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



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/