Women on the Rock

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A female reader lends a new perspective to the climbing thread:

Although I am no longer a climber, due to work schedules and age factors, I did climb quite a bit when I was young and fearless. I was one of the few women climbing, let alone leading. I loved friction climbs, because after I learned to master my nerves a bit. It felt like dancing.

I never had a very bad fall, but I did do some sliding and dropping out of cracks onto protection, so I learned to master recovery a bit. It has helped me in my later life—to get a hold of fear and take on challenges other women might not think of mastering. But nothing beats the freedom and joy of being young and going on a good climb with friends.

I asked our reader to elaborate a little on her experience as a female climber, since the sport tends to be predominantly male. She writes:

As a teenager I climbed with a climbing school in The Balls, on Beasore Meadows Road in the Sierras, which was also used by some of the great climbers of the day as a teaching place. Short climbs, top roped mostly, but lots of options. I got very good, very fast, but was still a child. One of my favorite memories:

After I put up a 5.9 climb (in those days, hardish), an older male, who hadn’t seen my ascent, said “I will eat my hat if you can do that.” He was not being kind or polite. Sneering. Lots of the older college males who had witnessed my ascent and cheered, turned to the guy and told him, quietly, “She put that climb up.”

I roamed all over those rocks, sometimes roped sometimes not, on the fourth class climbs, until I felt so comfortable it was like flying. Tuolumne Meadows was another favorite spot for short climbs with friction. I had a partner who I climbed with who had taken a long fall on friction, so he shook when he was leading and sometimes shook himself off.

I learned to lead and just felt so comfortable, but sometimes I took too many risks. Once I skipped a clip into an anchor and ended up with a 40-foot lead out. When my friend got up to me, he told me how far I had gone without clipping in. I imagined what an 80-foot fall would feel like and vowed to be more careful in future.

I was almost always the only woman around. All the triumphs went unwitnessed, all the terror went unrecorded, even by my friend. I faced it all alone, some many feet down a rope struggling and overcoming my inner universe. I think I was so driven not to get left behind, or stuck, that I just moved ahead until I saw his face and smile at the top, and then I was so tired I couldn’t be childish or angry.

I watched other women try to climb with him, and they attacked him mercilessly when they reached the belay point. “You did that to me on purpose!” I just felt glad to be alive and only scratched, cold, hungry, exposed, and thrilled, ready for the next pitch. We slept atop cliffs with jackets when we did make the long descent down to the valley floor, swam in vernal pools atop waterfalls, and ate kingly meals of fig newtons and small dabs of cream cheese on ledges all over the Sierra Nevada.

Climbing and running around the mountains, teaching youth in the summer, and being a skinny, super human being eventually gave way to adulthood, work, and more normal sorts of schedules. I am grounded now—a normal, sometimes not very brave person, who wonders where all the fearlessness went.  I am grateful for the opportunities I had to  climb with my friend and all the crazy years we spent darting and cavorting through the challenges of early adulthood, never the least bit concerned about strength or health or judgment. We had it all.

Any more climbers out there have something to add? Drop me an email.