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.
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 when facing the same set of challenges.
So, are women capable of climbing as hard as men? Yes.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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?
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.
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??
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.
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?