This year there have been a number of interesting online discussions about issues specific to women climbers: from observations of underlying sexism, to deciphering whether a climber’s recognition is a product of her beauty or her achievement (or both; and if so, then which was more of a factor?), to a recent debate over the merit of the “first female ascent.”

First Female Ascents (FFAs) are a hot topic thanks to Paige Claassen, who insisted that her recent ascent of The Bleeding (5.14a), in Mill Creek, Utah, not be labeled as an FFA—even though it was.

“Personally, I think first female ascents are irrelevant,” she stated in an interview with Rock and Ice. “Some women find them really motivating … but there are some cases in which a woman hasn’t even tried the route before.”

One of those women who find FFAs motivating is Sasha DiGiulian. She has amassed many of them herself, and also leveraged some of those FFAs to earn sponsors and other professional opportunities. On social media, DiGiulian asserted: ”FFA are significant because they flag the progress of women’s achievements in climbing.”

I think that both Paige and Sasha have really valid points. The First Female Ascent is a paradox—it’s at once pushing women forward and simultaneously holding them back.

South Africa, Waterval July 2013

Sasha DiGiulian on the first ascent of Rolihlahla (5.14a). Photo: Keith Ladzinski

 

Are Women Capable of Climbing As Hard As Men?

The answer to this question really strikes at the heart of the First Female Ascent paradox. In most other physical sports, women and men play in separate arenas. One way rock climbing is unique is that both sexes get to perform on the exact same “playing field,” and therefore comparisons are inevitably drawn between the two sexes.

Compared to almost all other athletic endeavors, rock climbing might just be the least sex-biased of them all! In fact, there’s no other sport that I can think of in which both men and women have achieved such close performance results on the exact same playing field.

So, are women capable of climbing as hard as men? Yes.

Ashima Shiraishi, age 14, is arguably the best female climber in the world right now.

Ashima Shiraishi, age 14, is arguably the best female climber in the world right now.

Climbing isn’t just about pure power, or endurance, or strength-to-weight, or wing span, or boldness, or creativity, or vision, or problem-solving. It draws from ALL of those things at once, which somehow really evens things out, especially as both sexes are forced to rely on their own personal strengths, and thus arrive at their own completely unique solutions to overcome the exact same route or problem. (How cool is that?)

Bottom line, in the sport of rock climbing, women are crushing.

Empirically, women are climbing just as hard as men today. Go to any sport crag or bouldering destination and you’ll likely see a scene in which both men and women are sharing projects, if not beta, too.

According to the “official” record books, women have climbed nearly, but not quite, as hard as men: Women have climbed 5.15a sport routes and V14 boulders, just two grades below the hardest ascents ever achieved by fewer than a handful of men.

Josune Bereziartu became the first woman to climb 5.15a with Bimbaluna, considered a soft 5.15a or 5.14d/15a.

Josune Bereziartu became the first woman to climb 5.14d/15a with Bimbaluna.

When Josune Bereziartu climbed Bimbaluna (a “soft” 5.15a given the slash grade of 5.14d/15a) in 2005, 5.15b hadn’t even been established yet, meaning that this Basque powerhouse was performing right at the same level as Chris Sharma and a few other dudes who had also ticked 5.15a.

The greatest ascent of the 1990s was achieved by a woman. Lynn Hill’s first free ascent of the Nose was significant for many reasons, but primarily it was the first free ascent of the most famous rock climb in the world and it was hardest big-wall free climb yet established—AND it was first done by a woman.

Professional women climbers also have it pretty good. In a society where women still earn just 78 cents for every dollar that a man earns, climbing has no perceived glass ceiling. The most successful professional climber of the 1990s was a woman: Lynn Hill. And the most successful professional climber today, Sasha DiGiulian, is also a woman. If anything, being a woman seems to be an advantage as a professional climber—opening up opportunities that aren’t available to men.

Lynn on Pancake Flake Nose

The FFA Paradox

Indeed, it hasn’t always been the case that women are considered equal to men in climbing, which is still a ways off from the ideal 50-50 participation demographic that we’d all love to see. To not acknowledge that a woman, in being the first of her sex to claim an ascent of some route, has achieved something noteworthy, somehow disparages the greater context in which that ascent took place, which is that many women believe they still have a long ways to go in terms of proving what they can achieve on the rock and earning the respect that they deserve.

On the other hand, could it be that by calling special attention to fact that a woman became the first to climb such-and-such route, we are unintentionally reinforcing the very stereotype that we are trying to move away from? In other words, if the underlying context is that this woman achieved something only after a man or men achieved that same accomplishment before her, then aren’t we implicitly reinforcing the concept that women will always be a few steps behind the dudes?

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Ashima Shiraishi became the second female to climb 9a/9a+ this year with her ascent of Open Your Mind Direct, Santa Linya, Spain.

 

Feminism and Labels

Part of the feminist movement of the 1960s was to move away from the feminine forms of vocational words. Waitress, actress, hostess, etc., became obsolete as women asserted that they can be whatever they want: servers, actors, hosts, doctors, Supreme Court justices, etc.

For example, today you would never call someone a “woman doctor”—assuming that you’re not referring, albeit witlessly, to an OB/GYN—because it implies that it’s somehow unusual for a woman to be a doctor—i.e., “Aren’t they supposed to be nurses?”

Either way, in 2015, it’s often considered insulting to have your sex attached to your profession—and this goes both ways, e.g., “male nurse.”

adidas Outdoor Athlete Shoot New York, New York - April 2013 Portrait shoot with Sasha DiGuilian, Ashima Shiraishi, and Andia Winslow.

Sasha DiGiulian. Photo (C) Corey Rich

This same thing can apply to race, too. Barak Obama is the first black president of the United States, which is obviously remarkable if you consider that it wasn’t that long ago that black people were segregated from white society in America, not to mention the whole slavery thing several decades before that.

You could argue that reporters are doing a disservice to the black community and society at large by not acknowledging Obama’s race every time he’s mentioned in the press. Loosely applying Sasha’s FFA argument to Obama, by acknowledging both Obama’s race, and that he is the first of that race to reach the highest office in the land, we will be reminded of all the progress that we’ve made in terms of living in a just society.

On the other hand, if the New York Times, at every mention of our president, wrote, “first black president Obama” or even just “black president Obama,” it would kinda seem a little racist, right? Because Obama is a president, who happens to be black.

And to bring that back around to climbing, isn’t Paige a badass climber (who happens to be a woman) who redpointed The Bleeding?

 

Emily Harrington climbing in the Verdon Gorge. Photo: Keith Ladzinski

Emily Harrington climbing in the Verdon Gorge. Photo: Keith Ladzinski

 

When Do FFAs Matter?

Context, timing and intention are all important when it comes to the applying the First Female Ascent honorific. In many cases, FFAs are arbitrary and coincidental. For example, when it just so happens that a woman has never tried to climbed such-and-such route before, is it always automatically noteworthy when the first woman comes around and actually ticks a route? Or course, the answer is: it depends, but maybe not, especially when there are so many strong women out there climbing at the same level as their male counterparts.

Consider the parallel with second ascents (a genus to which FFAs belong): This year, Ethan Pringle nabbed a significant second ascent, of Jumbo Love, the first 5.15b in the world. Ethan will go down in the history books for being the second person to send Jumbo Love, confirming the grade of 5.15b, too.

However, does this one noteworthy second ascent automatically make all second ascents important? Of course not. If I am out in the wilderness with my friend, and we are developing some totally random cliff, and I get the opportunity to do the second ascent of Choss Nugget (5.10b), simply because I am the only other person within a 50-mile radius who happens to have a harness and climbing shoes, certainly that entitles me to claim a second ascent. But will I be putting it on my resume? Will anyone ever care? Probably not.

KEL_4871-Edit

Emily Harrington in China. Photo: Keith Ladzinski

So, what are the circumstances in which an FFA might be a worthy honorific? It’s easy to imagine that quintessential situation: Picture a route or boulder that has a hard grade, that has thus far only been climbed by a few men, and that has been tried by various other notable women.

One example that comes to mind is Emily Harrington’s FFA of the 7 P.M. Show (5.14a) in Rifle. This is a classic, well-known rock climb in Colorado that Bobbi Bensman, one of the strongest female climbers of her generation, had come notoriously close to redpointing in the 1990s. Also, no woman had climbed a 5.14 in Rifle before. So when Emily sent the 7 P.M. Show, it was a big deal due to the the context of the bro-centric culture that plagued Rifle for many years, one in which a few climbers truly believed that no woman would ever climb 5.14 here. Emily’s ascent was also largely notable due to the history of Bobbi’s legendary campaign to send this route. Emily’s ascent is a great example of an ascent that deserves recognition as a First Female Ascent.

But, again, this is partly due to the sexist stereotypes that lingered around Rifle in the late 1990s. And aren’t we mostly past all of that by now??

Paige Claassen insisted her ascent of The Bleeding (5.14a) in Mill Creek, Utah, not be categorized as an FFA, even though it was.

Paige Claassen insisted her ascent of The Bleeding (5.14a) in Mill Creek, Utah, not be categorized as an FFA, even though it was.

Do FFAs Hold Women Back?

My opinion is that FFAs are, in general, doing more harm than good.  The reason why is because we’ve assigned an outsized value to every FFA that we hear about from the very women climbers who themselves are attaching these honorifics to their own achievements.

One potential problem with up-playing every FFA is, perhaps, that women might not be as motivated to go off and envision their own first ascents. Rather, they are taking the easier path of repeating routes because they know that they will be celebrated for being the first woman to climb those routes, however circumstantial that ascent may be.

If the top women climbers are interested in pushing the limits, I believe they should be spending more time seeking out their own first ascents. By following in men’s footsteps and seeking out FFAs, women are automatically setting themselves up to always be one step behind.

I recently interviewed Daniel Woods about next-level grades, and he provided me with this observation: “The harder lines out there require specialized strengths,” he said. “A line that is next level for Dave, Jimmy, Nalle, or Ondra could be impossible for me and vice versa. It is inspiring to me how this works.”

This is an important concept: Routes and boulders at the upper end of the grade scale are going to be specialized—meaning, they are going to reflect the particular strengths of the first ascentionist who is drawn to that line. This applies to all differences, including those of the sexes.

Beth Rodden on the first ascent of Meltdown (5.14c). Photo: Corey Rich.

Beth Rodden on the first ascent of Meltdown (5.14c). Photo: Corey Rich.

Take Beth Rodden’s testpiece Meltdown (5.14c), which might be one of the hardest first ascents ever completed by a woman. The route shut down Tommy Caldwell, in part because of finger size—in fact, it’s still awaiting a second ascent, not to mention a first male ascent. This is a great example of how a first ascent can both reflect female-specific strengths, and be cutting edge as it is one of the hardest trad pitches in the world.
There are so many different variables that go into what makes a route tough. There are absolutely 5.15b and 5.15c routes and V15 and V16 boulders out there, which haven’t been done or even envisioned yet, that would suit a woman’s unique skill set as a climber. And there are women who are capable of climbing these grades: especially Ashima Shiraishi and Alex Puccio. But men aren’t going to be the ones to put these specialized routes up. It has to be women: who are strong mentally, strong physically and who possess the vision and motivation to see new routes and actually establish them.

As high-end climbing becomes increasingly specialized, as Daniel noted, it’s super important for women to start being the ones to establish their own next-level routes.

I don’t believe that women need to first repeat Jumbo Love, Change or La Dura Dura, to push themselves into the 5.15b and 5.15c realms (although doing so would certainly provide them with a context around which they can rate their own FAs).

I think the top women climbers in the world would be better off focusing more on doing cutting-edge first ascents, and downplaying, but not entirely ignoring, the significance of their repeats.

Why settle for a First Female Ascent when you can be a rad female who achieves a badass First Ascent?

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  • Chris Ketchum

    Andrew,
    For me, this is one of those essays you look at and think, “Damn. I can’t believe I didn’t write this.” This is the most productive addition to the ongoing conversation about First Female Ascents I’ve seen thus far.
    I share your opinion that the title “FFA” is doing more harm than good. There was a brief exchange on 8a.nu about this very point, and I’ll risk sounding conceited to paraphrase myself here. The term “FFA” is anachronistic and introduces a false dichotomy (between the capability of women and men) into climbing culture. I seriously can’t imagine a more perfect example of phallogocentrism! Honorifics like “FFA” and “Best Actress” would not exist if it weren’t for a patriarchal bias in our culture.
    I think Paige and Sasha are coming at the same point from two different angles. Clearly, they both support women’s achievements in climbing and believe those ascents should be recognized and encouraged (an opinion I share). They only differ on the semantic point: Do we stop using the term “FFA” or not?
    The devil is in the diction. If the gender-specific label only exists because of an intrinsic and imbalanced comparison to men (nobody called Tommy Caldwell’s free ascent of the Nose an FMA), we have a problem. The solution I propose is that the media and public simply stop using the term. Nowadays, we call “hangdogging” “projecting.” It’s the same thing, but one is pejorative and the other isn’t. Legalize repeats by women!
    Obviously we’ll keep reporting cutting edge ascents by women. The first woman to climb 5.15b will get loads of attention, and women will continue to get recognition for V14 and 5.14d. It’s a simple reminder from the media that women are crushing, which just brings the world up to speed on the status of female climbers.
    As for your final point, I think the FFA honorific certainly contributes to the limited number of futuristic FAs by women, but I suspect there’s something else going on here. Is it possible that bolting and route establishment is pervaded by an even more bro-centric culture than redpointing? I’m not sure it’s fair to say that women are “setting themselves up for failure by seeking out FFAs;” in Paige’s perspective, it seems like women are just seeking out routes that challenge them, regardless of past ascensionists. One is always an individual before any particular member of a demographic—surely, the first woman to climb 5.15b will do it, first and foremost, because it will be a personal best. I imagine the gender-best would be secondary to her.
    But let’s focus on the FA question next: what unique difficulties do women face if and when they decide to establish a new route?
    Cheers to a great discussion,
    Chris

    • Jon Rhoderick

      Hey Chris!
      Happy to see your name up here first. I think your final point about establishing new routes being a male dominated aspect of the sport as most interesting.

      For starters I’d wager less than 1% of all climbers male or female establish routes, it can be an exhausting process and in the end puts yourself out there for criticism much more-so than going out cragging. So we are talking about 1% of a minority demographic. I can only imagine that if you were a female bolter you might not just think “what to other people think of my route?” but also “what do the guys think of my route?” Is it bolted too closely or spaced? et cetera. I think everyone who establishes a route probably thinks about that stuff, but if a bunch of people criticize a female bolter, male or female she is going to be quickly discouraged.

      From what I have observed, a lot of routes established by women might be a collaboration with a male climbing partner, and I think that, like the majority of this discussion is a double edged sword. There may be a mentoring aspect to it of showing how to clean a route and place bolts, but at the same time should men be finding routes and saving them for their female climbing partner? I don’t know.

      I personally find there is a lot of significance in Female First Ascents. Paige’s ascent of Just Do It was something Alan Watts mentioned in the guidebook as a ‘milestone for the new generation’. I think that ascents of trad rated lines, R or X rated ones in particular as a female ascent are certainly notable because as a society we have discouraged women as risk takers. My friend Jess’s ascent of Johnny and the Melonheads 12b on Lowe Balls or Brett Herringtons first free solo (Male or Female) of Aguja St. Exupery are exceptional to me, and similarly the future female ascents of the May Fly or Full East Face Crack in Central Oregon are undoubtably noble accomplishments, even though there might be physical advantages women have for climbing these thin cracks, the mental challenge is the same.7

  • Andrew Phelps Cassidy
  • Tracy Taylor

    It is my understanding that young dudes are more likely to be risk takers than young women. Drawing from an analysis of a nationwide survey of accident fatality rates per million miles driven, male drivers ages 16-24 were more than 2x as likely to be involved in a fatal car accident than their female counterparts. I don’t know exactly if this is hormonally based, brain function, society or what, but it is a real thing. When more women as a whole take more risks, then FFA’s will just be FA’s as women put up new, hard climbs (or even just climbs) despite the trickiness of dealing with new terrain. Somewhat heartening to this middle aged, climbing female is the increase in the number of baddass female heroes in entertainment.

    • fanny

      A lot of this has to do with public perception – we’re constantly shown images of young dudes being risk takers. We’ve been starved of images of women taking similar risks. When we’re finally exposed to images of young women being risk takers, suddenly, other women are like – hey, I could do that! Then the number increases.

  • Jon Nelson

    I think these are good points, and the article is well-written.

    To be consistent though, climbing needs to have all-gender competitions; that is, no divisions based on gender. Such a move would really set climbing apart from other sports. Have there been any?

    • That’s an interesting idea. I know of at least a hundred women, including my wife, who climb much harder than me. Why not make climbing comps open to both sexes? It’d certainly be an interesting experiment.

      • Eric Parham

        Alex P brought this up a while back. She stated she would be happy to compete against the best males.

    • Den

      I think setting would be really crucial here. As a general rule to single out the best climbers in comps, you separate the male competitors on technique and problem solving and the female competitors on strength and power, as at the very peak of the sport it is very difficult to separate male competitors by how strong they are, and female competitors by how technical they are.

      However I think this could be very interesting, but the setters best bring their A-game!

    • keese

      Ouray did. Ines Papert won. The next year there was a men’s and a women’s category…

  • Chris Kalous

    100% agree that the draw of FFAs is sucking energy and vision from the effort to find FAs. Anecdotally, it seems clear to me that there is a deficit in the amount of female climbers developing areas/routes, especially at the top level. Truly, the return on investment is much much higher for the FFA, which can and has resulted in sponsorship dollars for woman climbers. Searching out and bolting new routes often is a fruitless and difficult job, more difficult every passing moment. A good, bonafide 14+ or harder is a needle in an earth sized haystack. So seeking FAs will take more time and very possibly result in no material return.

    And the pursuit of the FFA, by its nature, keeps these climbers perpetually in a second row position. The great climbers of our history, women or men, did visionary first ascents. In fact, the word “visionary” really can’t be applied to a 2nd ascent (most FFAs are a repeat). It’s the vision to see the route before it’s actually achieved that we have always put on a pedestal in our combined history. It’s that vision, from Harding to Hill, that makes legends.

  • Lucy Pascoe

    Don’t you think it’d be better to let the female climbers of the world decide what they wish to climb – rather than telling them what they should or shouldn’t be focusing on? I agree with the majority of points in your article, except the last sentence. You’ve shown that the women that are psyched to get a first ascent generally go out and do them; those who are psyched to routes that are already there do the same. It’s up to them whichever they choose

    • I’m sure (and hope) that all the female climbers in the world will continue to decide what they wish to climb, even after reading this article.

  • Doligo

    This is just the matter of female participation in the sport as a whole. There are many elite male climbers out there who just repeat other people’s routes as well, or send routes equipped by others. Just wait – it’s the matter of time before Sasha and Emily pick up drills, IMO.

    On the other hand, as someone who’s tried her hand at route developing, I’m afraid women may be smarter than men and wouldn’t subject themselves to that kind of punishment. Just like you don’t see too many women doing hard aid – way too much hard manual labor with major objective hazards.

    • Jana Wold

      Really?
      Come on, this is the mindset that holds us back. “I’m too fragile to get dirty, I’ll leave it to the boys.” or “What are they going to say if I try this…”
      More women should get out there and DO things, or FAIL trying. We are often wrapped up in our ego and worried about the potential fallout or criticisms that may not even happen. Who cares if no girl has done it, who cares that a 12 year old hikes up my projects, ultimately who cares about my climbing? No one but myself.
      You can bet a climb without the tag ‘first female ascent’ won’t keep me from trying it. At the end of the day, it’s just a way to guarantee some level of success because many women are afraid of trying something without a safety blanket.

  • Maddie Singleton

    This is well-written and thoughtful, and for the most part I agree. I do, however, want to point out that the route from the photo of Sasha on an FFA in South Africa isn’t just an First Female Ascent, but an First Ascent in general!

  • GeorgLB

    Interesting article, thanks for that! A FFA is a FFA, there is no discussing that. The question is – why is it relevant? The term FFA is marketable, so females will continue to use it, and I am not blaming them for it! Only if the audience stops being impressed by that term, the use will stop.
    The core of all climbing is to battle your own weakness and that doesn’t change with age, gender, race or the grade you are climbing. On the other side, it’s a business for some people, and that implies selling you climbs as effectivly as possible. So call it FFA if you want to, I understand that it is not easy being a pro. And please don’t get me wrong: Males are using the same sort of marketing for their climbs, my favourite is the infamous “… and climbed it on my first redpoint try”.

    Georg

  • Anonymous

    I watched Alex P dominate the women’s field at the Dark Horse bouldering comp this year. After she claimed her victory, she topped out the men’s finals route for fun. Not a single male competitor completed it. As a climber, that kind of progress inspires me to never make excuses for myself. As a female, her accomplishments (and those of Lynn, Beth, Ashima et al.) push me both professionally and in my personal life. I’m so thankful to climbing for continuing to instill in me that women are just as driven and capable as men.

    I’ve been disappointed to see the way Sasha Digiulian has handled this issue and it seems her sponsorship interests have outweighed her interest in gender equality. Her athletic accomplishments will always stand on their own merit, but she’s lost my respect. I don’t think I’m alone in that sentiment.

  • Anonymous

    I watched Alex P dominate the women’s field at the Dark Horse bouldering comp this year. After she claimed her victory, she topped out the men’s finals route for fun. Not a single male competitor completed it. As a climber, that kind of progress inspires me to never make excuses for myself. As a female, her accomplishments (and those of Lynn, Beth, Ashima et al.) push me both professionally and in my personal life. I’m so thankful to climbing for continuing to instill in me that women are just as driven and capable as men.

    I’ve been disappointed to see the way Sasha Digiulian has handled this issue and it seems her sponsorship interests have outweighed her interest in gender equality. Her athletic accomplishments will always stand on their own merit, but she’s lost my respect. She’s still so young; I hope that one day she realizes that there are things that are more important than chasing fame and a quick dollar.

  • Natalie Afonina

    Completely agree (as a female climber myself). The one small caveat I’ll add is that in the realm of Alpinism, acknowledging women’s accomplishments still has a similar effect to Emily climbing 5.14 in Rifle when “it was a big deal due to the the context of the bro-centric culture that plagued Rifle for many years, one in which a few climbers truly believed that no woman would ever climb 5.14 here”. The world of ‘light and fast’ and even ‘long and burly sufferfests’ are still primarily male in a disproportionate ratio that is unlike the other climbing disciplines (from first hand experience). I’m not even talking about waterfall ice or Ouray-style stuff because women are starting to crush in those disciplines, I’m talking more the Pamirs, the Himalayas, the Karakoram, the Alaska Range, etc… There is the general stereotype that women can’t really push it in that realm. Hey, maybe they’re right, but I like to try and prove them wrong. This post is also self-serving because I’ve found it exceedingly hard to find female partners to the point that I’ve never roped up with a fellow woman on an alpine climb or expedition. Maybe it’s just me, but if there are female crushers out there, please put me into contact :)

    tl;dr: highlight Alpinism achievements by women, because the girls out there could use some inspiration that they can also climb in the ‘big mountains’ with the ‘big boys’, and alpinism is still primarily a dude activity.

    • keese

      Freer, Destivelle, Vidal, rutkiewicz

  • Jon Nelson

    There is another problem with this use of FFA (the acronym, not necessarily the term itself): when some readers see “FFA” they will think “first free ascent”.

    So, each time, a writer gives the acronym FFA, they should also, for clarity, give the full term. Rather a waste of the acronym, isn’t it? There used to be no confusion about FFA for those of us climbers who would frequent a trad-climbing crag and pondered a line that once had aid.

    FNMA (first non-male ascent) would alleviate this confusion, but looks ridiculous. You might as well have FMA too. Or, FMA, FFA, and FNAA (first non-aid ascent). Now I’m just rambling. When will this end? Can climbing avoid the curse of the never-ending acronyms?

  • Jennifer

    While I appreciate the research, time, effort, and thoughtfulness put into this article, as a rock climber, a woman, and a feminist, I 100% disagree, this article actually made me sort of angry. Mostly because I feel like you’re contradicting your own point in the way you wrote this article. More men continuing to try to tell women what to do and how to do it will not advance women any further in the sport.

    You coming from a place of privelage, as a man, telling women how their accomplishments should and should not be acknowledged in the climbing world, where sexism is still alive and well, as subtle as it may be, is just furthering the problem.

    Especially the last line, implying that women who strive for first female ascents are “settling”, without considering that perhaps they’re completing a route they think is inspiring and has them psyched. It’s very rare that people railing on men for frequently completing notable routes and saying that they should have found a FA.

    All of these things in addition to the overwhelming number of male comments on this article all deciding for women what should be done, saying how they believe FFAs are hurting women, when they are not women themselves and have no idea what is like to be a woman in the climbing gym, is extremely frustrating.

    • This is just my opinion–a simple thesis that I’m putting forth, which is that if women can climb as hard as men, as I believe them to be physically capable of, then giving special designation to a repeat of a route–which is what a first female ascent is–seems counterproductive. If, however, you believe that women are not capable of climbing as hard as men, then I agree it does make sense to call out their repeats of routes with this special recognition. I think one thing that maybe hasn’t come through in this post is that I’m really just critiquing the way climbs are marketed to fans, sponsors and media. Whether something is or isn’t a First Female Ascent is just a fact; but it’s what’s being done with those facts that I thought could use some analysis… Either way, I would hope that you, as a feminist, would judge my argument based on its logical merit–not on my sex. I respect that you may not agree with my line of thinking in questioning whether some FFAs are overblown, as Paige says. But I would hope that your critique would be of why that isn’t true, and not just finding fault with the circumstances of my gender

      • Chris Desir

        You are proving Jennifer’s point here Andrew. I read her comment to very much be about the “logical merits” of your argument. Specifically the logic that you, as a man, feel entitled to have and express your opinion about the extent to which FFA’s hold women back when you, because of your gender, have no direct access to the issue. Why do you feel entitled to have an opinion let alone express it on such a public forum? Then you are called out on the problematic nature of the article and you disregard the point and urge the female poster to focus on the “logic” of your post. That criticism alone is oozing with sexism. Perhaps you should focus on the logic of Jennifer’s post and not simply disregard it. Your gender is extremely important here. It matters for your ability to speak on this issue with any authority.

        • I believe that as a human being, regardless of sex, I’m entitled to have and express an opinion.

        • “Why do you feel entitled to have an opinion let alone express it on such a public forum?”

          Seriously? Andrew’s entitled to an opinion because he’s breathing. The reason he told Jennifer to focus on the “logic” of his post is that she didn’t. She accused him of “telling women what to do” and implied that men have no right to weigh in on the topic due to their sex.

          Andrew’s point, if I’m interpreting it correctly, is that “first female ascents” only accentuate the stereotype that women are weaker than men. If women are on equal footing to men in terms of talent and strength, why should it matter that someone’s the first woman do do something any more than the first Asian man or the first German man to do something? It shouldn’t be a relevant distinction, and the focus on FFAs is making it seem more relevant than it should be.

          Jennifer also accused Andrew of “implying that women who strive for first female ascents are ‘settling’, without considering that perhaps they’re completing a route they think is inspiring and has them psyched.” That’s obviously not what happened. Obviously it’s great to be psyched about a route, but that doesn’t mean it should have any significance outside of what it means to the climber. I might be super psyched to get up The Beast in Rifle, despite the fact that it’s sent approximately 14,000 times every weekend by guys with back muscles like wrestling sea lions, but that doesn’t make my ascent special. There’s no First Ascent By A Scrawny Kid title, nor should there be.

          Climb what you want. But by labeling “first female ascent” as some sort of accolade, what we’re effectively doing is saying “this person climbs really hard, even for a woman.” And that’s not good.

          • Natasha

            Hi Jennifer,

            I couldn’t agree more with you on your post. Andrew, I really do appreciate the research that went into this article, but the opinion put forth towards the end of the article is just another example of the problem.

            —–

            Some suggested edits:

            1. “Take Beth Rodden’s testpiece Meltdown (5.14c), which might be one of the hardest first ascents ever completed by a woman.The route shut down Tommy Caldwell, in part because of finger size—”

            Rather…

            “Take Beth Rodden’s testpiece Meltdown (5.14c), which might be one of the hardest first ascents ever completed by a woman. The route shut down Tommy Caldwell.”

            2. “Rather, they [women] are taking the easier path of repeating routes because they know that they will be celebrated for being the first woman to climb those routes, however circumstantial that ascent may be.”

            Rather…

            “Some women repeat routes because they are awesome and inspiring, and the male-dominated media decides to celebrate them as FFAs.”

            3. “I recently interviewed Daniel Woods about next-level grades…”

            Better…

            “I recently interviewed Beth Rodden for this article about women in climbing…”

            4. “Bottom line, in the sport of rock climbing, women are crushing.”

            NO EDITS.

            ——

            Thanks again, Jennifer. Keep crushing!

          • You’re wrong that it’s men in climbing media who are choosing to add the FFA honorific to reports about ascents. It’s the climbers themselves who do it.

            Your other edits seem silly, in my opinion

          • Eric Swanson

            Andrew, her comments actually make a lot of sense, and you do your otherwise thought-provoking article a disservice by dismissing them out of hand.

            1. Qualifying why a route shut down a male climber and not a female climber is really belittling to female climbers. When was the last time you read an article about two male climbers on a route where the author felt the need to explain why one could do it and the other couldn’t? There are a ton of examples of this. La Dura Dura: when Ondra did it first, nobody said it was because he had smaller fingers than Sharma. Dawn Wall: when Tommy pulled ahead of Kevin, nobody chalked it up to the finger size disparity. However, the finger size argument has been used to diminish women’s achievements in climbing at least since Lynn Hill showed everyone that the Nose could go free. If the finger size claim were used across all climbers, it would be one thing, but it is uniquely used to explain why a woman could climb something that a man couldn’t.

            2. You—speaking as a man in climbing media writing about FFAs—saying that men in climbing media don’t add the FFA honorific is rather ironic.

            3. Interviewing male climbers about the motivations of female climbers is “silly, in my opinion.” Would you interview a white person for the details of life in Black America? Would you interview a French person for what it’s like to live in China? Would you interview a Red River Gorge local on how to climb in Yosemite? You could have gotten some unique perspectives that could have changed the whole tone of your article and probably prevented a lot of the feminist critiques in the comments. Instead, when the women show up and say “thanks for at least talking about this, here are some ideas to improve the conversation going forward” you call them silly and wrong (and with no supporting evidence to boot).

            That being said, thanks for at least talking about women in climbing. It is definitely an important topic that often seems to go unnoticed (see, for example, Reel Rock 10, which included Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold twice each while not even acknowledging that women climb).

          • To answer your points, I would be doing a disservice by not providing as much information as possible. If someone, male or female, is shut down by a move that they physically cannot span then that seems like an important piece of information to include if you’re going to say something like, “So and so was shut down by a route.” Well, yes, they were … but here’s why. Those examples you’re talking about: Dura Dura, etc., aren’t good examples because they are showing people doing something–not not doing something. And for the record, when Tommy Caldwell freed the Great Roof pitch, he was applauded for doing so despite his large finger size. You’re trying to twist my words around so they sound sexist, but I’m really just providing true information by including that detail.

            2. I say that as a person who has over a decade of witnessing female climbers being the ones who go out of their way to market themselves by reporting that honorific. It’s not as though male editors simply just make it up.

            3. Daniel’s quote was an aside, and not even about this topic. It was unrelated to the whole FFA thing, but I drew a parallel to that quote. So, yes, it’s silly to criticize me for including it. I didn’t interview any one for this story specifically. I simply went off what I had read and what I know.

          • Stephen

            “If the finger size claim were used across all climbers, it would be one thing, but it is uniquely used to explain why a woman could climb something that a man couldn’t.” Finger, hand, and fist size is a claim used by many climbers. This is especially true in hard crack climbing. Further, Andrew uses Daniel Woods quote to highlight how esoteric high end climbing is and how at that level of climbing the smallest details can determine a send.

          • Ariella Leaffer

            @andrewbisharat:disqus : What may seem like ‘silly, minor edits can change tone significantly.

          • Ariella Leaffer

            @andrewbisharat:disqus : What may seem like ‘silly, minor edits can change tone significantly.

  • Jennifer

    Basically this article is implying that we should not see gender, and the whole “I don’t see gender” (or “I don’t see race” which people frequently extend this theory to, as you did with the Obama metaphor you used) is counterproductive to equality because it’s pretending to ignore the male dominated world that we exist in, and by extension climbing exists in too, and basically erases the struggles of women in the field.

  • Perry Larsen

    Interesting article. I have to admit, I can’t really relate because I will never climb anywhere near that level. Personally, I’m just happy that there are a few people making enough money in our sport to not need day jobs. Sasha seems to have a great angle. So does Adam Ondra, Alex Honnold, and a few other people. Would the sport really be better off if Sasha spent her time putting up FA’s, or would Sasha just be poorer? I suspect the latter. I do agree that it would be interesting to see how women perform in mixed-gender climbing competitions.

  • Rebecca Rusch

    I do think it’s notable to talk about it when women (or men) climb super hard routes. It’s motivating and moves the sport forward. I don’t necessarily think it needs to be noted in guidebooks and records as FFA, but when a female climbs an exceptionally hard route, but we need to know about it and celebrate it. I’m especially inspired when I hear that women are climbing (or doing any sport) at an extremely high level because, as a female, I can relate and I get motivated. By having someone of my gender do something extraordinary, it shows me what is possible. It strips away gender excuses. We need to see and celebrate these achievements so we can aspire to do more ourselves. The ownership lies heavily on the media and how we talk about achievements. But we must talk about them in order to erase this debate in the future. Marie Wilson, Founder and President Emeritus of The White House Project, said, “You Can’t Be What You Can’t See.” Young women see more of the negative representations of women through media, than that of powerful, successful women and their accomplishments.

    • Thanks Rebecca. That’s a great comment, and I totally agree.

  • Zendegi

    The article starts out by saying how unique rock climbing is as a sport because women and men compete on the same field by climbing the same routes. Through this it shows that women can climb as hard as men.

    Then the article says women should put up their own routes based on their ‘unique’ strengths. If women were to focus on only establishing new routes and not repeat hard routes men have done, it won’t be long before people start saying that the routes that the women are putting up are subjectively easier. That’s how sexism works.

  • Kenneth Fairchild

    I wish people would stop saying that women earn 78 cents per dollar. That’s such a misleading statistic, and has nothing to do with a flaw in society. After accounting for non-gender related choices like work experience, field, choices of types of benefits and things to pursue, that narrows to 98 cents per dollar with some industries having women earning more than men. So take that crap out of your article.

  • Danielle F. White

    Thumbs up (from a women) on this article.

  • fanny

    “On the other hand, if the New York Times, at every mention of our president, wrote, “first black president Obama” or even just “black president Obama,” it would kinda seem a little racist, right? Because Obama is a president, who happens to be black.”

    You’re basically arguing that we live in a “post racial” society – one in which blacks and white have the same privileges. That’s wildly inaccurate. It IS notable that Obama is black, we could say that he’s president in SPITE of being black, because the cards are stacked against him, as a black man, in a country that is gripped by systemic racism.

    Nor do we live in a post-feminist society.

    • OF course I don’t think we live in a post-racial society, nor do I think we live in a post-sexist society. But I do think that, in order to move toward those ideas of equality, we can, at the very least, adjust our semantics to avoid tripping ourselves up in ways that perpetuate the very categorizations and preconceived notions that we’re trying to move away from.

  • Kelly Fields

    FFA’s = First Free Ascent. Have a little respect for the history of climbing before you go blabbing. It will, at the very least, make you sound more credible.

  • Pingback: Confessions of a climbing sexist – strength follows()

  • Remi

    To be fair, the ultra difficult sport lines being put up today are bolted and RPed by men more than women. Men don’t feel as they are in competition with women, but women compete with men – hence the label on the Nose or Bain de Sang “_____ by a woman”. But women are catching up fast at the high level and rock climbing may one day become the first sport where gender category are irrelevant, which is fascinating. For us “normal people”, the vibes at the crags around the world are really good in this regard, and in my experience there isn’t much association between strength level and gender in the climber community today.