Tuesday, February 21, 2012

WANTED: Alpinistas

Emilie Drinkwater, India
“So, are you bringing insulated pants?” Kirsten asked as we sifted through gear the afternoon before a climb this past summer.

Kirsten Kremer on Aguja Mermoz
This question is not easy to answer. Kirsten and I have a history dating back to a fateful Christmas weather window in 2006 when we had two unplanned bivies in three nights in Patagonia’s Fitz Roy group. Bringing insulated pants is our *wink, wink* way of saying that we may not get the climb done in a day. Bringing those pants meant that I was willing to consider an open, 'unplanned' bivy the following night.

Behind that question about insulated pants is my main answer to why I think more women don’t alpine climb: It is heavy. It simply is hard for women (especially smaller framed ones) to climb technical terrain with a forty+ pound pack full of days of food, fuel, sleeping bags and tents.
There are so very few women active in the alpine climbing world, and I can’t help but think that the heaviness of it is just the tip of the iceberg. We also can’t pee with one hand while belaying or while laying down in a sleeping bag...many of the highest mountains in the world are in countries where women are not recommended to travel without men...and the prime age for cutting edge alpine climbers is their 30's - how many of my 30-something climber girlfriends are pregnant or thinking of getting pregnant right now? Most. Then add in the psychological aspect that requires a lot of women to "need a bit more space to put themselves first," as Sarah Hueniken said so eloquently, and there's a lot of reasons to go sport climbing (don't get me wrong, I LOVE sport climbing!).
Ladies in the Karakoram, photo Freddie Wilkinson

I love that alpine climbing brings together every discipline of climbing, added to the adventure of travel. Certainly, if that was all there was to it there would be more women AND men doing it. But it is also fundamentally dangerous, time- and money-consuming and requires a degree of self-confidence, athleticism, fortitude and willingness to suffer that the majority of us probably do not possess in that magically perfect combination to make it all feel fun. 

Three women competed in the Ouray Ice Comp this year, compared to a maxed out men's lineup with many on a waiting list. I serve on a climbing grant committee for a grant initiated in memory of two women climbers, and only one all-women team applied to it for funding this year. Why am I pleasantly surprised that two women teams and one solo female (along with several unisex teams) were in the Piolet D’Or listing of the most significant ascents in 2011 – shouldn’t there really be more? 

Caroline George on the Aguille du Midi
On that same trip with Kirsten with the insulated pants question this past summer, our ladies team was constantly embarrassed by the way life works in base camp on a major expedition: Tea served on a silver tray in bed in the morning, meals cooked for us, a whole supply chain from the city could provide us with anything at our beck and call...it was a weird colonial-military way of operating. Not to mention the bureaucratic craziness of the permit process. It all left us feeling like little girls in a man's world. Is it simply because the other three men on our team had each been on a dozen plus expeditions like this so weren’t as struck by it or are women just more naturally averse to such top-down militaristic feeling arrangements? 
I read a great article about how some of the most talented businesswomen may be transforming the economy by saying 'no' to typical patriarchal corporate structures and starting their own businesses instead with their own management structures. This isn’t about Title IX-type equality measures, it’s women bucking the system and creating something better.  
Sarah Garlick and me, St. Exupery photo Kirsten Kremer

Chicks with Picks is an example of the positive impact some good public relations can have on a manly sport. I regularly meet women now while out rock climbing who got into it by ice climbing in those programs - that was unheard of just a few years ago. And because of that growth there are now more boots and tools and clothing lines available for the ice climbing chika than ever before. It's awesome and it's a great start. 
If alpinistas really want it, the innovation can happen - in terms of how expeditions are planned and managed, how equipment is designed, and perhaps even how many  hands are required for us to pee. A few small changes and who knows, maybe I'll stop going for day-and-a-half climbs armed only with insulated pants and finally choose to bring the entire kit for a big multi-day mountain climb like the big boys do. 
Emilie and Kirsten, Peak 6135, India
Aguja Guillament, photo Kirsten Kremer

Sarah Garlick and I headed into the Wind River Range, 2002

Kirsten and her insulated pants, morning after a bivy


Stifler said...

Great story, Janet. Just what I needed this morning. Wishing you well!

Betty said...

I've not had the opportunity to do any alpine climbing, but I think the biggest thing that stops me and other women is fear. As women, we seem for the most part to be wired up with a different response to fear then most men. I have been stuck at the same grade for my hardest trad leads for the last 3-4 years, not necessarily because I lack the strength or skills to lead harder routes, but simply because its really scary!!!

Also, if your 30s is the best decade for alpine climbing, there are also a lot of questions around child-rearing that are unique for women. The 30s also happen to be our last chance to have healthy children according to our doctors. I think many women climbers struggle with the decision over whether or not to have children. More and more chose to have children, and this is fantastic. I personally am encouraged by seeing climbing moms find ways to still get out and climb even with children. But alpine climbing is a different beast. It's much harder for many women to justify leaving their children for days or weeks at a time to travel halfway around the world to climb.

Janet said...

thank you emily and betty! i agree with you completely, betty, about the 'issues' of fear and deciding to 'grow up' by having kids, wanting a home and career, etc. i think both of those things get in the way of alpine climbing dreams of both men and women, but probably more so for women. i don't necessarily think that is a bad thing, having lost an astonishing number of friends to the mountains already at age 32, but i think women could bring a lot to the adventure/alpine climbing realm if we started seeing more of them. thanks for your note, and see you in the hills!

Kristin Timm said...

Timely subject - the most recent issue of "Backcountry" adressed the same issue in regards to climbing and skiing. I agree with what you said and think you hit some key points. Among my biggest peeves - the gear. Every time I go out for a new piece of clothing or equipment, the women's version is non existant or focused much more on fashion than practicality. I don't want this to sound like a whine - because I work hard - but have come to the realization that because of the physical build of men - some things are going to be easier for them than women. I think us as female outdooristas need to band together to do as you describe - reinvent and define the sports in our unique ways.

Laurie S. said...

Well said ladies. I agree with all of you. However, don't let age 30 be your benchmark for alpine climbing or climbing in general. I started alpine climbing in my mid 40's after my kids got old enough and now at age 52 it's part of what I do. Yes, carrying big packs and all the other concerns with traveling come into play. My biggest issue...finding travel partners (I'd love some like minded ladies to climb with because the guys are just, well--guys) and of course the biggest issue, finding the money to travel! All of my alpine climbing experience has been with 30 something guys who probably only let me come along because I can keep up :D . But, the truth, don't let age get in your way. Stay very fit, keep back packing to get used to carrying loads, and keep moving. I recommend reading Arno Ilgner's "The Rock Warriors Way" or take one of his clinic's to help with the fear and negative self image and defeating behaviors we all tend to have. It's really helped my climbing and will get you through being stuck on harder routes. We all need to support and encourage each other. Maybe we need an online chat/blog/resource/encouragement site for just us ladies!

Janet said...

hey kristin: interesting, i will have to check out that issue of backcountry, i hadn't even thought out it in other backcountry sports. yes, our physical builds mean some harder work and then gear issues (think of man-weight boots and crampons on smaller women's legs and go from there...it is amazing how quickly it adds up).
laurie: i completely agree, training with a heavy pack makes a huge difference. for me, packing in high mileage days without a huge pack, like hiking up to climb ice gullies on mount washington, or doing big trail-jogging loops in the white mountains in the summer, makes an even bigger difference. i'd love to be part of some kind of forum, it's a great idea!

Gina Bégin said...

Outdoor Women's Alliance ladies! OWA is on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and have a site (just add .com). There's also Women's Adventure magazine.