In 1994 Lynn Hill free climbed The Nose on El Capitan in a day, a stunning feat that is clearly one of the greatest achievements in rock climbing history. Not only did she climb the first ascent of one of the hardest routes in America at the time, (it went unrepeated for 10 years and that was only after a 261 day seige!), it was arguably the best route, on the most prominent rock climbing feature in the world. On top of that, she did this in a completely male dominated sport and built the road for the future of free climbing big walls, one day ascents of such walls, and women climbing hard around the world. Few ascents could claim to have such an impact.
But where has that left women’s climbing today?
In America, 2008 was a pretty good year for women’s bouldering, in terms of difficulty.
Lisa Rands made an awesome ascent of the Mandala V12 in Bishop.
Angie Payne climbed European Human Being V12, in RMNP, Alex Johnson climbed Clear Blue Skies V11/12 at Mt. Evans, and Alex Puccio did CBS, The Marble V11 or V12, and most impressively Trice V12 on Flagstaff Mtn.
This year Puccio added The Gentleman’s Project V11, The Maze of Death V12, and several other V11s to her ticklist.
During the same two years the top men flashed several V13s (including a V14) and established problems up to V15, one of which is 25ft tall. It would be hard to argue that the gap hasn’t grown. Have women fallen behind, or is this gap appropriate? Should there be any gap?
While Ms. Hill’s ascent was not a bouldering ascent, it was a significant advancement in climbing, and in some way addresses two key issues. First, the idea that women can climb at the same level or higher in terms of pure difficulty, and secondly that women can do important and classic first ascents.
Perhaps twenty years ago the top women of today would have been climbing stronger than the strongest men. If one were to look at the total number of hours men have spent climbing, it would far out number the total number of hours that women have spent climbing (simply due to the fact that there are far more men than women in our sport) and is this the gap that is reflected? Often times when such a debate arises, the fact the men and women have different bodies is used as the reason for the difference. There seem to be climbs that favor a smaller climber, like Chablanke in Hueco Tanks and Clear Blue Skies at Mt. Evans, but those are the exception. More often than not climbs established by taller climbers will favor taller climbers, and most of the climbs established are put up by taller climbers. Perhaps The Nose just happen to fit into the exception, an excuse many men used when they failed to repeat Hill’s route. Do men have a psychological advantage simply because as a group they have more practice and have had the opportunity to push the bar farther? Should we even be comparing the differences between men and women? Perhaps it is the lack of an objective standard that blurs this line, unlike swimming, or track and field.
Angie Payne trying hard in Fontainebleau
The second issue is that of women actually going out and doing first ascents. Women have done very little development in modern bouldering, more specifically of individual problems, let alone finding and developing whole areas, as Fred Nicole and Dave Graham have. A situation where a guy steps aside so a girl can do a first ascent does nothing to push things forwardly. Women are not the ones hiking to the boulders with rope, harness and wire brush to clean and climb the newest boulders. This is one obvious niche that has yet to be filled in the growth of our sport. The argument could be made that only a small percentage of the total number of men that climb develop new problems, and if more females did climb, the number of female developers would increase. Conversely, almost no women have done any significant first ascents of classic problems at the best climbing areas. Are men acting selfish, territorial, and egotistical, and do these generalized traits lead to development? This is a complex issue but one that is rarely addressed. The intention of this post is to be honest, and to generate some discussion as to why women haven’t made more significant contributions to our sport (bouldering) as Lynn Hill demonstrated could be done with her sport (traditional climbing) almost 20 years ago. I for one would love to see them do so.