Barriers of Entry
I work at REI, in the footwear and climbing departments, and have grown accustomed to being brushed off. I optimistically hope that it is just the customer, that they just got a parking ticket, are running late, are dejected by Portland’s grey skies and soggy afternoons, already know what they are looking for and don’t need advice… But when I ask someone whether they need help while they’re pulling on a harness with the leg loops upside down, the belay loop twisted to the side, and they brush me off with, “No, thanks,” and then turn to my male co-worker to ask what he thinks of the Petzl Adjama, I can’t help but turn red.
Because I connect easily with males in general, I have disregarded these personal thoughts as being a “bitchy feminist” or “too sensitive,” and for too long didn’t want to align myself with people who validated these feelings. I shrugged it off. I am an amiable people-pleaser by nature and for me, being outspoken felt aggressive, though my New York roots begged to be unleashed every time I heard a comment about how this route was “probably too strength-focused,” or how “that’s an impressive lead for a girl.” **Disclaimer, by the way, I have met MANY men who get this right, and provide positive reinforcement without any egoism.**
When my friend Andrew and I made our first attempt on Mount Triumph in the North Cascades in early season conditions, we went to the Marblemount Ranger Station to check in and get our backcountry passes. The ranger looked at Andrew and asked, “So, where are you looking to get a permit?” Andrew looked at me. I smiled at the park ranger and answered, “We’re climbing Mount Triumph.” He scribbled something down and again looked at Andrew and asked, “And which route are you planning on doing?” I replied, “The Northeast Ridge.” He scribbled something then looked up at Andrew who shrugged. Then the ranger looked uneasily at me. “And uh… where do you plan to… camp?” I answered confidently, pointing one dirty fingernail at the map displayed neatly in front of us, “At the col, above Middle Thornton Lake.” He filled out the rest of our permit as I asked him about snow conditions and trip reports, whether any climbing rangers had been up there recently, if the bivvy site had running water, and notified him that I had been checking weather conditions on the mountain.
Due to whiteout conditions and slushy ice on 45 degree glacial slopes, Andrew and I had to retreat off the mountain before even making it to the roped part of the climb. But in August I returned with another friend who hadn’t done an alpine climb before.
This time as we were waiting to get a permit, I made sure to conspicuously point out to my friend where all of the most thrilling peaks in North Cascades were, which ones I had climbed, which ones I was looking to tackle next, and what grade they went at. I felt a little dumb afterwards, thinking, “Why did you feel the need to validate yourself?” I shouldn’t have to prove which climbs I’ve done or that I AM THE LEADER OF THIS TRIP NOT HIM. But, to put it simply… I do.
My ex-boyfriend taught me how to climb outside, to place cams and nuts, to travel efficiently across glaciers and snow, to build a complex trad anchor, to navigate a meandering alpine ridge. To be completely honest, I owe most of my climbing knowledge to Todd.
But then something crazy happened. We broke up, and instead of my climbing career ending, it exploded.
I climbed Mount Hood, and not just the basic Hogsback route. I led two complex alpine climbs in the North Cascades. I led multi-pitch climbs at Smith Rock in Bend and Red Rocks in Nevada and Cottonwood Canyon in Utah. I learned how to lead above my grade, to place pickets, to rappel in the dark, to improvise, to fuck up again and again and learn again and again. I gained knowledge from my own experiences, and from other strong, experienced women who I climbed with.
The idea that women are "risk-averse" is bullshit.
Look at Sarah Hueniken, Sasha DiGiulian, and Pamela Shanti-Pack (who by the way, slays the off-width crack climbing game like no man can). But this is exactly my point with the “barrier of entry” thing. Once women realize their potential and that they are both mentally and biologically just as strong as males in this sport, they excel.
Too often, I see the “take-your-babe-to-the-crag day” phenomenon, a phrase jokingly crafted by my ex, as we climbed at Red Rocks last fall. Climbing at the gym and the local crag feels safe when you’ve got your boyfriend to lead all the routes and give you the beta. But how can we get more women to break out of that bubble, to go beyond their comfort zone and see for themselves that they are capable of much more? I have witnessed, on many occasions, that once women get out there and see that they can handle a 21 hour day, or a glacier slog at a glacial pace, or a grueling 50-degree snow arête, they feel like the fucking badasses that they are. Excuse my French.