Women in Climbing

Women in Climbing

Posted on 22. Feb, 2010 by in News

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.

IMG_9274Angie 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.

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68 Responses to “Women in Climbing”

  1. B3

    02. Mar, 2010

    @Don “Lets face it, a girl can start climbing and within a year or two be on top of the competition circuit. Competition on the mens side however in(sic) intensely fierce.”

    It is insulting and inaccurate to suggest that the women don’t compete fiercely, or to suggest that a women who has climbed for a year or two can be at the top of the competition circuit. What are you examples?
    Here are mine:

    ABS 11 Champion Alex Puccio
    World Cup Champion 2009 Alex Puccio
    ABS 10 Champion Alex Johnson
    World Cup Champion 2008 Alex Johnson
    ABS 9 Champion Alex Puccio
    ABS 8 Champion Alex Puccio
    ABS 7 Champion Alex Puccio

    Since Lynn Hill did, in my eyes, and in the eyes of many others, the greatest free climbing achievement of all time, according to you “… compensation is based on those who are able to perform at higher levels than others.” Hill clearly out performed everyone. I would be willing to bet she was not the highest paid climber of her time, or is not the highest paid climber of all time. This demonstrates that our society does not pay based solely on performance, as you argue it does.

  2. Don

    02. Mar, 2010

    Mr Emerson,

    By top of the competition circuit I mean top 5 or 10. Sure Johnson and Puccio have been on top for a long time but who are these other women? Lets face it, they haven’t been climbing that long compared to the talent on the mens side. There is absolutely no question that the male competition is harder… Not only for their collective strength but also for the sheer number of competitors. Often women can make finals in big comps simply by showing up, as the number of competitors is typically less than half that of the men. Mr Emerson, you are seriously going to tell me its NOT easier competing as a female? You better than most should know that is FALSE.

    As for Lynn Hill, she is a great climber and WAS certainly at the top of climbing in the 80s. I of course don’t know how well she did financially as a result like you claim, but I would be willing to bet she was well paid for that time. And she certainly deserved it. This all has little to do however with contemporary competition climbing. The fact remains women right now are not nearly as strong, don’t have to compete as hard, and don’t deserve to win the same amount of money.

  3. Ange

    02. Mar, 2010


    I am highly insulted by your comments, as I am sure most women would be. I am going to sit down and write a longer response to your posts, which (in my opinion) exude male chauvinism. in the meantime, i will attempt to put anger aside and actually address the issues you brought up from a female’s perspective. stay tuned … if you even care about what a “painfully inferior” female climber thinks about the issue

  4. Mike B

    02. Mar, 2010


    I would have to say that it is a little ignorant on your part to plainly state the competition on the womens side is less fierce than on the mens. That statement would be assuming that you have competed in a lot of womens comps/finals…doubtful. Just because there may only be 5 women at a comp where 4 go to finals doesn’t mean that the competition is less fierce. It may actually be more intense due to the fact that there are so few competitors, not more. In my experience, the more competitors in the comp, the less intimate the situation feels and the less it feels like you are trying to compete with others rather than just send a plastic boulder problem. Essentially, you are saying that the whole of womens competition worldwide regardless of sport is easier because there may be fewer competitors. I would be careful who you share those thoughts with for your own sake.

    JC Hunter
    Thomasina Pidgeon
    Cicada Jenerik
    Sasha DiGulian
    Lisa Rands
    Angie Payne

    These are a few of the top women climbers that I can name off the top of my head that have done well in competition recently. I also know that many women climbers don’t compete in large comps because they don’t enjoy it. There are tons of women out there that don’t like to climb on plastic in front of a crowd that can still climb V10 and harder. Simply because they don’t want to compete doesn’t mean that they aren’t competitive, or fierce. One top male climber comes to mind that doesn’t really compete anymore: Chris Sharma. does it mean that he has lost his edge? NO.

    In a simple way of putting it, if women in fact are physiologically less gifted to become strong climbers, then I would lean to the side of believing that women proportionally are further along than men currently are. I have seen for example Alex Puccio in a gym on a problem, doing moves before and more casually than three anonymous male climbers that all have climbed at least V12.

    It seems to me that you may have had some experience in life where a women has defeated you in some sort of competition, to do with rock climbing or not, and have a problem with that. I just hope you can get past it cause I thinks you may have pissed off Angela

  5. Yo Chi

    02. Mar, 2010

    @ Don

    “Do women get paid the same amount as men in any other pro sport besides climbing? NO!”

    – Please refer to the prize money for Wimbledon.

    “That is because they aren’t as proficient or as interesting to watch. Is this any different in climbing? NO!”

    – In regards to your statement about climbing “proficiency”, please refer to the wealth of well-informed comments made by prior posters regarding differences in physiology between men and women, etc. Your statement implying that female climbers are less interesting to watch is purely subjective. What is interesting to you may bore me to death, vice versa. I’ll chalk that up to a difference of opinion.

    “More money would certainly bring more talent to the stage whether it is appearances by Chris Sharma or incentive for Euros like Adam Ondra to come climb in the US.”

    – Would more money include the cost of airfare? I have a feeling that barring a significantly higher purse, that the costs of trans-oceanic travel would prevent many European competitors from coming over here anyways.

    “It would also provide greater incentive for great US climbers to train harder and further our sport.””

    – What, are there only male “great US climbers” now? Geez.

    “Women receiving the same amount in climbing competitions where they are painfully inferior detracts from the progress of professional climbing.”

    – Good grief. Anyways. I have to disagree with your statement that women receiving equal prize pay “detracts from the progress of professional climbing”. If anything, I think that it shows women everywhere that their efforts and hard work will be equally rewarded. This will in turn lead to more women climbing competitively, which will then lead to *gasp*! a more deep talent pool (something that you also took issue with).

    “Competition on the mens side however in intensely fierce.”

    – Are you saying that women don’t compete fiercely? Keep digging, I think you can reach China soon if you keep up the pace.

    “Please don’t be selfish and defend what is clearly hindering the progress of our sport.”

    – I guess this all boils down to what you consider to be “progress”. You delight in pointing out that equal pay doesn’t exist in other sports (even if that’s wrong), only in climbing. I see that as something to be proud of. Why would we as climbers want to perpetuate gender inequality? I think that it’s definitely possible to expand the audience for climbing comps without marginalizing women.

  6. cardboard_dog

    03. Mar, 2010

    Anyone going to mention Claire Murphy?? She definitely deserves mention when talking about woman who are pushing the envelope. Didn’t she climb Sarah? and Chablanke? As early as 2006? And her ascent of Chablanke wasn’t even the FFA. There are woman out there who were climbing hard long before the Alex’s .. just saying.

  7. sharon

    04. Mar, 2010


    So tell me which females make it to the top in 2 years, since it is so easy as you say? I am not aware of any in competition. And don’t tell me about someone that has climbed for 1 year, and sat under a soft V whatever and did it on day 65, try 200, way different then a competition. The top 5 females this year at ABS nationals have competed for 5 plus years and they all train very hard to get and stay at the top.

    I would say in all fiercely competitive sports, (as you call the Male side of climbing), you would train hard, eat healthy, not engage in drug use that is proven to lower performance, and not engage in unhealthy weight loss techniques. Any of the above are proven to help or hinder performance and wow, in a fiercely competitive sport, it could really help or hurt you! That is, if it truly is fiercely competitive.

  8. JamesO

    04. Mar, 2010

    Haven’t any of you heard of trolls?

  9. really??

    05. May, 2010

    I am a guy who loves to rely on the shoulders and finger strength that I am lucky enough to have.

    That being said I am shocked that this article was written. This is my first time to this website cause I got here via climbing to look at some DG interview out of a trailer.

    I am just curious as to why this is even an issue unless the author just watched some girl beat him out on a problem.

    Grow up and go climb….who cares about comparing the two genders. I am guessing the author just got dumped by a girl who can crank and is just taking it out on the world.

    What a douche bag

  10. B3

    06. May, 2010

    I am surprised this is what you read in the article. Nothing could be further from the truth.

  11. Lori

    23. Jun, 2010

    @ Don: You can’t see it, but here’s my middle finger.

  12. Vijay

    20. Aug, 2010

    I see no problem in stating that there is a gap between men and women in climbing. This gap is a long appreciated fact of life in almost (I would venture to say every) mainstream sport on the planet. I don’t think this gap should offend anyone, either. Rather we should be as impressed with sends like Angie Payne’s as we are of other next level sends like The Game. I think that in assessing the impact of a send, one should appreciate that there exists a distinct division in the sport between men and women. We are all conscious of it, otherwise we wouldn’t feel the need to post like crazy when a woman does a V13. We segregate genders in climbing competitions, we should segregate them in assessing the impact of new achievements. And in that respect, I would guess women are by all means progressing at an equal, if not greater rate than men. But my problem is I have no specific data to validate that, so maybe you can help. Do you know the dates, (even just the year would work) of the first male V10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15? And then do you know them for women? If you can post them up, I’ll plot it on a graph and email it to you and we can easily settle this just by calculating the slopes of the lines. No more subjective debate.

  13. campusman

    25. Oct, 2010

    @ don
    first off, a few of the things you said are right.
    however, you are seriously wrong about female competition overall.

    women have proven to go back and forth consistently with who the top climber is…As far as rock, its Angie Payne and everyone knows that. However she doesnt win comps all the time…So think about who you just offended, then put Angela aside, and realize that you offended everyone with what you said.

    still doesn’t make sense?

    With the men, this is just not true at all. Its either Daniel Woods if he is there or its some weak mo that isn’t even close to his strength.

    good day sir

  14. dwm

    27. Oct, 2010

    With women in climbing, you’re watching history unfold, the evolution men’s climbing went through years and years ago when it was being established. It is historically recent that women were “allowed” to climb. Even as late as the 1970s women were being denied mountaineering permits, and couldn’t vote in Switzerland. So yeah, guess what, there’s some catching up to do. That being said, the evolution of women’s climbing has been lightspeed in comparison. When women are putting up as many routes as men do things will even out. Why? Because a V15 put up by a woman will be very different than one a man put up. By definition a petite woman will have an incredibly hard time sending a V15 put up by a 6 foot dude. But said 6 foot dude would have a hard time sending a problem put up by 5’1″ Lynn Hill because he wouldn’t be able to jam his giant digits in places she can and scrunch his huge man-frame into the places she can.

    I see the exact same issues in my field of work: physics. Far fewer women because, guess what? They didn’t let women in the club back when Newton and Einstein were grabbing the easy stuff. And much like the argument about women never being physically comparable to men, does that mean women aren’t as intelligent? And what about minorities? How many African Americans have sent V15, and what does that mean for their athletic ability? It’s laughable to try and draw a conclusion about ability based on low representation as is obviously the case when we extend the argument so far. It is clearly illogical. Otherwise that would mean white dudes are the smartest, strongest people on the planet. Ha ha.

  15. Lynn Johnson

    29. Oct, 2010

    Wow…I’m a super short woman, who is often told–repeatedly–by the guys climbing in my town, that I am WAY more interesting to watch climb. The shit you have to do to make up for that lack of reach and testosterone fueled muscles??…not interesting or impressive at all, I’m sure…me thinks Don’s hiding some deeply sheltered feelings?

  16. Jordan

    13. Feb, 2012

    I am a 5’6″ female and I only boulder V8 but I really prefer not to compare men and women when it comes to bouldering, or in any arena generally. I prefer that my gender isn’t really considered in the gym or on the boulders. Being told “you climb pretty hard for a girl” is not a compliment and neither is “well, if more girls climbed, more would climb harder than you.” Just a thought.

  17. Seneca

    03. May, 2012

    Maybe I’m a little late on all of the excitement, but as a female climber who puts up first ascents on a weekly basis, I’d like to throw my two cents in.

    Climbing is not about competition- it is about discovery, adventure, and pushing the limits. Climbing gyms have made people lose sight of this. There are more male competitors because it is in a male’s nature to compete -look at any species and you’ll see that this is the truth, men fight, women talk. The only thing that really separates men from women with regards to climbing is the mental/emotional aspect of climbing (because women think way more about things then men do). Yes, yes, body shape, size and strength vary too, but this is true within your own gender as well. You’re stuck with what you got, so deal with it. It can be harder for a woman to step up to the plate- be it competing or putting up first ascents- because we are more timid creatures. I think the main issue is how men and women view one another. When I see a guy pull of an outrageous climb I think to myself- “wow, what a sick climber”. When a guy sees me pull off an outrageous climb, the average male thinks to himself- “wow, what a sick chick”. See the difference? At the end of the day we’re women- its hard for men to get over this, but who cares? In the eyes of every stranger at the crag I will always just be someone’s girlfriend, or new to climbing, or less competent that the guy that I am teaching how to belay. Men are threatened by, well- anything and everything!! Especially women.

  18. […] ago I read an article Women in Climbing on Jamie Emerson’s blog: B3bouldering. It’s an interesting discussion about where women’s climbing is today if we compare it […]

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