way as remarkable people like James Barnes. But I’ve come to realise that that’s simply not true. The only difference is that James is turning his passion into results.

And if he can do it, maybe so can I.

Feature Image: Emily Wedepohl

It’s time we started talking about this.

It’s time we started talking about this.

Climbing is incredible. Climbing is life-changing. Climbing is a sport for the privileged.

It feels almost wrong to write this. I am so completely head-over-heels in love with rock climbing and the climbing community, that any critique feels like betrayal. But that doesn’t mean that we can continue to ignore the issue.

It is always incredibly hard to raise this subject in the climbing community, largely due to the psychology behind rock climbing. Climbing, and the lifestyle that comes with it, is rooted in the human connection with nature and spirituality and other people. This sort of mindset doesn’t really account for the idea of privilege.

It’s wonderful to forget about socio-political problems for a weekend and run away to the bush to talk about passion and the human condition and spirituality, but it’s also wildly irresponsible. Last year, Liz Haas published an article called “The Dirtbag Privilege”, which brought to light the very issues that I’m discussing here. She raises the point that, while “dirtbag” life is romanticized as minimalist and frugal, it is actually made possible through a background of privilege that many people simply don’t have.

Alex Honnold in his legendary “Adventure Van” (Photo credit: http://www.alexhonnold.com)

There are many climbers that might point out how difficult it is to live out of a van and eat the same food every day and enjoy very few luxuries, but it is undeniable that a certain level of wealth and social support is necessary for this lifestyle. This doesn’t apply only to those that take it to the extreme, but to all of us that can enjoy multi-day climbing trips.

Sure, these trips generally involve living off the cheapest possible food and wearing the same clothes for three days, but that doesn’t make them particularly affordable. I am very lucky in that my tent (and hammock), lifts, sleeping bag, camping mattress, harness and bags are all supplied by friends and family. However, I still pay for food, petrol money, climbing shoes, and camping fees myself. And that doesn’t even account for camping necessities like headlamps, warm clothes, outdoor shoes etc. And even then, virtually all of the things that I pay for are actually paid for by my parents, because I am an unemployed student.

I am so ridiculously privileged. There are so many people I know, students in particular, for whom this kind of activity is just not possible. Beyond the expenses, the time away from home and responsibilities is just too much. And I’m sorry to burst the rainbow-nation bubble that so many South African are living in, but an issue of privilege is an issue of race. I can count on one hand the number of people of colour that I saw at Rocklands a few weekends ago. A black person my age that grew up in a township cannot possibly go camping for three nights. The cost is enormous (even assuming they already own climbing gear), and it is likely they are in a situation where they are needed at home to help look after siblings or other family members. I am incredibly lucky to have the financial resources, and the independence to be irresponsible for a weekend and run off to the mountains.

Of course, I can’t generalise and make the statement that all white people are wealthy and all black people live in poverty. However, it is ignorant and irresponsible to avoid talking about issues of privilege and race in the climbing community. We are in an era of social awakening and transformation, and climbers cannot be left behind in the dirt.


Featured Image: http://newknowledgezone.com/7-signs-you-are-a-modern-day-hippie/

Let’s get started with some weird, hippie climber-talk

Let’s get started with some weird, hippie climber-talk

“So, why do you do rock climbing?”

“It’s, like, really fun.”

This is not a particularly sophisticated answer to a question that I, and many other rock climbers get asked fairly often. However, it seems to be a better alternative to the eye-roll inducing speech that every climber has tucked away. You know, the one about how climbing is really a spiritual experience that takes you to a place you never could have dreamed of blah blah blah… THAT speech. I mean, it’s completely true, but we have to work pretty hard to not freak out new members of the climbing community by saying weird hippie stuff like that. And it’s impossible to deny that fun isn’t a driving factor when you consider that even the greatest climbers are just overgrown children scrambling up big rocks.

The legendary Chris Sharma, trying really hard to hold onto a big rock. (Photo credit: Boone Speed)

Of course, beyond the sheer enjoyment that comes with climbing, one has to consider the immense therapeutic benefits it offers. Everything can be made into a big, juicy metaphor when you’re a climber. Day to day challenges transform into tricky moves on a route; relationship troubles become a seemingly impossible boulder problem; failures are a fall that you weren’t expecting. And the brilliant thing about these dreadful clichés is that they make everything seem conquerable. You can fall off a route a hundred times, but if you push through, you can make it.

So, climbing is really just a way that overgrown children choose to deal with life. That is why, this past weekend, dozens of responsible adults ran away from the real world to participate in the 2017 Montagu Rock Rally. I hopped on the bandwagon, because the thought of staying home for the weekend to tackle my mountain of work was unbearable compared to tackling an actual mountain. I don’t feel guilty for spending my weekend on a rock instead of a desk chair. When I climb, I’m not running away from my responsibilities, I’m dealing with them.

Being on the rock with my legs shaking, forearms threatening to burst, the wind thundering around me… I can’t think of a better way to face my problems. Working a route really is a physical manifestation of working through any of life’s trials. The rock, in this metaphor, is the problem. It’s hard, it’s big, it’s tough. You’re doing everything you can to figure it out, and in doing so, the rock becomes an extension of yourself. Your fingers sweep across the holds, you press your hips against it and feel the stone against your core, you rest your feet on the tiniest of edges, trusting that they will not crumble beneath you. And so, the rock is not only “the problem”; it is also you, and by extension you become one with “the problem”. See what I mean about weird, hippie climber-talk?

So, you’re up on the rock, existing as this tangled, complex being, and you don’t really have any choice but to deal with whatever’s going on in your head. And the best way to do that is to climb. You will end up battered and bruised, but, somehow, healed. Climbing allows you to reach a kind of harmony with whatever mess you may be dealing with, and move forward to conquer any future challenges that life is going to throw at you.

You see? Climbing’s not just a bit of irresponsible fun after all. No wonder so many cheesy, motivational posters use pictures of mountains.

Photo Credit: StockSnap

Featured Image: Markus Karlsen