A Few thoughts about Women & Climbing…

In the summer last year I teamed up with Roger Schäli to try my first multi-pitch sport climb, ‘Hotel Supramonte’ in Sardinia. We were only able to stay for four days so we worked the twelve pitches like crazy, coming very close to a team send. In the end we decided to leave it for our next trip to Italy, but I’m sure that that climb will welcome us with open arms.

One of the reasons for bailing was the appalling state of our skin after three days of serious work in hot weather. Roger is a tough guy, but I remember quite well how he questioned my sanity when I insisted on pushing on, in spite of our hands being a mess of blood, glue and tape. ‘You’ve never even climbed multipitch, how are you so crazy determined?’ he asked a couple of times, and I didn’t have an answer… Now, however, I do.

It’s because I’m a woman.

Boys and Girls

We differ. I’ve never understood why some people insist that we don’t. We differ, and it’s good. Men’s and women’s climbing has its own specificities and however we enjoy the sport in the same way I think that it’s silly to think we climb or train the same. Women will never be able to attain the same power to weight ratio, but luckily power is not everything. It’s really amazing to see how in the last few years female athletes are taking the largely strength-based sport by storm. I call it better determination to weight ratio.

Coaching men and women is also like two separate games. Imagine I’m asking a climber to do a big move during a training session on an indoor wall. A guy will most likely go for it. He might be clumsy, he might not even get it, he might well get it due to lack of self-doubt. A gal is more likely to hesitate, to ask me additional questions (‘jump or work my feet higher’? ‘drop knee or dynamically?’), to go a little up and back down. In the end their chances to succeed are probably the same, but the ways to get there – completely different. The coach’s role is to accommodate that difference in attitude.

Menstruation

Sometimes I’d like to shout that word. Menstruation! It’s shocking how it gets completely ignored, like if it never existed, despite half of the population having it. And it does affect athletes. Scientists estimate that 85% of menstruating women experience at least one negative symptom of PMS during their cycle. I’ve seen too many great female climbers getting frustrated with themselves because they don’t perform as well, both psychologically and physically, during or before their periods. The reality is that women might be more tired or scared on certain parts of the cycle, but there’s also good news. By closely observing the body it is possible to determine when peak performance days are expected, and plan training, or push one’s limits on the rock accordingly.

Hot pants aren’t a sin

I find the whole hullabaloo about some female climbers being too ‘feminine’ a little bit disconcerting. After all, is anybody giving any thought to male climbers being too ‘masculine’? I think we should focus more on our own climbing, and less on people’s personal preferences in terms of fashion and self-expression. As a coach, I don’t really care if my athlete is wearing jeans, leggings, or hot-pants, as long as I can expect them to give their best to the climbing. As a person, I try not to over-analyse my own choices. If I feel like wearing mascara, I will wear mascara, and I hate to think that somebody might choose to spend their time trying to make sense of it. Go climb a rock, I’d suggest.

Final advice

So, what to do to be a better rock climber as a woman? In most cases strengthening the upper body is a good guess. Not only will it help with breaking into harder grades, but it will also prevent injury. Even fingers are more prone to damage if the body is not stabilised by well-developed muscle. Imagine holding a tiny crimp, fit for small fingers. But then the shoulder gives, the body swings, and its whole weight is all of a sudden supported by fingertips only – a sure recipe for disaster especially for the beginner climber. So, grab the free weights ladies! You’ll be amazed at the leaps in progress. Don’t worry about gain in muscle mass. Gain in strength will make up for it.

To finish off, one more thought about body weight. If you’re a woman and think that only by looking like a skinny gymnast can you succeed in climbing, you’re wrong. I remember coming to the sport, with a body type that glossy mags describe as ‘curvy’. Some helpful person suggested I swapped the rock for a sumo ring, but I was determined, and it wasn’t long until I started red pointing my first eights. Now, with my eyes set on new goals, I’m still far from skinny. So, whatever your body type, you can climb hard. And that’s a fact regardless your gender.