In honor of National Coming Out Day yesterday, I have something important to share: I’m a chick climber at heart.

This isn’t just because my middle-aged moobs are starting to require sport bras. It’s always been this way, even from the time that I was a little-boy climber in old Wyoming. I knew that I was – well – different. You can take the boy climber out of Wyoming, but it turns out that you can’t take the little-girl climber out of the boy from Wyoming. Well, at least this boy…

(Just slap my ass and call me “Sally.” Well – on second thought, no – don’t do that. Ever.)

Still, I’ll say it loud and proud: I prefer to climb with women.


Specifically, I like climbing with my wife Vera best, these days. She’s a great climber, she’s fun to be around, and – let’s face it – I love her to death so spending some extra time together is nice. But this tendency – we’ll call it a preference – of mine has been true over time, also. For the most part, I climb better, have more fun, and have a better overall experience on the rocks when I’ve been fortunate enough to be allowed to hang out at the crags with women.

Why? It’s simple, really: Women climb better, are more supportive to their partners, and focus more on having fun than on pulling down. I’ve been fortunate to have climbed rocks with some of the best of both genders. Guys might climb harder or stronger – for now – but I’ve learned more from climbing with women than with men. Fred Nicole pulling down on Esperanza at Hueco? Inspiring to watch, but here’s what I learned: Just be super-human, crimp down on quarters glued to the ceiling, and pull as hard as you can for as long as you can. Watching Lynn Hill work and eventually pull Acid Rock at Devil’s Lake – a humble 12a that was supposedly impossible for anybody below a certain height – taught me more about climbing rock than just about anything I’ve ever seen.

In my opinion, strong women climbers are – generally – better overall climbers than men. They have to be. Since in many cases they can’t simply pull harder by brute strength, women have to pull smarter. And smarts, that’s what I need as a climber. I’ve been strong, and I’ve been really light, but if I’m not climbing smart I’m not getting it done. While I’ve been inspired by watching strong men climb, for me climbing improvement comes when I climb with women. Climbing with women makes me a smarter climber.

Only a couple male partners have been as supportive as the women I’ve climbed with, this is true as well. While guys like to talk Beta, mostly it comes down to “Man up and pull harder on that crimp!” This advice rarely helps me. My main weakness as a climber is approaching every problem like I need to pull harder when – in reality – what’s needed is to find the easiest way to pull something hard. Men rarely do this, I’ve found. And seldom do they like to talk about it, or – let’s face it – offer advice about how to do this. Women do this all the time.

It seems to me that while women use climbing as the medium for creating fun, guys may or may not have fun while climbing. Guys may have lots of fun when they climb, but the fun seems almost incidental to the climbing. Specifically, climbing really hard is what’s important to guys. And – you know? – after doing something for thirty-six years, if I’m not having fun while climbing then why bother? I’d rather climb somewhat hard and laugh all day than climb really hard and scowl.

Not so much, many other guys.

So you can imagine me here today, fully chuffed after a long weekend climbing with three strong women in Hueco Tanks. Returning to Hueco this year (twice, in fact) has been a special gift. Back in the day, for many years I spent a minimum of six weeks a year climbing there. As with many people, I stopped going after the closures and restrictions took effect. Then, Todd died and the truth is that I just didn’t have the heart to go. Todd was one of the most supportive, inspiring male climbers ever, and the fact that he was also one of my best, oldest friends made the idea of going to Hueco bittersweet, at best. But this spring Vera and I decided to go, and we found out that while getting into and around the park has its complications, the rock never changes. Better yet, Hueco is just as magic a place as it ever was. And we couldn’t wait to go back, so this time we took our friends Suzi Lee and Anne Hughes.

While the rock at Hueco Tanks is timeless, much has changed since my first visits there in 1986 or so. This isn’t only true of how the climbing in the park is managed. It’s true for how climbing has changed, also.

“So what’s with the route names, here?” asked Vera one morning. “Yeah, I was wondering about that…” Anne chimed in.

“Oh, you mean problems like ‘Nipples and Clits,’ and ‘Anal Intruder’?” I asked.

“Yeah, for starters,” said Anne. (And – believe me – the problem names get worse, much worse.)

Way, way back in the day I wrote the Rock&Ice review for the original Hueco Tanks guidebook. If I could go back and time and do two things differently with that review, I would: 1) Slam the guidebook author a bit more for letting those names get into print and – therefore – live on for all time; and 2) I’d give the guy a little more credit for creating a new rating system for bouldering. (So, thanks Verm, for inventing the V rating scale – that turned out pretty well.) As it is, I slammed him pretty hard for the vulgar route names at Hueco, but I think now that maybe I should’ve pushed it further. In the subsequent flame-war in Rock&Ice (this was in the pre-internet days), he defended himself by saying “Climbers are 90% men, anyways.” (The takeaway?: It’s okay to be a sexist, gross, immature pig as long as you’re doing it alone and in the good company of men just like you…) Well, fast-forward twenty years or so and now climbers are over 50% women. It’s a brave new world, and we knew it was coming, even then.

So here we are. In the next few weeks, you’ll see some more posts here about women and climbing. We’ll hear from Madison Women’s Climbers, an organization for women that started in a climbers’ co-op here in Madison called The Barn, almost twenty years ago. We’ve got some more reviews about equipment for women, reviewed by women. There will be a piece on mentorship, motherhood, and climbing that I’m looking forward to seeing. We’ve got a couple other special guest posts pending, also. (And – hey ladies, or gentlemen for that matter – if you have an idea about a related guest-post, hit us up!) And don’t forget our archives: We’ve got numerous pieces on the Chicks Rock events we’ve supported here in Madison these past few years.

So, get in touch with your feminine side (as I have), and pull up a chair. We’ve got more to learn about women climbing, and from climbing women, too.

Stay tuned…

8 responses to “R E S P E C T

  1. This was a fun trip, even though I actually couldn’t boulder because of an injury. I focused on watching efficient and beautiful movement, shooting good pictures — many of the pics posted in Brad’s “RESPECT” are ones I shot, wishing I could boulder, but nevertheless enjoying capturing beautiful compositions of my dear friends doing what they do best and what we all love! Climbing or not, it was a blessing to be there, perusing a world class bouldering destination, wrapped in the warm company of good friends.

  2. Yes, photo credits go to Anne Hughes, Suzi Lee, Vera Naputi, and me. Anne got all the interesting ones, though…

  3. I really, really enjoyed this and it really resonated.

    I’ve learned so much from female partners about the importance of focusing on technique and “climbing like a girl.” Being relatively tall, I don’t usually have issues with reachy climbs. But I still benefit greatly from learning different ways to solve the same problem.

    I find myself asking for more support from my male climbing partner (and significant other) all the time! It’s just a different way of operating. They generally listen, but I’ve found male partners generally less aware of me and more focused on themselves. Of course, I don’t want to generalize, I’ve had some awesome dudes to climb with!

    Sometimes though, I think it’s as much personality as it is gender. I’ve found some female partners unsupportive no matter what I tell them I need. I can be too goal/grade focused, trending towards “climbing like a guy,” and can see a climbing day as unsuccessful if I’m not pushing my grade limits. But I do find the climbing is better when I’m just focused on having fun, and the hard pulling tends to follow!

    Really looking forward to hearing more from all of you on the topic!

  4. One of the main reasons I got into climbing was for the physical challenge it presents. Being outdoors and the social aspect of it were also strong pulls for me. The other sports I love – snowboarding and mountain biking – are male-dominated too, and I’m used to being the only girl in the crowd most times. (Drinking beer and not being easily offended are valuable traits.)

    Being a relatively new climber, I have recently started observing differences between how women and men climb. And until this summer, I had only climbed with female partners.

    Every reason Brad describes above are why I like climbing with my own kind. However, I really enjoy the times when I climb with guys, pushing myself that much harder because they’re encouraging me and not letting me take an easy out. When I climb with girls, I’m the “encourager”, so a role reversal is nice…sometimes.

  5. Gah!

    I LOVE this post! Thank you thank you thank you for so eloquently writing what so many of us know but never consciously recognize. I have a male partners about 98% of the time I climb, and while I love them to death, the few times I get to climb with a fellow chick it’s like a breath of fresh air. I NEED to find more short awesome women to learn from. It’s not that my male partners don’t offer support, they do, and often without me asking – it’s just their approach is so different than a woman’s way.

    Someday maybe I’ll be lucky enough to find myself in a place with lots of awesome ladies. Till then – I’ll be grateful for the guys I have.

  6. Great post Brad.

    Although I’m incredibly lucky to have a super-patient, aware husband to climb with, I appreciate my experiences climbing with, and watching other women climb. As a pretty moderate climber, I am constantly finding more efficient ways to climb a route and am inspired when I watch another woman (who has a similar body type and level of strength) climb. It helps me realize that, yes, I can probably climb that, too.

    Climbing is one of the rare sports where I feel as though I’m not “behind” my male counterparts in ability or strength. It’s a beautiful illustration of how the genders are different in strengths, yet equal in potential.

    Thanks for a great post.

  7. Katie, Eryn, Aleya, and Amy: Thanks SO MUCH for the kind words! I’m glad you liked this.

    Climbing offers us so much, it’s good to have choices, eh? I mean, Vera does sometimes prefer to mix it up with the young dudes in the gym, because they push her to climb harder. And sometimes she needs this, and can’t get it elsewhere.

    Truth is, I’ve been that young dude, too. And at that time I liked pulling from that energy and psyche and contributing to it as well. These days, when I’m feeling strong sometimes I like to mix it up and show what a few decades of engrams can provide, also.

    I’d be interested to know what y’all think of climbing’s sexist/vulgar history, as represented in the route names you find around. The switch from 90% male to just more than 50% women has been dramatic. While it was not unforeseen, it still caught a lot of the old guard by surprise. What do you all think of where we’ve been versus where we are now? I’d like to know…

    Thanks so much.

  8. Hey, for any chick climbers in the Madison area, check out this great event this Sunday, October 17th, with the MWC.