By Caitlin Makary
“You’re just scared of a little competish”
– Gob Bluth, Arrested Development
When I began climbing, it was with my (at-the-time) boyfriend. We trained in the gym, hired a guide to get outdoors, and learned to lead together. One of the things I loved was that climbing truly leveled the physical playing field. I had always been an athlete but in climbing, unlike swimming, running, or skiing, having a male body didn’t necessarily equate to being a better climber.
Men generally have the advantage of natural upper body strength and longer height and reach. Women are typically lighter and, with less upper body strength, tend to develop more precise footwork and flexibility. There are dozens of pros and cons of having a male body versus a female body as a climbing athlete, but it really seemed to all even out.
As we made friends through climbing, most were male. Part of it was because there were simply more guys that climbed (true at the original publishing) and part of it was because I’ve always had mostly male friends. While my male climbing partners have always been supportive and encouraging, if I couldn’t send a climb I sometimes chalked it up to having a shorter reach or less upper body strength. Of course, I didn’t really admit this to myself. I was challenged by climbing with guys but didn’t feel like I had to size myself up against them.
Then I met Kathy.
She is my height (ok, an inch shorter…!) and weight, but rather than excelling at only delicate face climbs or balance-y moves, she seems to thrive on climbs that require brute upper body and grip strength. All of a sudden any excuse I had for not doing a climb boiled down to just that—an excuse. Seeing Kathy cruise climbs that I struggled with was super hard, and I realized that I viewed her as competition. I wasn’t sure why; especially since I didn’t feel this way about my male climbing partners. I was no longer the ‘only girl’ in my climbing world, but why did it matter to me that she could climb harder?
As I got to know Kathy better, it became easier to view her in the same way as the guys. She lent me her ice axes to use for my first ice climb. I could use her beta, assuming I was strong enough to do the move. Seeing her progress through grades showed me what was possible and gave me the incentive to work harder. There were still difficult moments, like when I, as a beginning trad leader, backed off a Gunks 5.3 ‘In the Silly’ while Kathy sent a 5.9, ‘Bonnie’s Roof’, nearby. That…didn’t feel great. But in the end, it forced me to confront my naturally competitive side, figure out where my negative feelings were coming from, and focus on progression within myself.
As time went on I began to meet and climb with more women. Nina, Jackie, Rana, Shelma, Kelly, Rachel, Jill, Lindsay, Taylor, and Lauren (and many more since this was written) all became people I’d look forward to seeing at the gym and outdoors. As much as I loved seeing and climbing with these girls, I still valued my male friends in climbing…which is why women-specific climbing groups felt strange to me. Since I grew up running with the guys, it was hard for me to see the point of excluding half of my climbing friends to establish camaraderie with the other half. I also feared that creating something meant primarily for women would keep us from seeing ourselves as people that can, and should, climb as hard as the guys. However, meditating on competition and dealing with my initial insecurities toward Kathy made me realize I hadn’t been viewing men and women climbers as being truly equal. It occurred to me that sometimes it does help to see someone a little more like you pushing her limits. Maybe having female-oriented groups encourage other women to try climbing or push their limits a little farther, the way climbing with Kathy did for me.
There has been a lot of focus recently on the way women are perceived and treated, both in the climbing world and out. Since the initial writing of this article, the gender landscape in climbing has shifted. With women like Ashima Shiraishi pushing grade boundaries, women’s groups like Flash Foxy gaining thousands of followers and global recognition, and more women learning to climb every year, it’s hard to say anymore that women don’t have a presence in climbing. The question of having negative or competitive feelings towards other women climbers came up at a panel during the Women in the Outdoors Week last month, which led to Kathy reaching out about re-posting this article. Climbing has given me so many new skills, an incredibly diverse group of friends, and personal challenges to overcome. One of those challenges was realizing that comparing myself to others was pointless; no one (male or female) can make me feel negatively unless I allow that feeling to manifest within myself.
Caitlin Makary was one of my first climbing friends when I first moved to Brooklyn. She owns and operates her own banana bread empire. She has a really cool motorcycle and it is unconfirmed whether or not she is an inch taller than me.
Cover photograph courtesy of Caitlin Makary.