It seems like a lot of strong women climbers today grew up as ‘tomboys.’ Or at least with brothers they always tried to keep up with. Since I only have a sister, my childhood was fraught with typical ‘girlie’ things. I played with Barbies. My Barbie & Ken got married and had a baby once a week. When my mom taught me how to sew, I put my newly acquired skills to use making wedding dresses from scrapes of fabric for Barbie’s weekly wedding. I played outside a lot too, but still squealed in disgust when the neighborhood boys chased me around with the crayfish pulled out from under rocks in the creek.
I was never very athletic. At one point my Dad decided to help coach the girl’s softball team, so of course, I was forced to play. It was humiliating. I struck out more then I got on base and I was always put in right field, where no one ever hit the ball. Convinced that team sports were not for me, I had been the anti-athelete in high school: I was captain of my dance team. Friday nights were spent shaking my stuff for the fans at halftime of the high school football game, wearing an outfit that consisted of a dress that barely covered my backside, trimmed with long fridge to accentuate the curvy parts, a cowboy hat cocked coyly to one side and of course, the piece de la resistance- go-go boots. One of the rules our dance team had was that no one could physical touch us while we were in our uniforms. It was claimed that this rule was instated to protect our reputations- seeing a girl in that distinctive outfit, sweatin’ it up making out with her boyfriend under the bleachers, gave us all a certain reputation by default. But if protecting our reputations was the goal, the rule simply could have been, ‘no making out with your boyfriend while in uniform.’ But the fact that the rule was no physical contact with anyone while in uniform belies the misguided, puritanical and sexist notion of protecting a women’s virtue, as if her purity is her only redeeming quality.
I first tried climbing the summer after my freshmen year in college. I will never forget how I felt when I made it to the top of the climb- I was immediately addicted to the feeling I had of being strong and powerful. As I was lowered down, I forgot about the boy I had been trying to impress and instead, looked down at my arms as if I have never seen them before. I was like Hugh Jackman in the X-men, checking out my adamantium skeleton for the first time, with a mix of wonderment and disbelief. These feelings of strength and physical power were completely foreign to me growing up. As a young girl, it was always impressed upon me to be “lady-like” and well-mannered. I was often treated like something that was delicate and fragile.
But the power and freedom of climbing! I don’t know that that first “hit” would have been nearly as powerful if it hadn’t contrasted so sharply with my prior experience, but thankfully it was because it instantly created a radical shift in the course of the rest of my life.
As such radical shifts are prone to do, I initially took this feeling and ran as far as I could in the opposite direction. I could no longer stand hanging out with girls because they were too “girlie.” For the rest of college, all my best friend were guys. I became increasingly uncomfortable hanging out with other girls because they made feel weak. Every time they whined about being fat, what to wear or why their boyfriend couldn’t read their minds, I felt like I was be sucked in the vortex of the stereotype of what is means to be female. Climbing is how I pulled out and disengaged from this vortex.
I bought my own trad rack and learned how to lead. Where I was climbing during most of that time, there were few female climbers and almost none of them led. The few that did were generally pretty gifted climbers to begin with, they had boyfriend’s who recognized this and encouraged them to take the sharp end from time to time. But they were still fair-weather climbers- if they broke up with the climbing boyfriend, unless they started dating another climber, they were never seen around again. I wanted to be different. I wanted to communicate my independence and my love for climbing. I could only lead 5.4, but man, having my own trad rack made me the shit. In my own head, at least.
Fast forward a couple of years and I move to New York and start climbing at the Gunks. (I also did a little growing up in that time too.) There are some seriously badass ladies climbing here in the Gunks. Pulling off a 5.11 trad lead here in the Gunks is no joke! I was awe struck when I saw pictures of the likes of Sue Kligerman and Julie Seyfert Lillis on burly leads like Erect Direction. Just having your own trad rack was nothing special here, you had to have the guns & the skills to go with it. But what impressed me most was how these ladies could be strong and be women at the same time. These attributes were not mutually exclusive! I know to some that sounds silly, but this was was a big revelation to me at the time.
Another badass climbing lady I admire is Janet Bergman (her official badass resume includes winning the women’s dry tooling comp at this year’s Mount Washington Valley Ice Festival and being a Mountain Hardwear sponsored athlete). On her blog, Splitterville, earlier this week she posted as article titled “Wanted: Alpinistas.” While the post was lamenting the lack of women from the realm of alpine climbing, I found myself really drawn to this word, “alpinista.” To me, in tidily summed up the juxtaposition between being a woman as well as strong climber. So there you have it, my new favorite word, and my new aspiration.