There’s a new generation setting records on some of the toughest ascents in the country – and they’re changing the face of a sport that has long been male-dominated
On a cold and blustery day threatened by rain, Katy Whittaker, a young British climber, headed for Curbar Edge, outside Sheffield, to tackle an escarpment named – appropriately – Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.
Ascending a steep slab of rock spotted with lichen, the climb appears hold-less. Progress on the hardest section is made by smearing – a technique in which the climber must rely on friction to keep the feet from sliding off.
Graded E8 on an open-ended scale of the hardest climbs, where the top grade is E11, Whittaker admits that she was apprehensive.
“I thought if I fell off on the last moves, … if the belayer [the person holding the rope at the bottom] sprinted away, that I might be all right. But it is really tenuous climbing. If you get a foothold even slightly wrong, it makes the next move feel even harder.”
It was the second difficult and “bold” ascent – where a dangerous ground fall is possible after a certain point – for Whittaker in as many weeks, doubly impressive given that she has a job and is limited to when she can climb.
The good news for Whittaker, and for the future of British climbing, is that, in a sport traditionally dominated at the top levels by men, she is not alone. In recent weeks a host of other young women have been succeeding on some of the hardest climbs in the country.
In North Wales in September, Emma Twyford climbed an E9 named Rare Lichen. Back in the Peak District, Katy Whittaker’s housemate, Mina Leslie-Wujastyk, aged 26, has also recently climbed E8, again on the gritstone edges that dominate the moors above Sheffield.
The three are part of a wider group, including Hazel Findlay, Shauna Coxsey and Leah Crane, rapidly closing the gap with their male contemporaries, both in terms of climbing ability and ability to manage risk in what some are hailing as a golden age of British women’s rock climbing.
For her part Findlay, a 23-year-old philosophy graduate from the south-west who has also climbed E9, last month free-climbed the 3,000ft granite bastion of California’s El Capitan in the Yosemite valley for a third time – putting her in a tiny elite of British climbers regardless of gender.
Despite their youth, most have been climbing for approaching 20 years. For Whittaker it is a family affair. Both her parents climb, while her brother Pete is one of the world’s top climbers.
While there have been British women climbing since the advent of the sport, going back to Nea Morin in the 1920s, what has distinguished the current period is the prominence of British women climbing well in so many of the sport’s disciplines. That includes indoor competitions and sport climbing (where the climbs are protected by bolts drilled into the rock which the rope is clipped into) and “bouldering'” (very short, ropeless climbs above mats that soften any fall) – but most significantly “traditional” climbing.
In this last style of climbing, the climber is required to carry and place protection, metal wedges on wire or camming devices – put in holes and cracks in the rock where they exist – which are clipped into the rope to protect against a fall.
Where no placements exist, as is common on some of the hardest routes, success requires not only strength and skill but the ability to keep a cool head.
For Leslie-Wujastyk, known until now primarily as an outstanding boulderer, her own recent ascent of an E8 came from trying ever higher bouldering problems.
“That opened a door for me,” she said last week. “I realised I could do hard moves high off the ground and I was comfortable with my head game.”
Like her peers, she puts the emergence of the present generation of British women rock climbers down to the boom in indoor climbing walls which have made the sport more accessible and changed its gender and age profile.
“It is also a really supportive culture. Most of us know each other and, in a country where the weather is not always ideal for climbing, we train together indoors. There’s an increasing normality to it. Girls see other girls climbing hard and training hard, so I think the idea becomes less intimidating.”
Steph Meysner, who organises the Women’s Climbing Symposium, believes climbing culture is changing, something she began noticing five years ago. “It was male dominated for a long time and a bit dysfunctional. Climbing walls and the popularity of bouldering, where you need minimal equipment, have made it more accessible. The change has been organic. We are seeing a wider change in attitudes towards risk-taking. In the past, women have tended to be villainised by the media for taking risks.”
And if there is a difference between the top men and women climbers, Twyford believes, it is that the men still tend be “a bit more gung-ho” with women taking a more “calculating approach”.
Whittaker’s ascent of Gaia – also E8 – last month was a case in point. An attempt had been in her mind for seven years. “I knew where you could fall off and the point beyond which you couldn’t.” Her second E8 of the month, however, was a journey into the unknown, climbing it within two weeks of considering an attempt.
Whittaker told the British Mountaineering Council’s website: “I personally don’t think first female ascents are a big deal. I don’t want to be noticed for climbing something just because I’m a girl. I compare myself with the guys I climb with, and want to climb just as hard.”
[Source: The Guardian]
Today’s Google Doodle celebrates what would have been the 107th birthday of computer pioneer Grace Hopper (1906-1992) just in time for the “Hour of Code” kicking off Computer Science Education Week.
Hopper created COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language,) the program that allows computer to communicate through language as well as numbers. She joined the Navy Reserve in 1943, when she was teaching mathematics at Vassar, and finally reached the rank of rear admiral in 1985. Hopper, who repeatedly un-retired, became the oldest woman in the armed forces at the age of 76.
Hopper is credited with coining the term “bug in the system” because of the time she actually found a bug in a computer. As TIME described it in 1984:
She gets credit for coining the name of a ubiquitous computer phenomenon: the bug. In August 1945, while she and some associates were working at Harvard on an experimental machine called the Mark I, a circuit malfunctioned. A researcher using tweezers located and removed the problem: a 2-in. long moth. Hopper taped the offending insect into her logbook. Says she: “From then on, when anything went wrong with a computer, we said it had bugs in it.”
(The moth is still under tape along with records of the experiment at the U.S. Naval Surface Weapons Center in Dahlgren, Va.)
She was also famous for her incredible work ethic and unique way of interpreting time. When teaching her students about nanoseconds, she would show them a length of wire that represented the distance electricity could travel in a nanosecond:
In her commencement speech to the Trinity College class of 1987, which was excerpted in TIME, she said:
There’s always been change, there always will be change . . . It’s to our young people that I look for the new ideas. No computer is ever going to ask a new, reasonable question. It takes trained people to do that. And if we’re going to move toward those things we’d like to have, we must have the young people to ask the new, reasonable questions. A ship in port is safe; but that is not what ships are built for. And I want every one of you to be good ships and sail out and do the new things and move us toward the future.
Surprise, surprise. Another list of female athletes praised for their “hotness” rather than their athletic skill.
It may not be shocking, but I have to admit this trope is getting a little tiresome, to say the least. Some people in the ski industry share my sentiments. Lynsey Dyer (a pro skier who also happens to be on this list) and Mike Rogge (Author at Powder Magazine) both have some great responses to the article:
I know none of this was personal, I know you were probably trying to hit your numbers to appease your advertisers. I know that when the pressure is on it might be hard to remember that “hits” or “likes” come from people. You may have forgotten that a photo on a computer screen is connected to a living breathing human, just like you. A human, just like you, who is doing their best to live in integrity and authenticity without selling out to the man.
I know there’s a lot of pressure from your competition, who get their page views up by playing to the lowest denominator. This is a pressure every one of us feels at some level. As women we know we can play the “hot” card any time and our number of fans will sky-rocket.
If I wanted to play that game I would have put that picture up myself long ago. Instead, it’s a daily challenge to be true to the person I am striving to be over what I know will get the “likes”. I have a motto that says “Be so damn good they can’t ignore you.” I offer it to you now.
I challenge you to be good Freeskier, be so damn good in your clever posts and progressive photography, in your writing and forward thinking that people can’t help but follow you as a leader. I know it’s not the easy way but I know for fact it is what Freeskier Magazine was founded on back in the day. I challenge you to be the progressive, forward thinking magazine your founder set out to create. The magazine all of us was inspired by and dreamed to be showcased in for our talent.
For a little insight, one of the most progressive trends in skiing today is that of women rising up as legitimate athletes beyond their value as models to sell a product. The ladies are creating their own luck without waiting to be recognized or invited. Many established and up and comers are performing at a higher level, producing their own trips, shoots and content without objectifying themselves though I know it crosses their minds a lot. After all, tha’d be the easy way, but they didn’t fall in love with skiing because it was easy.
Just sayin’…If you’re a dude who might someday genuinely want a girl he can be active with, it’s in your best interest to support women’s skiing for the SKIING over the pin-ups. You’ve known plenty of “hot” girls but finding one you can do stuff outside with, now that’s harder to find. The more we encourage the ladies to participate the more they will feel welcome in this community; directly addressing that ski-town guy-to-girl ratio issue some people like to complain about.… get the picture? Good, can we just go skiing now?
So Donny, maybe you were tired of opening day edits and galleries from outerwear press trips, and that’s why you posted your story but here are a few story angles you could’ve pursued instead. Don’t worry about using these. To paraphrase Lil Wayne, “I got so many of them, I give that shit away for free!” Here goes:
-Ingrid? What hasn’t she done? She’s done so much, in fact, that just this month two other major babes (in a literary sense), Heather Hansman and Megan Michelson, penned excellent features on her many accomplishments, struggles, and victories. This one writes itself. And Ingrid is one of the most professional, kind, and thoughtful people you’ll ever interview. Give her a call.
-Meanwhile, Lynsey Dyer, while never one to shy away from the camera for a bikini photograph, is hard at work on a two-year film project. In talking with her, Lynsey doesn’t want her film to be a “statement” or “women’s issue” silly thing like that. She wants to make a rad ski movie that just happens to have only women in it. I wonder how that’s going? Maybe give her a call. Use the telephone. See what she says. Write it down and post it.
Who knows? Maybe, in your job as a magazine/website editor, you could lend her a hand or put her in touch with good connects. People helping people. It’s an awesome feeling, man, and one that makes me want to work in the ski industry for a long time.
-And while that adorable photo of Caroline Gleich in roller blades is certainly one of her many modeling photos, the December Powder Cover Skier is on her way to the summit of 20,702 foot Chimborazo in Ecuador. That’s the tallest mountain in the country. You’d know that if you did a little research instead of Googling the always terrible Female Pro Skier Name + the word “hot.” I’m actually Googling Ecuador now because I only vaguely have an idea where that country is on a map.
-Keltie Hansen? You mean one of the rising stars in Canada’s already stacked halfpipe program? I wonder what her experience is growing into an Olympic athlete in the shadow of the legendary Sarah Burke?
-Or how about Sierra Quitiquit? Maybe talk to her about what it’s like to be a polarizing figure in a male dominated sport where women struggle to get, really, anything and she’s riding a wave of success in both modeling and skiing? I did, but that doesn’t mean you can’t. Check out mine on ESPN’s Freeskiing page, see what I missed, then make me look like an idiot that doesn’t know how to ask questions.
Okay, that should get you started, Donny.
Well said, on both accounts. As far as progression for women in athletics goes, you have to take the small victories when you can get them. And for every increasingly boring “10 hottest women” lists there are, there are more and more great responses like these, by women and men alike.
As a sidenote, I happened upon an awesome group called She Jumps, a non-profit with the mission of increasing female participation in outdoor activities. Find ’em on Facebook HERE! For more awesome girl power also check out TiTs DEEP, a group of “ladies charging in extreme sports” and Female Wolfpack, Rachel Burk’s website to increase female visibility in action sports.